This sermon is part of the sermon series "Project Hazmat: Handling Today's Tough Topics". See series.
I just read the story of a Pennsylvania legislator, newly elected to the Pennsylvania legislature. He said of his legislative agenda, "I want to make it as hard as possible for illegal immigrants to live in our state." So his first proposed piece of legislation was aimed at barring any undocumented person from attending a Pennsylvania state university, even though they're paying out-of-state tuition out of their own pocket.
When I read this legislator's statements, I realized that politics is a bare-knuckles, take-no-prisoners kind of profession. I understand that there is a constituency in every state for a let's-get-really-tough-on-immigrants stance. I really do understand that. But after this man spends his efforts trying to push through this legislation, I really have to wonder what he would say to his wife at the end of the day. Perhaps he would say something like this:
You know, honey, I spent the day making life as hard as possible for some people living in our state. Today was a really good day because I put my foot on the throats of 17 year-old immigrants and kept them from paying to go to a state university. And best of all, they were defenseless.
Over the last month or so, I have been speaking about the kindness and goodness of God, especially as his grace is revealed through the offering of God's Son, Jesus Christ, for our sins. You can't experience grace for yourself without changing. The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4:32-5:2:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
One of my major goals as pastor of this church, through the preaching of God's Word, is to shape the inclinations of your hearts so your knee-jerk reactions to whatever you experience are more and more like Jesus. As you sit in this church, I hope you would tend to be generous and kind when you see a need; that you would tend to forgive people who have hurt you or offended you; that you would tend to be tender-hearted, especially to people at the bottom rungs of society. I want to shape the inclinations of your heart so you could never say what that Pennsylvania legislator said, "I want to make life as hard as possible for a group of people." Instead, I hope you would say, "I want to be like Jesus, and I want to have Jesus' way of responding and relating to every person I deal with, especially the weak and the vulnerable."
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
"He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
What shapes our hearts? How do we incline our hearts like Jesus' to respond to life the way he would?
You pray to be more like him every day. You take in the Word of God; you read Scripture. That's why we've repeatedly encouraged you to start a reading plan, to join the rest of us in reading God's Word. It changes us.
But what else shapes our heart like Jesus'?
Prepare for God's judgment.
God's judgment is a great encouragement to Christians. We have a reason why we can forgive. We don't have to hold on to all the horrible things that have been done to us with a death grip to claim our pound of flesh. We can let go knowing that one day our trespasser will face God.
Who will be judged? All of us—churchgoers, non-churchgoers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, atheists. The judged will include those who believe the ideas of judgment and Judgment Day are ridiculous, that it is a medieval holdover churches use as a religious scare-tactic. According to Jesus, whatever your belief system, whatever your philosophy of life, everyone will be judged.
And the text in Matthew 25 teaches us who the Judge will be. That all of us will appear before Jesus Christ is a huge comfort and encouragement for those who have turned to Jesus and asked him to save them and to forgive their sins. Any who have turned to Jesus as Savior, as friend, as shepherd and high priest, are going to meet that Savior and friend Jesus on Judgment Day.
Those who have rejected Jesus, who have no time for Christ, who push Jesus away and keep him at arm's length, are going to meet Jesus, who for many people is a curse word. They are going to meet that despised Jesus on Judgment Day.
We're told here that the reason people get to inherit the kingdom is because they did six things:
Notice Jesus doesn't offer eternal relationship with himself based on the things we think he would—church membership, for example. He doesn't say, "You joined the Vineyard Church of Columbus? Well done! Welcome into my eternal kingdom." Or, "You were a member in good standing at First Baptist, or Tenth Presbyterian, or you were baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic church or in the Methodist Church or the Lutheran Church—welcome to the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." So many folks, if you ask them why they think everything is okay between them and God, fall back on church attendance or church activity. "Things are good between me and God because I go to church, because I take communion, because I'm involved in the church's small groups, because I go to Sunday Mass as often as I can, because I tithe."
That's all good. Keep going to church, keep tithing, keep taking communion, keep attending a small group. But none of these things are the basis on which Jesus separates the sheep and the goats. It is because you fed the hungry and gave water to the thirsty and welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked and cared for the sick and visited the prisoner.
Some of you should be thinking, Wait a minute, Rich. I don't understand what Jesus is saying. How does this square with the biblical teaching of salvation by grace through faith alone? Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast." But what we're reading in Matthew 25:35-36 sounds like salvation by works—we receive heaven because of what we do. Isn't this a direct contradiction of the idea of justification by faith alone, that you and I are right with God only through our faith in Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross and not by our own works, by own deserving?
No one earns salvation or eternal life. Martin Luther, the great father of the Protestant church put it this way: "Salvation is by faith alone, but true faith never remains alone."
What we have in Matthew 25 is exactly the same teaching we find many places in the Bible, but I'll mention just one: the book of James. James 2:14-17 says,
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
That sounds like an echo of what Jesus is teaching. We square Matthew 25 and James 2 with the teaching we find everywhere else in Scripture about salvation being by grace alone through faith alone by saying that our care for the poor and the needy does not earn our salvation. Our care for immigrants and the poor and the needy is the evidence of our salvation.
You can't get good fruit from a bad tree. What we see on the outside of a person—welcoming immigrants, feeding hungry people, caring for sick people, visiting folks in prison—is the evidence that that person has been given a new heart on the inside through God's Spirit. Your compassion demonstrates that your heart has changed because you received God's grace. You've moved from a life centered on your own needs and wants to a life centered on meeting the needs of others.
When you find yourself doing something for an immigrant, feeding a hungry person, visiting a sick person, practicing hospitality, you are showing that you belong to Jesus. These things that communicate our new heart are quite mundane. Jesus doesn't ask if you prophesied in church. Jesus doesn't ask if God used you to heal a terrible disease. Instead of these things we pay so much attention to, Jesus lists activities that are accessible to everyone in the world.
You don't need special training to feed someone who is hungry. You don't need a seminary degree on your wall or a year of leadership training to feed a hungry person. All you need to do is give your lunch away. That's pretty simple. You've got a lunch, you see someone who is hungry, and you give them your lunch. No training class in the church is required. You don't need to be a millionaire or get a grant to go into McDonald's and purchase a couple of burgers for a man who is standing on the street corner, hungry.
You don't need amazing spiritual gifts to sit with someone in a hospital room who is sick. Anyone of any age can visit with an elderly relative in a nursing home. You can be a three-year old and visit your great-grandmother. You don't need a Ph.D. to visit a prisoner.
But how does a heart change? One day we are going to stand before Jesus our Judge and we will have to give account for the grace we claim was at work in our lives. At that time Jesus will ask for evidence of his grace.
Pay heed to your language.
Notice what Jesus calls these hungry people, these thirsty people, these strangers we would call immigrants, these naked people, these sick people, those in prison: "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'"
Jesus calls folks in this world who are the most vulnerable—the hungry and starving, people who are sick in the hospital, or people lying on mats dying on the streets of Calcutta, people who are strangers in their societies, refugees, minority groups, documented, undocumented, prisoners—Jesus calls these folks his brothers and sisters.
The language we use when we speak about people who live on the margins of society is not only an indication of what is in our hearts, but it actually changes our hearts. Your words are not just the fruit of what is in your heart. Jesus says, "out of the abundance of your heart, your mouth speaks." But the words you choose actually change and steer your heart. The Apostle James says in James 3:4, "Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go." James says that the tongue is like the rudder of a ship. Just as a rudder steers a ship, so what comes out of your mouth steers you and changes you and shapes your heart.
Think about what comes out of your mouth. Think about the language we use for the different groups Jesus is referring to in this text. What do we call the poor and the homeless in this society? "Trailer trash." "Lazy bums, bag ladies, drunks." "Animals, mad-dogs."
We ought to be extremely sensitive about our language to other people. James 3:9 says, "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness."
