January 15, 2023
Jesus in Three Places
You may have noticed on the church website or bulletin that we are a Matthew 25 congregation. What is that? Matthew 25 is an effort by our denomination, the PCUSA, to bring churches together around three important initiatives: building congregational vitality, eliminating systemic poverty, and dismantling structural racism. Our congregation has focused on the work of dismantling structural racism, and that work – of course – continues in a variety of ways.
On this MLK Jr. weekend, we’re going to revisit this important parable from Matthew 25. Hear, now, the word of the Lord.
‘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. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And 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.”
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This morning, I want us to think about a very simple question of faith; really a child’s question, and yet one that lies at the heart of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25. Where is Jesus?
When I was a child, growing up in an evangelical tradition, the most common answer, was that Jesus lives in your heart. If you trust him, if you invite him in, he will live with you – here. To some of us, that sounds just right; and to others, maybe a little too sentimental. As a child, it was a helpful improvement because most of the kids thought that Jesus lived at church –in a closet behind the sanctuary or in one of those upstairs classrooms that were old and creepy.
So, where is Jesus? Jesus is fully human and fully divine, which means there is no simple answer to that question. Today, I want to offer three equally true answers.
First, Jesus is with God. When we say the Apostles’ Creed, the church’s most basic statement of faith, at least once a month, we say, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father, Almighty.” After the resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. Then, when their time was finished, he was lifted up before their eyes and taken from their sight, into the realm of God – into the other dimension, that we call heaven. Now, what is Jesus doing sitting at the right hand of God?
The letters to the Romans and the Hebrews tell us that Christ is at God’s side, praying for us. Sometimes you have heard me say these words from Romans when I remind you of God’s love for you: “Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us.” (Romans 8:34)
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: “[Jesus] is able to save completely those who approach God through him, since he is always alive to plead (to pray) on their behalf.” (Hebrews 7:25)
Have you ever needed someone else to speak on your behalf? Maybe you’ve had to hire an attorney to make your case. Maybe there was a time, in a difficult or emotional circumstance, you needed a close friend to be your voice. Maybe there was a time when you couldn’t find the words to express what you needed to say, but a spouse or a friend or a counselor could put words to it.
This is a profoundly consoling thought: the ministry of Jesus on our behalf, always and even now in this moment, is to pray for us. When we cannot find the words to pray for ourselves, Jesus is praying for us. When we do not know what to pray for, even if we could find the words, Jesus is praying for us. When we are distracted, when we forget, when we’re overwhelmed, Jesus prays for us.
Jesus is with God in the heavenly realm, whispering in God’s ear, pleading and praying for us. That’s the first true answer to the question.
The second answer is this: Jesus is in you, the church. In the first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul describes the church as a body. He writes, “Christ is like a single body with its many limbs and organs, which, many as they are, make up one body…. Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you a limb or organ of it.”
When we are baptized, we are brought into the church and made a member of the body of Christ. It’s not a membership like at Sam’s Club, or AAA, or a Country Club. It’s a membership like a body – fingers, toes, hearts, lungs. We are knit together, to become – each one of us – vital parts of Christ’s body that is present to the world, and Christ’s life–alive in the world.
The English Cardinal, John Henry Newman, put it this way: “the church is not an organization, the church is an organism.”(1) An organism is living, breathing, growing, serving, feeling, loving. Jesus is here. The church is the body of Christ.
There’s a poem that is attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila, and captures this idea beautifully:
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Jesus is here, living and moving you – the body of the church. I think of the small group this past week that gathered to serve lunch at Transformation Village, to women on the road out of poverty and homelessness. Christ was there, serving the meal. I think of the prayer group that gathers weekly to pray for the needs of our congregation and community. Christ is in the room, praying. I think of those who are tutoring ESL students, and those who are teaching in our faith formation classes – Christ is teaching. And you, who have shown up on an icy, winter morning for worship – Christ is here at worship.
As Christ’s body in the world, we continue the pattern of Christ’s ministry: calling people to follow. Proclaiming forgiveness. Healing the sick. Teaching about God’s realm. Gathering around them. Breaking down dividing walls. Welcoming the stranger. Befriending the lonely. Embracing children and little ones of every age. Trusting God. Giving our lives away. Bearing witness to love that is stronger than death. This is what the body of Christ does, the body of Christ visible to the world.
Jesus is with God. Jesus is in you, the church.
And finally, the third answer to the question, “Where is Jesus?”–In the face of any person who is in need. In the gospel reading from Matthew, the disciples have asked Jesus what it will be like at the end of the age. When Matthew’s gospel was written, Jesus’ followers were living at a time of profound, and frightening change. The very foundations of their society – the Temple and Temple system of worship – were collapsing. It felt like it could be the end of the age, and so Jesus’ teaching on this subject was of great interest to them. What do we need to know about the end? This parable tells them something about how to live in uncertain times.
Jesus is sitting on a throne and all the nations are gathered in front of him. People are separated right and left, and to those on the right the king says,
“You who have my Father’s blessing; come take possession of the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made.” Why? Because…
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.
Now, that’s beautiful, but the thing is – they don’t remember doing it. They don’t remember seeing Jesus and doing that for him.
So, he says the king will reply: “Anything you did for one of my family, however insignificant, you did for me.”
So, Christ was there. In disguise. Hidden in the face of the person in need.
Dorothy Day said, famously, that “Christ is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.” Day was a Catholic Christian in New York City who lived, and worked with, and helped the poorest of the poor. Sometimes she was accused of being too sentimental, talking about Christ present in the poor. But she said, to her critics, that there was nothing sentimental at all about living in cold unheated housing communities, alongside people who were in the grip of addiction, or mental illness, or sexual abuse. It was not sentimental, it was costly love – and she in each one of them, saw the face of Christ.(2)
In our tradition, the Confession of 1967 puts a little more theological development on Day’s idea. It says that the suffering of Christ – his rejection, his abandonment, his torture – should make us, as Christ’s body, more sensitive to the suffering of others – so that we can see the face of Christ in the face of anyone, everyone, who is in need.
This weekend, our nation’s attention is turned to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the way that he led the struggle for civil rights. But even more important than remembering, we are called to ask ourselves about our own work. How are we cultivating the beloved community in our own lives and world? As the MLK Association Prayer Breakfast in Asheville yesterday said, how are we taking audacious action in uncertain times?
Often it’s hard to know where to even start. Jesus teaches us, here in Matthew 25, in uncertain times – start with mercy. This is what motivates our love in action, our deeds of justice and mercy – whether as simple as a cup of water, or as systemic as a clean water system. In each person we see God’s image. We see not a stranger – but a neighbor. And in the face of those in need, we see the face of a suffering Jesus, calling us into lives of genuine mercy.
Where is Jesus? Where do you see him? Let me bring all this together, and say it this way. Where is Jesus? Jesus sits at the right hand of God, praying for us, praying that we will be his hands and feet in the world, praying that we will find him in the face of the other.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina