Sheep & goats: Matthew 25:31-46

I don’t often post sermon drafts, but this week I am. 

Are you a sheep or a goat?

Is that a hard choice for you? When you were a child, and someone asked you what your favorite animal was did anyone ever say “sheep”? No one ever said: “Sure, you’ve got your eagles and lions and polar bears, but me, I’m a sheep guy.”

I mean, Jesus, come on. Sheep? We can’t get another choice?

Me? I’d like choice C. Are you A) a sheep, B) a goat, or C) a Tyrannosaurus Rex?

And, yea, when the king comes in his glory he will call the nations to him and separate them, the sheep to one side, the goats to the other, and John the Tyrannosaurus Rex over there in the swimming pool with a barbecue sandwich.

But, no, we get two choices.

Are you a sheep or a goat?

Well, how do we know?

What does the parable say?

The king — that is Jesus — says what to the sheep?

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and in prison and you visited me.

And the sheep all looked at each other and said, “What?”

Jesus, I’m pretty sure I’d remember that. I fed people and clothed them and visited them, but I never saw you there.

How does that hymn go? Open my eyes so I can see …

And Jesus said to the sheep, whenever you did these things for the least of these, you did it for me.

When you stood in the soup kitchen and ladeled out chicken noodle soup, you were doing it for Jesus. When you gave a coat to a cold child, you were doing it for Jesus. When you sat with someone who was sick and miserable for an hour or a day or a year, you were doing it for Jesus.

Two of the nicest people I had the blessing of knowing at my last appointment were Jim and Janice. From the very first day, they were encouraging and supportive. But the greatest blessing of all was that I got to walk beside them as Janice died.

She had cancer. For three years she fought it. But it could not be beaten by medicine or prayer. And in the closing months of her life, Jim cared for her so tenderly. He took care of her bodily needs. He rearranged the house to accommodate her bed and the medical equipment. He did everything he could to bring her comfort and peace.

It was not easy for him. But he is a tough, old navy man. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “When I got married to Janice, I signed a lifetime contract.”

And he smiled.

You know, we come to places like churches looking for God. Sometimes, we get caught off guard by the beauty of an autumn hillside when the evening sun lights up the leaves, and we glory in God’s creation. We hold a new born baby, and we sense the power of God’s life-giving Spirit.

All the beauty and joy and goodness of this world is a glimpse of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But in this parable, at least, Jesus tells us something else. In the bathroom of a little house in Greene County where a man helped a woman clean herself up, Jesus was there.

If we want to find Jesus, if we want to know him better, if we want to experience grace, the story tells us — be sheep.

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and in prison and you visited me.

Jesus says, come, blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world.

And then his eyes turn to the goats.

I was hungry and you did not give me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. I was naked and you did not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.

Now, brothers an sisters, let me be honest with you.

Are we allowed to do that in church? Be honest?

Let me be honest. When I hear this, I go back to wanting a category C. I want some wiggle room.

Now, Jesus, what if I fed a hungry person on Tuesday, but not on Friday? If I feed six people, is it okay not to feed four others? What if it’s more like 5 and 5? Or 3 and 7?
I start counting up merit points. I start trying to negotiate and haggle my way into the kingdom.

This is a mistake lots of Christians make.

John Wesley was one of them. Do you know John Wesley?

He was the founder — with his brother Charles — of the movement that would become the Methodist Church. He was a serious and devout Anglican priest.

As a young man, he was obsessed with being a good sheep. He was the hardest working Christian you ever saw. He prayed, studied Scripture, and fasted. He visited those in prison. He gave generously to the poor. He went over the Atlantic Ocean to bring the word of Christ of the new world.

And yet, he was empty.

By every outward sign, he was a first-class Christian. But he looked inside his own heart and felt no joy, no peace with God, no blessing of the Holy Spirit.

On the outside, he looked like a sheep, but on the inside, he was a goat. He would write later in his life that although he followed every outward mark of religion, he had no more faith than a stone.

Too many of us, my brothers and sisters, are like brother Wesley was. Our faith is a matter of grim determination. We forge ahead on willpower. We clench our teeth and do “the right thing” because we believe it is our duty or we fear the lake of fire those goats are heading to.

Like the young John Wesley, too many of us hear the parable of the sheep and the goats and conclude that the lesson of it is that we need to try harder. We hear Jesus, we look at the sheep, we listen to the goats, and we resolve to press on. We set our jaw. We tighten up our belts. We trudge forward.

And too many of our brothers and sisters — in the midst of their exhaustion — look to those who aren’t straining and struggling as much as they are and they look down their noses at them. Too bad they are not good Christians like us, they say.

We make the oldest mistake in the book.

We think the key issue is what we do. We think we can work our way into heaven.
We point to this parable and say, look, look. The sheep got into heaven because they did all these good things. Jesus blessed them because of all the good works they did.

And you might conclude that if you only read this one parable. If this is all you read in the Bible, you might conclude that.

But the Bible has more than one page in it.

Hear the words of the Apostle Paul from Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it s the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

We cannot save ourselves.

No amount of effort can do it. Even if we tried, we would wear down and wear out. We would burn out.

This is what John Wesley learned. One night, he went to a meeting on a street in London called Aldersgate. And there while someone was reading from a book about the way God’s grace saves us and transforms us, he had an experience that changed his life. He wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed” and he came to know that Christ loved him and died for him and that his sins — even his — had been forgiven.

Before Aldersgate and after, John Wesley’s life look much the same from the outside. But on the inside, he had changed from a goat to a sheep. He no longer did all his good works or went to worship out of a sense of duty or drudgery. He went with joy because he had the joy that comes only to those who know what it is like to be set free from captivity. His heart was changed.

And he would sing with gusto that great hymn his brother wrote: O for a thousand tongues to sing, my great redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace!

Today, we welcomed “new” members to our congregation. We rejoiced to baptize Allan and Dava. Last week at Bible Study, Dava shared that her friends gave her a hard time when they learned of her baptism. They wanted to know if she was going to get a new mouth.

I told Dava, we don’t baptize perfect people. We baptize people who want to become better people. We baptize people who want to become more like Christ.

And the great secret of it is this. We do not get new mouths. But we do get new hearts.
Not all of us have dramatic moments like John Wesley. For some of us, it happens over time, until we discover that the person we once were is no longer the person we are.

But this is how we become sheep.

Jesus Christ changes our hearts. His grace enters our lives.

While we wait for that grace, as we pray for that grace, we do as Christ commands. We feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick. We go where Jesus is and do what Jesus does.

And one day we discover God has given us a new heart.

And in the joy of that, we go forward as God’s people. We discover, despite what we thought we wanted, that we are sheep. And in joy and great celebration, we go forth. We do good not because we fear Hell or want to earn points to get into heaven. We do good because we cannot do anything else. We are sheep. We do what sheep do.

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail message from a friend who is serving as a missionary in Guatemala. He wrote about a short-term mission team that came down to his village from a United Methodist Church in Florida. He wrote these words:

At the heart of it, was a couple volunteering with both groups, Led and Oberly Brown. Led is 90 years old and Oberly  his wife is 88. I asked them what motivated them to come all the way to Guatemala and the answer from both was the same, thankfulness. They said, “The Lord has given us such good health over the years,  we’ve feel a real need to give that gift back in a special way. We almost felt guilty we’ve had such a good time, and we didn’t have to suffer a bit.” They thought they might have to sleep on the ground and out in the open. Wow, what energy they brought to the group. We were all powerfully challenged by there example. As I talked with them I  could see the romance Led and Oberly clearly had with God and each other, they were not prisoners of time, they were smiling at the future, they know eternal life is Now.

God bless the sheep.

Let us pray …

10 thoughts on “Sheep & goats: Matthew 25:31-46

  1. Fabulous wonderful words! Wish I could be at your church to hear you speak them! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I never comment on a blog but I do want to comment on this. This scripture is the most powerful scripture to me that I have ever read. I am well acquainted with sheep and goats, neither of which has a character that I would like to follow. But when you read that scripture and comprehend what it says, it is pretty hard to walk away from it. I am glad that you made the point that nothing we can do will help because it only comes from grace, but once we have the grace we must follow the parable because we are his sheep. I have walked by Jesus so many times but after this powerful scripture I must stop and see if I can help the least of these. This scripture changed me about 10 years ago.

    Great sermon. Our pastor is also preaching on this scripture Sunday and am anxious to see where he goes with it.

  3. I completely disagree with you. Unfortunately the free wifi isn’t working so I’m using a public access computer, and my draft sermon in response to your draft sermon is on my laptop. So I can’t post it now. Next time the wifi is working, I will.

      1. K, here is the relevant part of what I wrote. I don’t actually preach, I write sermons and then my pastor looks at them. So this is “amateur” sermon-writing. 🙂

        First of all, as we know, the word of God creates what it declares. If Jesus said that the sheep are saved, then the sheep are saved, whether they care for their brother out of duty or because they know in their heart that God loves them. Yes, we are saved by faith; but what Christ is declaring here is that this caring habit is faith.

