Second Last Sunday in the Church Year (Trinity 26)
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Why should you do good works? There are two very simple reasons: God has commanded them, and your neighbor is served by them. You shouldn’t do good works, though, as if God needed your service. He’s perfectly fine and complete without anything that you do. In fact, any good that you have the ability to do came from Him in the first place, right? What a foolish thing it is, then, to try to shove your good works into His face thinking that you can earn your way into heaven, as if He somehow owes you for what you’ve done. The Lord doesn’t owe anyone anything.
God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does. All you have to do is look around for two seconds to see that this world is full of need that is to be met with works of love–and not just charity, but the ordinary, day to day fulfilling of your callings. Today’s Gospel reading shows us where our good works are to be directed–not up to God as if to earn a merit badge, but down and out toward your neighbor, even toward “the least of these My brethren.”
All that is needed for heaven is faith–the empty hands of faith that receive the works of Jesus for you and that cling to Him and His cross alone. But then, with hands filled with the mercy and goodness of Christ, all that is needed for the neighbor is love which passes along Christ’s mercy and serves the neighbor in need. And those two things are connected and go together. Faith in Christ gives birth to deeds of love.
Though faith is unseen, and love often goes unnoticed, all will be revealed for what it is on the Last Day. When Jesus comes in glory with all His angels, He will judge both the living and the dead. And His judgment will reveal who are the sheep and who are the goats, who are the believers and who are the unbelievers. What is now hidden will be uncovered. That’s actually what the word “apocalypse” means, the uncovering. The private will be made public. Everyone, on the Last Day, will be revealed for who they are: either a sheep of Jesus’ flock or a goat. Everyone will be seen for how they stand in God’s sight, the faithful or the faithless. And it will be a day no one can avoid. “All nations” will be gathered. Everyone. No one left out.
Your life as a baptized believer prior to the Last Day is hidden before the world. Colossians 3 says, “You died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” That passage also describes the end, too: “When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” And Romans 8 says that “the entire creation groans and eagerly waits for the sons of God to be revealed.” So that’s a good way to think about what’s going to happen on the Last Day–it will be a revelation, the curtains and the covers will be pulled back; everyone and everything will be seen for what it is.
In some ways we’re already getting a taste of the ugly side of that with all the recent media-fed scandals involving politicians and celebrities and actors. It seems no one is as good they would like to appear. And we have to admit that if everything were reported about our lives, if every thought, word, and deed were made known before all, we would not look so good ourselves. The old Adam in a Harvey Weinstein or a Kevin Spacey or a Roy Moore or an Al Franken is fundamentally the same that inhabits each one of us, and gives birth to our particular sins. The only difference is that their old Adam was more fully unleashed by power and fame and wealth. Our only hope of being able to stand unashamed on the Last Day, then, is if our sinful nature has already been dealt with before then. And it has! That’s what the cross is all about. That’s what your baptism is all about. It is written in Romans 6, “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life . . . For we know that our old self [the old Adam] was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” We have been crucified with Christ by water and the Word; our sin has been answered for and done away with. And so there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom.8:1).
That’s the first thing that will be revealed and uncovered on the Last Day. Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats. Sheep on His right. Goats on His left. To the sheep: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father.” To the goats: “Depart from me, you who are cursed.” To the sheep: “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” To the goats: “Depart … into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Notice that the separation of the sheep from the goats comes before any talk of their works. The sheep are not at the Lord’s right hand because of the works they have done, but because of who and what they are in Christ by His grace. All this had been prepared long before their works, from the very foundation of the world, it says. Salvation is by God’s election and doing, not ours, as Ephesians 1 says, “(The Father) chose us in (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.”
On the Last Day, once the sheep and goats are divided up, then their works will be judged and evaluated by the Lord. And the works of the sheep give evidence of the fact that they are indeed the blessed children of God through faith in Jesus. The Last Day judgment simply makes that fact plain. Works are counted as good before the Lord only when they flow from faith in Jesus. No work is good in God’s sight without faith in Jesus, for it is written, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). And it is also written, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). You see, not only does Jesus’ blood cleanse us, it cleanses our works, too, and makes them holy. Such good works provide evidence of our faith in Jesus.
