Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last Sunday in the Church Year

Last Sunday in the Church Year (A – Proper 29)

November 20, 2011
Text: Matt. 25:31-46

What will be your confidence on the Day of Judgment? What will you plead before the Divine Court? You know, of course, that you are a sinner. You just confessed it to God a few minutes ago, “by nature sinful and unclean… sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone” (LSB p. 167). To confess anything other than this truth would be fruitless. It is not as though you can lie to the all-knowing God. But to confess this truth about yourself, that you are a sinner, to plead guilty, is a fearsome thing as you stand before your almighty and righteous Judge. That is why you plead guilty now, confessing your sins, and you cling with all your might to the Absolution, to the word pronounced upon you by God’s called and ordained servant, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit,” knowing that by these words God Himself is forgiving your sins. You cling to your Baptism into Christ, by which your sins are washed away and you are clothed with His righteousness. Because this is true, beloved, on the Day of Judgment you plead innocent. You plead righteous. Not with your own righteousness. You have none. Not by your own works. Your works are as filthy rags before God. You plead righteous because of your righteous Lord Jesus, who covers you. When God looks at you, He sees Jesus, His innocent, righteous, beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.

But Jesus talks about works in the Gospel this morning, and this can be a little confusing to say the least. First, Jesus commends the sheep, those who are saved, for having fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison. He commends them for their works. Then He sentences the goats, those who are condemned, to the eternal fire for their having failed to do these works. What’s it all about? Is Jesus here contradicting our doctrine that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works? It may appear that way at first glance, and this text is often misunderstood in that way, but what we have to ask of this text is this: What is it that makes the sheep, sheep? And what makes the goats, goats? And when we examine the text very carefully, we see that it is not the works that make the sheep or the goats, but the sheep or the goats that make the works, just as a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit (c.f. Matt. 7:17). In fact, before the judgment, before works enter the picture, the sheep are already sheep, and the goats are already goats. The sheep are those who are in Christ, the Lamb of God, by Baptism and faith. The goats are those who have rejected Christ and relied on their own works for justification and salvation.

So again the question, what will be your confidence on the Day of Judgment? What will you plead before the Divine Court? The sheep have as their only confidence on that Day their Lord Jesus Christ. The sheep will plead innocent and righteous because of Christ, who covers them. The goats will also plead innocent and righteous, but not because of Christ. They will make this plea because of their works. They will take confidence in themselves and in their works. And they will be condemned because their works are not sufficient. Their works are, in fact, sinful. The sheep will be surprised that they have ever done any good works. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” (Matt. 25:37-39; ESV). The sheep will be surprised because they know their works to be filthy with sin, impure, with mixed motives, and they know that they have often failed to live according to God’s will, that they have, in fact, blatantly sinned against His commandments. Yet their works are made holy by the blood of Jesus, which cleanses them. Their works are holy because of faith, which grasps the righteousness of Christ. The sheep will be surprised because they take no account of their works. They just do them, because faith is always living and busy and active, overflowing in love and good works. The works don’t make the sheep. The sheep make the works. And their sin and impurity and weakness is not counted against them, because they are forgiven in Jesus, who died for them and is risen for them. He alone is their confidence. They are justified by faith alone. But their faith is never alone. It is always full of love and the works wrought in believers by the Holy Spirit.

The goats will also be surprised on that Day, surprised to find out that none of their works count. None of their works help them. They will blame Jesus for having misjudged them, for being unjust. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” (v. 44). “Lord, don’t you see all that we’ve done, what good people we are? We gave lots of money to charity, we volunteered at soup kitchens, we were upstanding citizens, we did everything the sheep did.” And you know what? They will be right. In terms of outward works and outward obedience, they did everything sheep did. But they did it without faith. They did it outside of Christ. And so the sin and filth and impurity and mixed motives that are forgiven the sheep for the sake of Christ are not forgiven the goats. The goats want to be judged, not in Christ, but on the basis of their works. And God gives them what they want. But no one, neither sheep nor goat, can stand before God by his or her works. Works done outside of Christ, no matter how noble and good in the sight of men, are damnable sin. Yes, a million dollar donation to a children’s hospital (or even a church, for that matter), is a damnable sin when done outside of Christ. But in Christ, the mother who changes her baby’s diaper, who feeds her children, feeds and clothes Christ Himself. In Christ, the father who sets a roof over his family’s heads welcomes Christ into his home. In Christ, when you visit your Christian brother or sister in the hospital for their comfort and consolation, you visit Christ. We often think that the works Jesus speaks of in our text have to be extraordinary works of service, above and beyond what we do in our daily lives, but in reality, Jesus speaks of our living in our daily vocations, loving and serving those around us in faith that Jesus alone is our righteousness, not these works we’re doing. We do these works precisely because Jesus is our righteousness, and we live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

What we learn from this text is that Jesus is one with His Church, with His little lambs. We serve Jesus by serving them. We love Jesus by loving them. Because Jesus is in and with His people, what we call in theology the “mystical union” of Christ with His believers. Christ is in you and you are in Christ. The Holy Trinity is in you and you are in the Holy Trinity. This is your reality in Baptism. And this is the reality that makes all the difference on Judgment Day. Not the works you’ve done. Those are a result of the Judgment already rendered, that Christ has become your sin and paid for it in full on the cross, and you are righteous in Him because He has fulfilled the Law for you, died for your forgiveness, and is risen for your new and eternal life. The Judgment is that you are righteous on account of Christ alone. And that Judgment has already been pronounced. On Judgment Day it will be made manifest, declared publicly, for all the world and for the devil and his demons to hear. But it is a reality now. So you can go to work now, loving and serving your neighbor, knowing the end is near, but not worrying about it, because you know exactly what will happen on that Day. The Lord Jesus will say to you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34). And that will be a Day of great joy for you. Only those not found in Christ need fear that Day. For the Christian, it will be the Day when all that is wrong is made right again, when we are freed from our sinful flesh as our bodies are transformed into resurrection bodies like unto Christ, when God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Indeed, this is how it will happen on that Day: “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Hereupon will follow the Judgment, when the unbelievers will be cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. But you, beloved, because you are in Christ, will receive eternal life in a new heaven and a new earth. Believe it. Be comforted by it. Do not fear. For you are in Christ, and all your sins are forgiven. The verdict has been pronounced over you in Absolution this morning. You are righteous. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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