The journey metaphor speaks to me. The Christian life is a journey, a life-long process of moving deeper and deeper into God.
That image of the Christian life as a journey goes back to Jesus’ own ministry. As Jesus wandered from town to town, he invited people to join him on the road, to follow him wherever he might lead.
Reflecting that sense of movement, “the Way” became one of the first names for those who followed Jesus (Acts 24:14). Early Christians spoke about “the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17), “the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25), “the way of God” (Acts 18:26). And, of course, when one of his disciples said that he did not know the way, Jesus responded that He was himself the Way (John 14:6).
As followers of Jesus, we walk in his way still today. We follow the way of the Christ as far as we can go, knowing that there is always more ahead of us, that we can always come to know God a little better, to love God and neighbor a little more deeply. Our Christian journey lasts for our entire lives.
This week we get a picture of the Christian journey, from beginning to end.
Our Christian journey begins with what God has done for us. Our first obligation as Christian people is to recognize that all that we have and all that we are comes to us as a gift from God. And, of course, last Thursday was Thanksgiving. At least in theory, our entire nation paused for a day to give thanks to God for the many blessings we have received.
As the Apostle Paul says, we “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18).
Gratitude is easy when our lives are going well, although ironically that is often when we are most inclined to take our divine giver for granted.
Even in the hard times, God gives us gifts of resilience and strength. God gives us the gift of each other for help and support. God sustains us with faith and hope and love. Even, or rather especially, in hard times, Christ is with us.
And so we give thanks. And thankfulness for what God has done for us is the first step we take in our Christian journey, our journey to generosity. Thankfulness is how we begin.
Then, in our gospel reading for this morning, we see the very end of our journey, when Christ reigns as King.
Our gospel reading gives us a picture of the Kingdom of God. Christ is seated in glory on his throne. All nations are gathered before him, and Christ separates people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.
And the criterion for how Christ distinguishes sheep from goat is how we have used the gifts that God gives us. Christ invites those who have walked in his way of generosity to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. They are the ones who have fed the hungry, and given drink to the thirsty, and welcomed the stranger, and clothed the naked, and cared for the sick, and visited the prisoners.
That may not seem surprising at first. We all know that we should help people in need. But, as always, Jesus startles us, if only we pay attention.
Notice what Jesus does not mention in this passage. The judgment Jesus describes in this passage is based only on how we treat each other. Jesus says virtually nothing about worshipping God.
Now let me be clear: the greatest commandment of all is to love God with all of our hearts and minds and souls and strength. The first commandment of the big ten is to worship God, and God alone. The Apostle Paul insists, over and over again in case we miss it the first hundred times, we are justified by God’s grace received in faith. God matters. Our Christian journey begins and ends with God.
But what Jesus teaches us in this passage is that we cannot separate our worship of God from service to our neighbors. In fact, in this passage, Jesus suggests that service to our neighbors is how we worship God. Jesus says to the sheep, to those blessed by the Father and ready to inherit God’s kingdom, just as you served one of the least of my beloved children, so you served me.
Helping others is how we serve Jesus. Helping others is how we are called to use the gifts that God has given us. Helping others is how we participate in God’s work. Helping others is how we walk the Christian way.
A second striking thing about our reading is the fact that the sheep don’t even know the good that they have done. Jesus praises them for their service to him, and they aren’t sure what he is talking about. They ask, Lord, when was it that we served you?
Their question is touching in its innocence. If Jesus invites me to inherit the kingdom, he won’t get any questions from me!!!
But Jesus is teaching us a valuable lesson here. We don’t help others because we expect God to pay us back. We help others because that is who we are, who God creates us to be, who God helps us to become. We help others because that is Christ’s way. We help others because that is our journey into God’s own generosity and love.
In the end, the point is not any particular thing we do, any particular action that we take, good though it may be. The point is the kind of person we are, the kind of person we are becoming, the kind of person God calls us to become.
Virtually every day we are confronted with choices. One option is to hold on to what we have, to see people in need as potential threats, to fight aggressively for our rights, to ignore the needs of those around us. All of us are like that sometimes.
But there is another way. God knows our needs, and God surely doesn’t begrudge us those needs.
But as people who know that what we have comes to us as a gift from God, not as our due, we are called to use our gifts in service to God’s mission. That means we must take seriously the needs of the people around us. We are called to help others when we can. We are called to practice generosity.
And, over time, hopefully generosity becomes natural to us, so natural that, like the sheep in our gospel reading, we don’t think anything of our generosity. We just do what we do because that is who we are in Jesus Christ.
The journey to generosity is only two steps. We give thanks. And then we share.
But it turns out that we need to take that two-step journey over and over again. We give thanks, and we share. We give thanks, and we share. We give thanks, and we share. And as we repeat those two steps over and over again, we find ourselves moving farther in our Christian journey, travelling farther along the way of Christ, going deeper and deeper into God, just as we are called to do.
And at the last, we, too, will hear Christ say to us, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
Thanks be to God, in the name of Christ Jesus, our heavenly king. Amen.