31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for 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, 36 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.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I went to see David Ince in hospital on Tuesday. He was looking quite bright and breezy and I am sure we will see him at a service here again quite soon. But the ward in which he was lying was very full and, although it seemed clean and well managed, there was something very shocking about it. In every direction there was someone coughing, groaning in pain, or crying out – a sense of Bedlam. For those of you who are frequent visitors to hospital (which I have now become) or those of you who are in the medical profession, this will be no surprise.
But for many many years I had almost no contact with the health service at all. In fact, until my mother died in the 1980s I don’t recall having visited a hospital ever. I did not know sick people. Still less did I know any refugees, anyone who could seriously describe themselves as poor, except by comparison with people like me, anyone who did not have enough food or water, or anyone who had a criminal record or was actually in prison. I was in a City bubble of youth and wealth, which protected me from the pain of the world. The only encounter that I had with people who were not like me was getting to know my platoon of cockney Territorial Soldiers in Plaistow in the East End of London, but then all of them were young, well and fit.
Then I met George. I used to walk over the Millenium Bridge on my commute. He was selling the Big Issue and was a big Glaswegian with tattoos on his fists. After a few chats every morning, I discovered that he and I were the same age – I think to within a few weeks. And we had both been adopted. And we both originated in West Lothian (my birth mother came from there).
Whereas he was adopted into a violent family in which he was abused and eventually ended up being provoked into murdering someone in his extended family and served his time (and acknowledged his responsibility). I, on the other hand, had gone from one private school to another and ended up at Oxford and the best law firm in the world.
One morning after meeting him and walking to the office I mused on how easily our lives could have been the other way around….
I tell you this story as a context to the shocking piece of Matthew which we have just read. How often in our beautiful valley do we encounter the poor, the refugee, the sick or the hungry?
There is a lot of debate about this passage. The first point to make is that it gives the impression that to serve the poor is necessarily to serve Christ in them. It appears to follow that those who serve the poor will necessarily be saved and those who do not will not.
Whereas in virtually every talk that I have heard or theological book that I have read since I became a Christian in 1998 and ever since I came to this Valley over at least the four and a half years that I have been here, we have been telling you that whether you are saved or not does not depend upon what you do, but whether you have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
How do we solve this puzzle?
The key is verse 40 which says: Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. The NRSV translates to ‘members of my family’ the word ‘adelphos’ which actually means ‘brothers’. This word is used by Jesus to refer to those who are his disciples – male and female, I should add. So for the eternal future for everyone, even those who have not heard the gospel, hinges on the response made to those who are Jesus’ disciples. This must have been very reassuring for first century Christians bravely going out on missionary journeys into the world. And today for those who bravely refuse to deny Jesus’ name despite being given the choice of acknowledging Jesus or death offered by our enemies.
But what about those of us who are disciples of Christ – who are his brothers or in the NRSV version ‘members of his family’?
What should Jesus’ disciples be doing when Jesus returns to judge the world? As theologian Michael Green writes: ‘They should be caring for the poor, those who lack clothing, strangers, the prisoners and the sick. In this way they express the love of God that they talk about. It has to be tangible to be real’.
But the challenge that we face in the Valley is that we don’t encounter the poor, those who lack clothing, the prisoners and the sick – unless they are our relations or friends – and everyone looks after them! We need to be looking after the stranger who is poor, lacks clothing, is in prison or is sick. But because we don’t face encounters with these groups in our every day lives in the Valley, we need to go out of our way to find them. So we need to find organisations which are working in these situations and offer our time. Money is good too, but the difficulty about giving money is that it doesn’t change us, in the way that giving time does.
Today at our 10am service, Peter Holloway the Chief Executive of Prison Fellowship is talking to us about the work that they are doing in prisons in restorative justice and showing how we as Christians can be involved in this. If you are feeling called in this area – if you feel – yes this is something that I should get involved in, even though my knees may quake just thinking about it, – if you feel a sense of excitement about the unknown encounters that you might experience, but the profound difference you might make to the world – please do speak to me and we can pray about what God might be calling you to do. It could be in the area of prisons, but it could be doing something else for strangers – the key thing is what God is calling you to do. Let’s talk and pray about it.
Michael Green tells a story: Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier and a Christian. One freezing day a beggar asked him for alms. Martin had no money, but, seeing the man blue with cold, he ripped his soldier’s cloak in half and gave one part to the beggar. That night he had a dream. He saw Jesus in the courts of heaven, wearing half his cloak. He heard an angel ask, ‘Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to you?’ And Jesus replied, ‘My servant Martin gave it to me.’