Trinity 26, 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
When Lutherans hear today’s Gospel, sometimes they get a little uncomfortable or confused. For on the surface it seems as if Jesus is saying that the sheep receive eternal life because they did the good works of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and so forth, and the goats go into eternal fire because they didn’t do those good works. How does that square with the Scriptural teaching that we’re saved by faith apart from the works of the Law?
Usually the way we deal with this is by pointing out how these good works are the fruits and evidence of faith. We’re saved by faith in Christ alone, but faith is never alone. It is always busy and active in good works. And that is certainly correct and true. Scripture says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:16). Even though unbelievers also do good works (from a human perspective), apart from faith in Jesus, they are still unrighteous deeds in God’s sight. For even the good that we do is stained with impure motives and self-seeking desires. For instance, if I do a good work just to fulfill an obligation or to calm my guilty conscience or to gain some sort of benefit for myself, is that really even a good work? Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse our works and make them actually to be good. In that sense then, God even forgives our good works and makes them to be righteous and acceptable deeds in Christ.
But we should recognize that today’s Gospel is talking more specifically than just about doing good works for our neighbor. To be sure, whatever good we do for another person, we are truly doing it for Christ. For He shares in the humanity of all people; He has joined Himself to our very nature. And so by faith we see the face of Christ in others, especially those who are in need or suffering. For Jesus Himself was in need and suffered for us.
However, you’ll notice that today’s Gospel is not talking simply about doing good generally to everyone but particularly to Jesus’ brethren. So who are the brethren? In Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus, the angel at the tomb said to the women, “Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.” “My brethren” there refers to the 11 apostles, the 12 minus Judas. At Galilee, Jesus gave the command to these 11 brothers of His, “Go and make disciples of all the nations . . .” They were to do this by baptizing and by teaching all His words. In today’s Gospel reading “all the nations” are now gathered before Christ. The “brethren,” then, are clearly the apostles whom Jesus sent and also all those after them who are in the apostolic office of the ministry. The brethren are those whom Christ has given to baptize and preach the Gospel in His name to all the nations until the close of the age. The brethren is a reference to pastors, those who are ordained to stand in the stead of Christ, undershepherds of the Good Shepherd who care for His flock.
Most pastors have had the experience of a young child coming up to us, thinking we were Jesus. Well, no, a pastor is not Jesus; but in a profound way, actually yes. Jesus said in Matthew 10 to the disciples whom He sent out to preach, “He who receives you receives Me.” Jesus had bound Himself to them so that their words were His words. To welcome them was to welcome Christ Himself. In fact, Jesus said, “Whoever gives one of these little ones [the least of these My brethren] only a cup of cold water because he is My disciple, I tell you the truth, he certainly will never lose his reward.” That act of giving a cup of cold water doesn’t merit anything of itself. Rather, it is a sign of faith, that the hearer believed the Gospel of Jesus which His brothers had preached. That’s why I will almost always accept a drink of water offered to me on my visits, even if I’m not thirsty at that moment.
Jesus’ still says to His preachers and His missionaries, “He who receives you receives Me.” For such men are called by Christ to be His representatives and ambassadors. You know that when a pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins . . .” he is not speaking for himself but in the stead and by the command of Christ. When he says, “This is My body,” that is not his voice but Christ’s. The same thing is true of holy baptism. Martin Luther said, “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God Himself. Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.” The fellow whom Jesus uses to do that is really secondary; he’s covered up in robes to show that he represents not himself but the Lord. To receive a brother of Jesus, then, a preacher of Christ, is to receive Christ Himself–not because of the merits of the minister certainly, but because Christ is truly present in the ministry of His words and sacraments for your salvation.
