Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
November 22, 2020 Worship Sermon - "Jesus is Lord"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
That’s a question we Christians sometimes ask of the people we encounter. It’s a strange question to ask, actually, because it assumes that people know what it means to be saved. “Saved from what?” one might ask. Usually, when we ask, “Are you saved?” what we mean is, “Are you in a life-giving relationship with Jesus?” But that raises additional questions. If salvation has something to do with Jesus, what does that mean for people who do not know Jesus? Are they lost? Is there any hope for them?
No doubt, you have had to wrestle with these questions at some point in your life, especially if you live in a religiously diverse community like Upper Darby. When I was growing up in Levittown, we Protestants debated whether Roman Catholics were saved. Now that many of us have Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs as neighbors, the question of who can be saved has become even more challenging.
Before he became the pope, Pope Benedict wrestled with this question. He wrote a paper in which he laid out his understanding of who is saved and who is not. The paper is called “Dominus Iesus” or “The Lord Jesus” and in it, Benedict attempted to explain the relationship between the true church of Jesus Christ and all the other religions of the world. He imagined all the religions as a series of concentric circles. At the very center of it all is the Roman Catholic Church, which Benedict considered the one true faith in which salvation could be found. In the next concentric circle, just outside of the Roman Catholic Church, were churches like the Episcopalians and the Orthodox. Because Episcopalians and Orthodox do not acknowledge the primacy of the pope, they are not quite the one true church. But they are close because they do share with Roman Catholics the belief that authority in the church has been passed down through generations of bishops stretching all the way back to Peter and the apostles. Moving outward into the next concentric circle, you have churches like the Presbyterians that don’t accept the apostolic succession of bishops but do believe that Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine of communion. So, according to Benedict, Presbyterians are a little farther from the true Christian faith. In the next circle beyond Presbyterians, you have those faith communities that practice baptism, even if they do not believe Jesus is present in the Lord’s Supper. In this category, you might place Baptists, Pentecostals, and other evangelicals. Then, in the next circle you have groups that don’t practice baptism but still consider themselves Christian, like Quakers. And then in the next circle beyond that you have the non-Christian religions that still believe in one God - Judaism and Islam. And then beyond that are Hindus and Buddhists and so on. The circles of faith just keep getting farther and farther from the true church of Jesus Christ, at least according to the man who would become Pope Benedict.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus takes a somewhat different approach to the question of who can be saved. Jesus gives us a vision of all the nations of the world gathered before the throne of judgement. Unlike Pope Benedict’s approach, the king does not judge the nations based on what church they belong to. He doesn’t ask them if they were baptized or whether they believe in apostolic succession or accept the primacy of the pope. No! According to Matthew, the nations of the world will be judged according to how they treat the most vulnerable of Jesus’ disciples. The judge will say to the nations, “Just as you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, so you did to me.” So, according to this passage, it is possible for people who do not know Jesus to be saved. The circle of salvation is large enough to include people of many different faith traditions.
I have a number of friends who do not consider themselves Christian, so I find hope in this vision of the judgment of the nations from the Gospel of Matthew. Even those who do not know Jesus can participate in Jesus’ saving work.
Let me back up and say a bit more about Jesus’ saving work. Our scriptures tell us that Jesus is God coming into the world to save it. When Jesus walked the earth, he healed people of their diseases, he released them from bondage to demonic powers, he forgave their sins, and he invited them to participate in a movement to save the world. He sent his followers out to perform the same saving work that he performed. He sent them out to heal, and to liberate, and to forgive.
Jesus is still performing that saving work in our world today. Jesus is still sending us out with the same mission that Jesus gave Peter, James, and John two thousand years ago. We Christians are at our best when we are fulfilling that mission, when we are healing, and liberating, and forgiving. And sometimes we are aided by people who do not call themselves Christian. I’ve already told you about our neighbor here in Upper Darby who leaves food on our doorstep several times a week. Something tells me this neighbor is not a Christian. But she sees us feeding the hungry and she wants to participate in that. Whether she calls herself a Christian or not, she is participating in Jesus’ movement to save the world.
Today is the last Sunday that we will be reading from the Gospel of Matthew, at least for the next two years. I have to say that I won’t miss all the weeping and gnashing of teeth that we have heard about as we read the Gospel of Matthew together. But I am grateful for Matthew’s vision of salvation. In Matthew’s Gospel, God is with is in Jesus Christ and God is with us so that all the world might be saved.