And yet even that will not be fully revealed until the Last Day. This is a very important point. Even this evidence of our faith, the evidence of good works, is something that finally only Jesus the Judge can see right now as we live before Judgment Day. So, while we live before the Last Day, we should not look to ourselves and our good works as proof that we are sheep. It is a dangerous thing to look to yourself for the assurance that you are saved. After all, unbelievers do humanly good works and acts of charity, too. It’s faith in Jesus that makes all the difference. Always, remember, the life of the believer is hidden and creation eagerly awaits the revelation of who God’s people are!
So, in the meantime, Christians live in this world side by side with unbelievers. And most of the time you can’t tell a huge difference, especially if you only look at what they do in the world. There is no “Christian” way to deliver the mail, fix a flat tire, or plow a field. You would hope Christians would be more ethical and hard-working and loving; but pagans can be ethical and hard-working and loving, too–though the ultimate motivation for that will be different. The difference is internal, and it is the difference between faith in Jesus or unbelief in Jesus. On the Last Day, Jesus, who judges the heart, will reveal the faith or the unbelief. And the only works that will be judged good before Jesus are the ones that flow from faith in Him.
Faith in Jesus is a divine work in us. It transforms us and gives us a new birth brought about by the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel. Faith in Jesus slays the old Adam and gives us the life of Christ, making us new people in heart, spirit, and mind. Such faith by its very nature is active in good works. Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done. Before the question is even asked, faith is already doing them. Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwells within us through faith, shows love to the neighbor in word and deed.
In fact, good works come so naturally to faith that the Christian most often does them without even recognizing them. Notice that the sheep are surprised to find out that the food and drink they served to the hungry and thirsty was actually a meal served to the King of kings and Lord of lords. That the sick neighbor they helped was actually Jesus Himself hidden in that neighbor. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers you did it to me.” Plus, they likely forgot all the instances where they did these things in the first place. It's just what they did.
Good works are done best when we become forgetful of having done them. Our works become a problem when we want to drag them with us into heaven, when we’ve got the score sheets and the tabulations, as if they are a bargaining chip to use in a salvation poker game. No, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is all that is needed for heaven. All our good works are to be left down here, for our neighbor in need. In our neighbor who is sick or hungry or in prison, we learn to see Jesus, who fasted for us, who was arrested and afflicted and stripped of his clothing for us to fully redeem us. The eyes of our faith are always and fully on Christ the crucified, whose works alone save us. Living in that faith, we see Jesus also in our neighbor and show our love for Him by loving them.
On the Last Day our faith will give way to sight. We will see Jesus as He is, the crucified and risen Savior of the world. To Him every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the everlasting joy of the sheep, to the everlasting shame of the goats. On the Last Day, it will be revealed who you are. But, of course, you don’t have to wait until the Last Day to know. After all, the Son of Man and Judge of all, Jesus comes here every Sunday in the divine service as His Word is proclaimed. And He speaks His Word to you, saying, “All your sin is forgiven! I put my Name on you in your Baptism! You are my sheep. Have no fear little flock. I am your Good Shepherd. I laid down my life for you. I was raised from the dead. And I live and reign to give you life and peace and joy forever.
Jesus and His cross is always the dividing line between the sheep and the goats. The same Jesus who was crucified between a believing sheep and an unbelieving goat on Good Friday feeds you with His own body and blood at the foot of the cross, setting you apart here from the unbelieving world. He joins Himself to you so that you will live eternally with Him in His kingdom, the one prepared for you from the foundation of the world. And even the good works you do were prepared for you by the Lord. For Ephesians 2 says, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Do you see? It’s all God’s grace; it’s all what He has done for you and given to you in His Son Jesus.
Every divine service is a little judgment day where Jesus judges you to be forgiven. Every week He is here with all His holy angels as we gather around His altar to receive His gifts of grace. On the Last Day you surely will hear Him declare: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to the Rev. Brent Kuhlman for some of the above)