The congregation’s oldest and most faithful member is slipping away. The pastor bends over to catch her final word. She has a question for the pastor. Her family got off the boat from northern Germany to Philadelphia in about 1742 with other families whose great-great-grandfather heard Luther preach. As Lutheran as she could possibly be, the dying matriarch looks at the pastor and with great effort she asks, “Pastor, do you think I’ve been good enough to be saved?”
The great verse for Luther is in Paul’s letter to the congregation in Rome: — “For in the Gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, The one who is righteous will live by faith,” We are saved by the righteousness of God who reveals himself as ancestral for our faith in him. The stories Jesus told cannot be taken literally. Jesus is not guarding heaven’s entrance, with the world’s population awaiting his decision one-by-one.
Rather, we focus on the message that Jesus is among us, and the passage from Matthew illustrates the difference his presence makes for his followers. “When did we see you?” the people ask. And he answers clearly. He lives in people like us.
Pastors were invited to a luncheon that showcased one of our synod’s institutions of mercy. We learned that refugees from countries I cannot identify arrive here with nothing but what they wear.
We help children who await adoption because their parents in North Africa cannot provide for them.
While foster parents are paid the cost of additional family members, they give love which cannot be purchased. Jesus the good shepherd is present in those situations. We help Jesus do his work through our contributions to Lutheran Family Services of the Carolinas. I don’t know how or when, but this world will come to a close. All the pages of our date books, the future we fear, sins we never confessed, and the witness we never gave – will be seen by the master of history, the Lord of the universe. We certainly want to expect eternity without fear.
As William Cullen Bryant put it: (in Thanatopsis)
“So live that when thy summons comes to join that innumerable caravan that moves to that mysterious realm where each shall take his chamber in the silent halls of death, ‘Go thou, not like the quarry slave scourged to his dungeon at night, But sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, as one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.’”
Unfaltering trust — that’s how we live, wait, and watch. For the Christian, that unfaltering trust has to do with the waters of baptism and God’s promises. Do you want to see Jesus at work in this world? Then provide for an orphan; help subsidize a foster home for a teen-ager who has already been in a dozen such homes. Make a contribution to agencies that are certified and qualified to help people genuinely in need.
Provide groceries for people who turn to one of the several food pantries in High Point. You’ve seen the commercial of a Salvation Army soldier ringing her bell to help a family in a broken down slum off English Road. Help build or support a Habitat House. Drive sick people to a doctor’s appointment.
Jesus of Nazareth is visible in people who are in need. Visit the sick, the dying, the grief-stricken, or the invalid at home, or someone in a nursing home. Of course, we would prefer to see Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh, but until that last day we must see him in those around us. He is in the disenfranchised, the addict, a prisoner, a beggar, the old, sick, homeless, the family destitute after a fire or storm. Do we want to see Jesus before that last day? Then, see him in suffering street people, or misfits. On judgment day, will He say, “I was in prison, and sick, and hungry and tired, and you did not help me?” We will say, “No, Lord, we never saw you. We turned away from those people who are not our kind, but Lord, this is a dog-eat-dog world. “We never refused you. We gave to the church, we communed, we said the creed” – he isn’t listening.
Jesus says, “I died on Calvary to take the judgment for your sins. Now I live around you in weary and beaten people. Do not ignore me there.” Our destiny with Christ the King, upon whom we wait, is not decided in the abstract but by the son of God who had mercy on all. He is so intent on his followers being merciful to others, he says there is your faith at work.
Christ the king expects us to imitate him, with ordinary things like time, money, personal effort, a kindly attitude. We praise God with acts of love and mercy as we see Jesus Christ in needy families in High Point. We are kind to each other, and involved in the ministries of this congregation, which makes me pleased, proud and humbled to be associated with St. Michael’s congregation. I see the groceries you bring for people who cannot support themselves. The last judgment is always happening so that we separate ourselves according to how we treat Jesus who lives in others.
It is out in the world where we can become a living Christ. And now the parable is turned around. The point is not whether we are going to his left or his right but whether we are acting as He would act toward other people with whom we may not be comfortable. When we sacrifice to serve his cause, then we are ministering in his name and Christ lives in us.
Only by that kind of obedience can we come to that unfaltering trust which the Christian knows as faith. Our faith will be put to work in ordinary everyday attitudes that we express and actions that we take toward those around us. Only by seeing him in those around us can we bear God’s love. We can put into practice the love of God that was made known to us on Calvary’s cross, when Jesus died for us in a mystery far beyond our understanding.
Then we see beyond death to his Resurrection and the doorway to eternal life. By God’s grace alone can we be saved. The more I am with people who expect to die soon, and listen to them talk about death and dying, the more I hear them say they are not afraid.
Painful times are ahead, but they are not afraid of judgment day because they believe God is merciful. They believe their sins are forgiven, they believe Jesus is calling them to join him.
When our turn comes, by faith as a gift, we will look upon Jesus the Good Shepherd who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Then we shall hear him say, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Now we see Jesus Christ and put into practice the love of God made known to us on Calvary’s cross – when Jesus died to overcome sin and death.
We see in death the way to eternal life. Christ the King will open wide heaven’s gates and welcome us on the very last day.