It is hard to imagine. Twenty-five years ago, August 6, 1995, I sat sweltering in an unairconditioned church sanctuary in Crossville, Tennessee, surrounded by a dozen other equally overheated clergy, all of us in our clerical gear, sweating our way through a service of ordination. Phil Summerlin delivered the homily. He began by saying he had never preached an ordination sermon on the text I had chosen. It was Matthew 25:31-46.
Most people read that as a judgment passage. It is the longest exposition recorded of Jesus speaking about final judgment. Some of you may wish to pause here to go look up the passage. Others will remember it well enough that if I tell you it is about separating the peoples like a shepherd separates sheep and goats. Some sent this way for everlasting torment; others sent that way for everlasting praise and celebration. Most people read that as being about Final Judgment of the World. Since the age of 13, I have read it as a call to ministry.
In this passage, Jesus says, I was hungry/thirsty/sick/in prison, and you did or did not attend to my needs. And based on your action or lack of action you will be judged.
In the passage, both groups say the same thing: ‘When did we ever see you” hungry/thirsty/sick/ in prison,… ? Jesus answers, “Whenever you did (or did not) do this to the least of these, my brothers (siblings), you did (or did not) do it to me.”
The ultimate question: when you saw a need, what did you do about it? Did you make excuses, did you take advantage of someone vulnerable, or did you respond with what was needed?
I notice that there is no mention in this passage of holding membership in the correct church, or even of any church at all. There are no soaring creeds, no strait-laced pietistic doctrines, no hair-splitting Christologies. Just this: when you saw a fellow human being in need, how did you respond? Your response is as if you did or did not respond that way to Christ.
After seminary, having slogged my way through brain-befuddling theologies, Church history, doctrines and creeds, conflicts and ecclesiastical structures, after twenty-five years of service as an Ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it becomes more and more clear to me every passing year that this one passage lights a pure and simple pathway. Theologians argue over microscopic differences, faithful people simply bring a cup of water to a thirsty fellow traveler.
Go thou and do this: treat every person you meet as if they are the Christ. Give water to the thirsty, feed the hungry, free the prisoners, protect the vulnerable, advocate for the voiceless, care for the weak and wounded. In this simple way of living lies the path to joy. And as far are you are able, invite others to join you in these acts of simple mercy.
Grace and peace,