Of course, the flip side of the coin is also true. Jesus says to His preachers in Luke 10, “He who rejects you rejects Me.” You can’t believe in Jesus but reject or ignore those whom He has sent to preach and teach His words. A lot of your family and friends think that they’re Christians but don’t want to submit themselves to the shepherding of a pastor. And it’s usually not just that they don’t like one particular pastor because of his personality or something, since they don’t end up going to any faithful shepherd to receive the words and the gifts of Christ. In fact, they chafe at pastors who try to guide or correct them with Scriptural truth, who encourage them to come back to divine service regularly, and they accuse them of being overbearing or unfriendly or whatever. This is a rejection of Jesus. In the end, those who try to be their own shepherd turn out to be the goats.
So with this understanding of who the brethren are, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel make a lot more sense regarding faith and good works and why the sheep are saved and the goats are not. Imagine again the scene: Jesus is seated on the throne of His glory for the final judgment. All the nations are gathered before Him, all the nations to whom He sent His apostles and preachers to make disciples. Jesus says, “I have sent to you My brethren, the preachers of the Gospel. I have given them to speak My words of repentance and to shower you with My mercy and forgiveness and righteousness. You on My right have received them and their message. You have believed the Gospel, which was made known by your care for those who proclaimed it to you. You provided food and drink, a place to live and clothes to wear. You may not have been aware of it, but whatever you did for My brethren who acted in My stead, even the least and most ordinary and lowly of these men, you did for Me. But you on My left did not receive My preachers or their message. You trusted in your own wisdom and works. You did not believe the Gospel, which was made known by your failure to show any real regard for those who proclaimed it. You may not have been aware of it, but whatever you didn’t do for My brethren who were acting faithfully on My behalf, you didn’t do for Me.”
There are some important reminders for pastors in this. When Jesus refers to the brethren here, He always refers to the least, which is how every pastor should see himself. It’s not about him or how impressive he is; it’s always only about Jesus and faithfulness to Him. And with Jesus, it’s about the cross. Pastors should be ready to suffer if necessary. “I was in prison and you visited me.” That’s about sticking with your shepherd and faithful leaders of the broader church when they have to pay the price for faithfulness with civil punishments. Our Lord was arrested, and then in the book of Acts, so also were Peter and Paul. The disciples at first ran away when Jesus was arrested. But of course we know that they were brought back, and all of them were arrested and martyred themselves for the sake of the Gospel, except for the Apostle John who was exiled to Patmos. The apostle Paul was greatly comforted and encouraged by those who visited him and who prayed for him in prison. Finally, Paul also lost his life for the sake of the Gospel, being beheaded in Rome.
So it’s all about faith in the Gospel of Jesus, a Gospel that is proclaimed by flesh and blood men, men who are either received or rejected. The final judgment is being played out right now in the world. Pray that the Lord would continue to send out His brethren into the ministry. Pray that many might be given hearts to support these missionaries and ministers of the Word and that we would receive them as we would Christ Himself.
For our Lord Jesus made Himself to be the least of the brethren so that you would receive the greatest of His mercies. He was weak and hungry in the wilderness. On the cross He said, “I thirst.” He Himself took your infirmities and bore your sicknesses in His own body on the tree. He was treated like a stranger amongst His own people. He put Himself into the bondage of your hellish prison so that He might burst the bars of your captivity from the inside out by His mighty resurrection. Through Christ you are set free from death and the devil; you are released from your sins; you are cleansed and forgiven in Him. It is He who showed the truest and highest charity, paying with His own blood to redeem you, that you might live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. For Christ is indeed risen from the dead; He lives and reigns to all eternity as your King and your Savior.
On the Last Day Jesus will certainly say these very words to you who believe, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The Father has truly blessed you by giving you the new birth of water and the Spirit into His heavenly family. All that He has is yours. Christ has given you to share in His everlasting inheritance. And like any inheritance, it’s not yours because you’ve worked for it, but simply because you’ve been adopted into the family. In fact, this inheritance was being prepared for you from the beginning of creation, before you were even around. It’s all a gift, given to you through the merits of Christ. Believe that Gospel. Trust in that promise. For just as Jesus will come on the Last Day with all His holy angels, so also He is here even now with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to bring you His kingdom in the Sacrament of His body and blood. Come, you blessed of the Father, receive the kingdom; receive the King.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit