August 10, 2014

The Least of These

While it didn’t get any national attention that I saw, the pastor of a mega church in the Charlotte area was in the news a few months ago.  It seems that he was building a house for his wife and family.  Now, that’s not so exceptional, I’ll grant you.  A lot of pastors build houses at some point in their careers.  What was newsworthy here is that this particular pastor’s house cost him something like $1.4 million.  Questions immediately began to fly: How much are they paying him?  How many people go there?  How much do they pay the rest of the staff?  How much are they giving to missions?  And, as reporters did some digging they uncovered a number of church policies and practices that while not necessarily wrong outright did give more than a little impression of the opportunity for impropriety.

Ever since the beginning of the church the issue of money has been a challenge for Jesus followers.  The challenge is that the love of money which Paul identified as the root of all kinds of evils is easy to disguise.  It is easy to convince both ourselves and other people that we are motivated by something other than love of money.  In addition to this, because of the nature of religion generally, it is not hard if you have the right blend of charisma and spirituality to make a lot of money from it.  You just convince people that God or the gods require them to give their money for some reason, set yourself up to receive it on their behalf, and then keep it all for yourself.  This is just as true of the Christian church as it is of other religions.  We’ve seen it happen often enough to make us a little cynical of the whole affair.

As a result, when we hear stories like this one about the Charlotte pastor, our corruption meter immediately begins going off and somewhere in our head floats the conclusion, “Well, there goes another preacher taking advantage of people who trusted him in order to bilk them out of as much money as he can.”  It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands and walk away from the church altogether.  You can almost hear the self-conversation going on: “I mean sure, not all of them are like that, but if their God leads anybody to do that, He’s not worth my time.  It seems like all their God really cares about is people who are rich and happy and successful.  Yeah, they may throw some bones at the poor and give some lip service to serving them, but really the religion is for rich people who want to feel a little better about having so much more than the rest of us.  I don’t need this.  I’m going to go find people who are more like me and who really care about the poor.”  With this they walk away from Christians and their God.  And, I would too.  That god sounds awful.  That god really isn’t worth your time.  Thankfully, that’s not the God I believe in, and this morning I want to show you why.

As I said, this morning we are going to talk about another god Christians don’t believe in as the second part of our series called, The God I Don’t Believe In.  The whole idea for this series is that many people who reject who they think is the Christian God, are actually rejecting somebody else merely masquerading as Him.  When you push them a bit on the character and identity of the god they are rejecting you discover that they are in fact rejecting a god who deserves to be rejected…it’s just not the Christian God.  Last week we started the series by taking a look at the god who makes his followers dumb and anti-science.  We rejected him in favor of the God whose followers are heirs to a rich intellectual heritage the likes of which is not to be found in any other worldview tradition.  We rejected the god whose followers are brainless in favor of the God who through His Son, Jesus, called His followers to love Him with all of their mind.  We serve the God whose followers revolutionized much of the world and brought us into the modern age.  We serve a God for thinking people.

In coming parts of this series we are going to look at a couple of the more controversial gods we don’t believe in: the god who hates women and the god who hates gay people, but today I want to look with you at the god who really only cares about people who are rich and happy and successful.  In fact, if you are not all of those things, that’s probably a sign that this god doesn’t love you very much, or at least that you don’t love him enough.  Fortunately for us, the various authors who contributed to the Bible over its 1,500-year compositional process made abundantly clear the character of the God who was revealing Himself through their words.  Of the many, many passages we could examine to see why we too reject this false god, I want to take a quick look with you at just two: One comes from one of Jesus’ earliest followers named Matthew who was reporting something Jesus Himself said, the other comes from Jesus’ half-brother, James.

In any event, if you have a Bible with you in some form, turn or thumb your way to Matthew 25.  On the night before the final night of His life, Jesus took His twelve closest followers who are typically called “the Disciples” and went to a garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem in order give them some final teachings before the ordeal of His arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  He touched on a number of different topics with them, but the one most of interest to us this morning came right near the end of what He had to say.  What Jesus says here gets right near the heart of something most of us have wondered about: if there’s a heaven, what do I have to do in order to get there?  Well, Jesus doesn’t come right out and answer that question, but He does describe what the people who will ultimately go there have spent their time doing here.

Look at what He says with me starting in Matthew 25:31: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers [and sisters], you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’  Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Now, there’s a lot to talk about there, but let’s focus in on a summary of what Jesus says.  What have the folks who are counted among the sheep done to find themselves in this position?  They have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and went to the imprisoned.  In short, they have cared for the “least of these.”  You can search the Bible from cover to cover and beyond believing in Jesus you will not find a single definitive statement that communicates something along the lines of, “If you believe this you will receive eternal life.”  Yet here we are given a description of what some people did and are told, “They got eternal life.”  The implication of this is pretty powerful.  If out of our belief in Jesus we do the same things, we too will receive eternal life.  While many folks have heard this kind of thing often enough today as to be somewhat anesthetized to its impact, I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasize just how transformational this idea has been in the history of the world.

But, let’s go ahead and deal with the objection I know is coming and which you might face out on the street.  The objection is this: “That sounds really good and all, but Jesus wasn’t saying anything about religion there.  In fact, we would be a lot better off if people would take Jesus’ advice and leave out the whole religion thing.  All religion does is get tangled up with money and we just end up right back where we started with the very people Jesus said taking care of gets you into heaven being either ignored or mistreated.  Let’s forget about the god of Christianity and just go with Jesus.”  And to all of this I say, “You’ve got a point.  That all happens a lot.  But that’s not the God I believe in.”

It’s true that religion has been the source of a lot of pain and suffering in the world particularly when it gets mixed up with money.  But the solution isn’t to get rid of religion, it’s to choose the right religion.  And the Christian religion understood as an outworking of the implications of a relationship with the God of the Bible looks very different from everything else on the market.  As a matter of fact contained within the pages of Scripture is a description of what religion as God envisions it looks like.  We find this description in a letter that James, Jesus’ brother and the leader of the church in Jerusalem, wrote to a group of mostly poor Jesus followers in Judea: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  In other words, when the Christian religion is working like it should the “least of these” for whom Jesus said showing care is key to receiving eternal life are in fact receiving care.  It’s almost like we’re getting one consistent message about who the Christian God is and what He expects from His followers no matter where we look in the Bible.

What is becoming clear from just this limited look at the Scriptures is that far from being a god who doesn’t care about the poor and is really only concerned with making people rich, healthy, and happy, the God I believe in—and I hope you do too—has a passionate concern for the least, last, and lost of this world…and He fully expects His followers to share this concern.  As a matter of fact, for people interested in the God who actually is worth following we can boil all of this down to a clear and concise principle: If you want to live your life now with life later in mind, take care of the least, last, and lost.  If you want to live your life now with life later in mind, take care of the least, last, and lost.  They are very near and dear to God’s heart and if you would count yourself as one of His followers, they need to be near yours too.