        Second, and it’s actually the same thing explained by science, we know that there are at least three independent chemical processes in the brain that produce the feeling of communion with God. Each of these processes can be triggered by something that has nothing to do with God. A combination of prostrations, chanting and incense can do it, hence these rituals are found in many ancient religions, including Orthodox Christian denominations. A highly charged speech, with loud music and emotional appeals, can do it, and this is used in revivalism. A complex partial seizure can do it. Or just stimulating the right part of the brain with electricity. And like many brain processes, the “presence of God” processes are more active in some people than in others. In fact in some people, they’re overactive to a dysfunctional extent. Some people get ringing in their ears because of a dysfunctional brain process, and other people constantly think God is talking to them, because of a dysfunctional brain process.

        This is not to say that God never talks to us, but what it does mean is that we cannot rely on our feeling of connection with God to define our faith. No matter what anyone tells you, it is not that feeling of God that makes your faith real or meaningful, much less acceptable to God. Consider Martin Luther. His faith was highly intellectual. Did Martin Luther get the feeling of God? I don’t know. But he based his faith on thinking rationally about the Scripture. Martin Luther read through the whole Bible twice a year, because he wanted to look at everything in the Scripture and ask himself “What is this? What does it mean?” He believed because it made sense to him, as I believe because it makes sense to me.

        How we feel our faith is not a measure of how acceptable it is to God. Whether we are highly intellectual and choose to believe on rational grounds, or we have epilepsy and believe because we had a revelation during a seizure, or we were born again because of an altar call, we cannot say that our faith is more or less acceptable to God than the next guy’s. But what Jesus is telling us here, and what he showed throughout his life, what his word creates as it declares, is that the faith that is acceptable to God manifests itself in caring for our neighbour. This is the faith that God wants from you: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Notice that God does not say to the sheep, “you danced in the Spirit, you answered altar calls, you put big fistfuls of money in the plate, you spoke in tongues.” No. That is not the faith God is looking for.

        A corollary is that this tells us how God will speak to us. That feeling in our brain does not mean God is speaking. If we want to be close to God we do not need this feeling. What we need is to look around us for someone who is hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, sick or in prison, or otherwise in distress and in need of our help. Jesus declares, and his word creates: “just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” So when you speak to your brother in distress, you are speaking to Jesus, and when they speak to you, Jesus is speaking to you. And this is what Christ has declared is the “right” faith. If your brain is not chemically excited, that’s quite all right; but if you do not help your brother in need, you do not have faith.

        As an undignified analogy, consider this: when I go to take a piss, it doesn’t matter whether I feel joyful, calm, blessed, repentant or otherwise; it doesn’t matter if I get a burning sensation when I pee; and it doesn’t matter whether I’ve been drinking water, tea, beer or Lamb’s 151. As long as I urinate, I know my kidneys are working. Anything else is just a matter of personal preference. But if I can’t urinate, then I know my kidneys aren’t working. Likewise with faith. As long as these manifestations come out, your faith is working. If nothing comes out, your faith might feel good and righteous to you, but it’s not the faith Christ is looking for.

        Yes, we are saved by faith and not by works. We are not saved by giving money to the church, by slaying the infidels, by wearing a hair shirt, by speaking in tongues. We are not even saved because we do what Jesus told us. Yet these specific behaviours that he describes are still necessary, not to acquire salvation, but because they are inseparable from the faith that Christ wants from us. If you are moved to do these things in the name of the Lord, you have the faith that saves. If you are not moved to do these things, your faith might feel good to you, but it isn’t what Jesus asked from you. He might save you anyway, because he can do that, but don’t get too cocky about your being saved, because it’s not in the bag yet.

        1. Am I correct that the part you are most objecting to is the “heart” religion aspect? I have to confess, I am not entirely clear from reading this what you found objectionable in my draft. It reads to me as if your primary point is that emotion and feeling have nothing to do with faith.

          I actually would agree that feelings and faith are not the same. I do not equate — or mean to equate — “heart” religion with a certain set of feelings.

          If I am reading your objection correctly, it is a good reminder that I need to be clear about those issues.

        2. Oh yeah, I guess I left out the segue from your anecdote about John Wesley. If I understand correctly, you’re saying that when John Wesley was doing everything “right” but he wasn’t “feeling it”, he was a goat acting a sheep, but once he felt that Jesus loved him etc, he was doing the exact same thing as before, but now he was actually a sheep. So my point is that if he’s doing what Jesus said to do, he has the faith that Jesus is asking for; how he feels about it isn’t really relevant to his salvation. In my opinion. But after that you and I are on about the same thing with seeing Jesus in the vulnerable etc.

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