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Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year
“To The Least of These”
Seminarian Brendan Harris, Vicar
St. Matthew 25.31-46; Daniel 7.9-14; 1 Peter 3.3-14
15 November 2020
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus ☩ Christ; Amen.
What have we forgotten? As the world rages around us, trying to run its frauds and make its backroom deals, as it’s trying to decide who will reign as president for the next four years, trying to decide who is going to be the guy to save the world and get us out of all this mess: what have we forgotten? Do not be deceived: the Son of Man is still on His throne. God is King in heaven and on earth, and whatever comes in the meantime, we can be certain that He will come again, and He will be the One who will set us all straight. Beware, brothers, that we do not become like those who ask, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Although things do seem to droll on, this day too will pass, and the Son of Man will come again. One day to Him is as a thousand years and a millennium is as a day, for He is the Ancient of Days, the Lord over time itself, and so He will not be anxious as we are anxious. He has set the day and the hour, and in that moment, it will come to pass. As we heard in Daniel this morning, the Son of Man will indeed come in glory, He has gone up to the Ancient of Days in all of His splendor and His wheels of fire, with all the praise of the angel hosts, and is enthroned in the Kingdom on high.
So who is this Son of Man? Surely, for all the glory surrounding Him in this radiant image, He must be a most regal, triumphant figure, a man who is utterly untouchable and irreproachable; and yet, Saint Matthew paints for us another image. Although this is indeed the Son of Man sitting as judge, the sheep and the goats in our parable here are surprised to find Him where they did not think He would be: “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?” This ultimate and awesome judge, whose sheer power will cause all knees to fail and all to fall on their faces before Him, tells them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Here, the Son of Man takes the form of the least likely person you would expect the King of Everything to be. He, the King, tells us He is also the least, that in doing good to even the lowliest man, you have done good directly to Him.
There is a story I would like to share that illustrates this passage for us beautifully. This past Wednesday, the eleventh of November, was not only Veteran’s Day, but fittingly it was also the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours. Saint Martin was a Roman soldier who lived back in the fourth century who converted to Christianity and became a very important bishop of the Church, working out of the city of Tours in France. He is also the namesake of Martin Luther, who was baptized on November 11th in 1483, the day after he was born, because his father chose his name from the feast day on which he was baptized. But while Saint Martin was still a young man, before he was baptized, he had an experience which would affect him for the rest of his life.
When Martin was only eighteen years old, he was a soldier in the Roman army. One day, his unit came through the city of Amiens in Northern France, and it was the dead of winter, the dead of a winter so terrible that people were dying simply due to the bitter cold. As the soldiers came by, there was a naked old man, and he begged the men walking by to have mercy on him and help him, but no one did anything. Martin saw the old man and had compassion in his heart, but he really didn’t have anything extra to give him. And so Martin took his sword and cut his cloak in half, and handed half of it to the beggar, and walked away wearing the tatters of the other half, which caused some bystanders to laugh at him for how ridiculous he looked. But such was the kind of man Martin was.
Later that night, Martin had a dream. In the dream, he saw the beggar again, covered in the half of his cloak. But on further inspection, Martin didn’t see the beggar anymore. Rather, He saw the face of Christ Himself swaddled in the cloak, and the Lord turned to the host of angels that stood around Him, and said “Martin, who is still a catechumen, covered me with this cloak.” At this moment, the Spirit recalled the words recorded by Saint Matthew to his mind: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Martin, filled with the fear of God, praised the Lord for the gift of the opportunity to have done this wondrous deed, and was from then on eager to be baptized.
Saint Martin’s story demonstrates for us the true nature of the Son of Man: He is the one who makes Himself low. Both the depictions of Him in Daniel and Matthew are true, because the Son of Man is a title for Jesus, and more specifically, for His role of salvific work. When Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man, He is referring to His state of humiliation, of His taking on human flesh and blood, in order to die for us and atone for our sins. He is the one who condescends to us in His great love and takes the form of a beggar, of an outcast stranger, crucified between two thieves. As Jesus tells us, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20). He comes not in the form of His divine majesty, as the king and creator of all creation, but as the meekest and humblest of all men.
And yet, as Daniel portrays for us, this humiliated man sits enthroned on high. The Son of Man is exalted, He ascends, He is taken up to the throne of the Ancient of Days. Yet remember, this man is not described as some ethereal spirit, some mere orb of light, He does not appear to us as a wisp; no, He is a man. This human Son of Man is the Crucified One, and His throne is the Cross of wood. And this does not mean that He is simply the one that was once crucified, but rather He is the one who has been crucified and is still the Crucified One. This Son of Man will sit in glory and judgement over all creation from the seat of His Cross, fully God yet still a man with wounds on his hands and feet, a man with a river of blood and water still flowing from His side wherever He goes. As Jesus also tells us, the greatest of all must be the servant of all. Thus, His glory is in meekness, and this is His Divine Service to us: His human nature is brought up into the divine, and both are crowned as one in this most blessed title: the Son of Man.
And so we see in Saint Matthew’s Gospel this morning, the Son of Man enthroned in His meekness, now turning toward His creation, toward His subjects in order to judge them. The servant of all, the least and humblest of all men, now reigns in judgement exalted over all, and He will determine who has loved Him, who has loved God by loving his neighbor as himself. Those faithful sheep will hear the blessed invitation, “Come…inherit the Kingdom,” while those goats who lived as if God did not matter will hear the chilling command, “Depart from me…into the eternal fire.” But what is this difference, what grants the faithful their reward and the unfaithful their punishment? It is the Son of Man Himself, for only the one who allows Jesus to cover Him with His Blood in Word and Sacrament will be counted worthy before the Father. This is the gift of faith, and from faith only love can follow. As Saint Martin demonstrates, if you want to see the face of God, if you want to embrace Christ and serve Him, turn to your neighbor, turn to your brothers, and behold: He is as Christ to you. If you see him hungry and you feed him, if you see his thirst and satisfy him, if you see him estranged and you befriend him, if you see him naked and you clothe him, if you see him sick or imprisoned and you minister unto him, as you have done it to the least of these brothers, though they may appear to be only simple beggars who aren’t worth the concern of the world, as you have done it to them, you have done it to the Least of all. If you serve them, you have served the Servant of all. If you serve them, you have served Jesus Christ, and you will no longer see a beggar, but he will be transfigured before you into the Lord Himself, and angel hosts will rejoice in heaven on account of your mercy. Because, of course, it really isn’t your mercy, but it is the mercy that Jesus has shown to you, it is the fruits of the faith which He has given you, and it is nothing but a gift which you too are free to in turn give to all whom you well please to give it to.
Take heart, brothers, for you are not brought into the Kingdom by your own hands or works, but by grace through faith alone. In your Baptism, you take up the habit of the Son of Man. At His Holy Altar, He gives you His very self, and the Father sees only His beloved Son in you. From His most merciful and overflowing gifts, He gives you plenty to give away. Even though, like Saint Martin, you may tear your cloak and give your worldly possessions away, the Lord has given you the whole and untorn cloak of Baptism into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Pray to the Lord, for He will rejoice to give you His wonderful gifts, it is His greatest pleasure to render you His Divine Service. And He will also give you the gift of serving your brothers in abundance, for this is how one exercises citizenship in the Lord’s Kingdom. It is His great joy to give you the Kingdom, which He has prepared for you from the beginning, and in His Church, He will give it again and again and again. So come, be served by Him who is the Least of all, and in joy go and serve Him likewise, by serving the least of these your brothers. In Jesus’ ☩ Name; Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus; Amen.