For a long time my favourite passage of scripture was the parable found in Matthew 25—the one with the sheep and the goats. Many of us know this parable of Jesus where he paints a picture of what God values most of all. In the story we’re asked to image a kind of “judgement day” where all of humanity is brought before God and either welcomed and praised by God or, I suppose, “condemned” by our Maker (or, at the very least, told that we’ve failed to live as God desires). In that passage, we’re told that the sheep are the ones who “get it”. They responded to God by feeding the stranger, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, and so on. They didn’t know it, but in providing for “the least” in this world, they honoured God. Of course, on the other side of this cosmic divide is the goats—the ones who failed to do these things for “the least” in this world and therefore are deemed to be dispensable; condemned by God. The reason I used to like this passage so much was not for the way God treated the “goats”, but because it served as a reminder that when we care for “the lowest” and “the least”, God smiles and says, “Well done, faithful servant.” Seen through this lens, God is not a God who demands blind devotion and worship. Instead, God is a God who longs for us to care for one another. The problem with this passage, however, is the dark and judgemental picture it seems to paint when it comes to God. We can easily see this passage as a definitive moment where we’re told that God only “welcomes” and “accepts” some of us. But, let’s look at the passage another way.
A number of years ago, one of the world’s leading voices in the area of Christian preaching, Paul Scott Wilson (Professor from Emmanuel College in Toronto) invited myself and a few other theology students to consider another way of looking at this parable from Matthew 25. Dr. Wilson said, “When you think about it, we are ALL goats. Not one of us can say that we’ve done these things… that we’ve lived up to this way of living that Jesus speaks of in the gospel.” Every time we pass by the local prison, we fail. Each time we make our way to the cottage (or to some vacation spot) instead of feeding the hungry and caring for the homeless, we fail. The only one who seems to really fit the description and finds himself on the other side of this cosmic divide (the sheep one) is Jesus.
But, here’s the good news—according to Paul Scott Wilson. Through his life and ministry, Jesus calls us over to the other side and invites us to receive the rewards of being a “sheep” in God’s eyes. Through Christ, God looks at us through the eyes of love and says, “You are welcome. You are loved. Well done!” Why do we get “called over”? Because, as members of the body of Christ, we are—to use the apostle Paul’s words—”heirs” to God’s blessing.
And so, when we turn to this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, it’s helpful to picture that image of Christ calling us over to that place of love where God blesses us for caring for the ones who are world would categorize as the “lowest” and the “least”. When Paul speaks of adoption (being God’s sons and daughters… God’s family) this is the image that can help us understand the picture that Paul is painting for the world. When Paul talks of being “heirs” of God, I picture this image of Jesus calling us over (not in a way that says, “look what I can do and you cannot” but rather in a way that says, “we can only do this together”). Paul says, “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as God’s children.” As God’s kin—those who work as co-creators with God… those who have been called over to the place where Jesus finds himself—we don’t find ourselves in a place of judgement, but rather in a place of love and ONENESS.
To better understand the implications of this, I want to share this clip from the Study Series a number of us have been participating in for the past month or so. In Alexander Shaia’s “Four Gospel Journey” course, he talks about what it means to enter into this space of love with God and with Christ. He speaks about this boundaried experience—this place that we find ourselves in when we connect to the true heart of what it means to follow in the way of Jesus the Christ. What does it look like in this realm?
Here’s what he shares:
There are a few what I call core or essential practices, which power us, or hold the grace that powers us, along this Four-Gospel Journey for growth and transformation. And whether you engender these practices for yourself or with one other person or a small community. This is what makes this journey possible. When we go back and review the stories of Jesus and we bring that forward to today in this moment, what I believe is happening when we come into the reality of Jesus the Christ, is that we have come in to an experience of what I term deep freedom and safety. Freedom and safety are a two step because there is no such thing as absolute freedom nor is there such a thing as absolute safety. It is finding the balance point between these two for ourselves. Now what do I mean by freedom? When we come into the presence of Jesus the Christ, we come into a presence of love that is totally nonjudgmental. That in this presence of utter love and respect, it's the energy, the reality that makes us want to grow, that actually powers us in doing the work of growth. Not as a have to or a should, but because in the presence of Jesus the Christ, love calls to love. And when you look into the heart of love and you see yourself through that very heart, you want to be more. You want to be the authentic self that that love has created you to be. So on the Four-Gospel Journey, we begin by the practice of freedom. We begin by looking at ourselves through the eyes of love, with non-judgment, accepting the beauty of who we are and accepting us in this moment exactly as we are now. The other side of that is the presence of safety. The presence of safety must be a boundaried experience. I'm always caught in myself remembering that utter freedom is a horror because freedom, true freedom requires safe boundaries. We are not free to simply do everything. We are not free to simply say everything, not when we look at ourselves with a heart of love. There must be a boundaried experience. And what I ask when we are making the Four-Gospel Journey is that we stay away from speaking to ourselves or to another sort of absolute and dogmatic statements. I am on this journey not to convert anyone else. I'm on this journey to discover the deep truth of my authenticity, but that authenticity is always a place where I act respectful. I act respectfully towards myself. I act respectfully towards others. So the core practice as we move through the four pads is to come up against our own limitations of freedom and safety, come up against our own challenges and lessons, into how to be a person of great freedom and safety for myself and for others. Freedom and safety does not mean that this journey is without risk. Freedom and safety does not mean that this is without pain. Freedom and safety does that mean that this journey is without challenge. What freedom and safety means is that in times of great pain and stress, perhaps even conflict, we are going to act through the eyes of love with respect for ourselves and respect for all others.*
You can hear the words of Paul (and the words of Jesus) coming together in what Shaia shares here. The freedom that we experience is the threat of judgement (and all the weight associated with that) falling from our shoulders. We need not be perfect to be welcomed and celebrated by God. We need not be anything but ourselves—that character that dwells either on the surface or perhaps deep within—to be named “beloved” by God. No one can take that away from us.
But, as we find ourselves in that place of freedom, there is an obligation (another word used by Paul in Romans). Paul says, “We have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live.”What does it mean to live our lives from a place of selflessness? This is where Shaia’s words resonate and connect with Paul’s words, where he says, “in times of great pain and stress, perhaps even conflict, we are going to act through the eyes of love with respect for ourselves and respect for all others.” Some might assume that being “heirs of God” means that we must show reverence to God. We must bow down before Jesus, say the right prayers, direct our love and devotion to a Creator who only wishes for us to pay homage to them. But, that’s not what Paul says about our obligation. He says we are obligated to live in a non-selfish way. We’re called to not live simply for ourselves. We’re called to “live with respect for Creation” both for ourselves and for one another. This is what it means to “be the church”. We must live this boundaried experience where we find ourselves in that place of love and belonging that Christ calls us to. We must help others discover that place… we must do the work of celebrating when others find that place. The worst thing we can do is create barriers between that place of love and those other dark and dreary places that we sometimes find ourselves in. Paul reminds us that in order to be present in this place we must have hope…. We must share our hope.
Earlier this week I was listening to a fascinating segment on the CBC radio program, “Spark”. In the segment, entitled “The Impersistance of Memory” (which originally aired last October), Psychologist Evan Risko talks about how the internet has changed how we know and remember. In the age of information we currently find ourselves in, answers to most of the questions of life are just a Google click away. Phone numbers no longer have to be stored in our brains. Our smart phones remember them for us. As a result, our brains are adapting to this changing world that we find ourselves in. Some would suggest for the better and others would argue it’s for the worst. Regardless of how you feel about these changes related to technology, I can’t help but think about the other aspects of our memory and what we store in our brain. For our brain is not simply there to retain phone numbers and facts related to history and the practical learning from our school years and beyond. Our brain is there to store memories and thoughts related to our value and our worth. Perhaps in the midst of this shifting world of technology, we are being called (as the church) to remind people that the place where God calls us is a place of love and non-judgement. Perhaps, like the way we’re relying on devices to remember those important pieces connected to our everyday living, the church can be that device to help all creation remember what it means to be called over to that place of love. To dwell in the place of freedom and safety with all God’s family.
And so, dear friends, be reminded this day that “you are family of God”. Remember that you are “heirs” to God’s blessing—not alone, but together with all creation. On days when you forget this, the church will be there to remind you. In those hours when our minds drift to a place of exclusion and judgement, let the words of Paul help you recall the hope that we have… the blessing we share. As others who did so before us, let us continue to be the face and the voice of Christ for others so that they may know the good news of God’s freedom and God’s love. Amen.
Photo credit: David Exley ©2019