Language communicates if we truly see another person as made in God's image and likeness. There are few things more troubling than reading an article or a forwarded email from a Christian that speaks about immigrant men or women or children as "parasites" or "pariahs" or "wet-backs" or as "illegals." One legislator described immigrants as "third world invaders." In one legislative debate, immigrants were described as being part of a "hoard" that was "swarming across our borders." That's describing human beings like bugs.
Jesus calls strangers and immigrants "my brothers and sisters." Is that what you call immigrants? If they are in Jesus' family and you are in Jesus' family, then immigrants are in your family. And immigrants are part of our church family, people who are sitting right here at Vineyard Columbus in church with us today. God in his providence and in his goodness has brought individuals to our church born in 110 different countries.
We have half the United Nations worshipping at our weekend services! God has been good to us. How can we speak about Jesus' brothers and sisters, sitting right here in this church, using language like "third world invaders" or "illegals"? When you hear that, you should want to say, "You're talking about Jesus' sister. You're talking about my brother."
How does our heart change? By paying attention to our language.
Remember that we're all immigrants.
Jesus doesn't see a poor man as the "other," someone so different that he can't connect with a homeless man at all. Jesus does not see an immigrant as being the "other," someone so radically different from him that they are like another species, invaders from another planet. He says, "I have such close relationship with people living on the margins of society that what you do or don't do for them is as if you are doing or not doing it for me."
It is not enough to thank God that Jesus identifies with the least and the last in this world. We need to have his heart and assume his response to the least and to the last. It is not just Jesus who should say, "As you've done to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you're doing it to me." We should say that, too.
I was raised in a Jewish family. The first experience I ever had with anti-Semitism was when I was 17 and in college. Growing up in New York City, I never remember someone making an anti-Semitic remark. I was raised in a neighborhood that was primarily Jews and Roman Catholics—Italians, Irish, African Americans, and Latinos.
But when I went to college in Cleveland, the first weeks of school I was sitting in a dorm room with a friend and a couple guys on the other side of the room were talking with each other. One of the guys said, "He jewed me out of some money." I had never heard that phrase, so I turned to my friend and very naively said, "What does he mean?"
My friend lost the color in his face and said, "I'll tell you later, Rich." So we left, and I said to my friend, very naively, very innocently, "Jewed, like J. U. D. E.? What does that mean?"
My friend said, "No, Rich. It's jewed. He's talking about Jews."
It was stunning to me. I thought, That guy was cheated out of some money, and he thinks it's what the Jews do? I was 17 years old. I was not yet a follower of Jesus. I thought, "I'm going to go back into that room and punch that guy in the face. He's talking about me." That feeling is what Jesus was talking about when he said, "As you've done to the least of these, you've done to me."
Let me apply this to immigration. In the Bible, God's people, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, were commanded to see themselves as immigrants no matter where they were born, or where they were living. When we hear about immigrants, we ought to say, "They're talking about me." For example, in the Old Testament on the Day of Pentecost, Jews were required to go up to Jerusalem and to the Temple. Each year they were to make this statement as a confession before God in the Temple: "Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: 'My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.'"
This confessional statement of Deuteronomy 26:5 is said at every Sabbath service in synagogue to this day. I used to say this week after week in synagogue: "My father was an immigrant. I am an immigrant." We see in Psalms 39:12, "Hear my prayer, Lord, listen to my cry for help; do not be deaf to my weeping. I dwell with you as a foreigner, a stranger, as all my ancestors were."
Israelite self-identification as immigrants affected the way they were to treat non-Israelites. So in Exodus 23:9, we read, "Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt." And we read in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt."
In the same way, we followers of Jesus are to see ourselves as immigrants and aliens. Consider what 1 Peter 1:1 says: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God's elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia …" And in 1 Peter 2:11: "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul."
When we look at immigrants, we should not see people essentially different from us. If you are a Christian, you are an immigrant, you are a foreigner. You are exactly like the people who label themselves as immigrants. Our ultimate citizenship is the kingdom of God, so wherever you are, whatever country you find yourself in, you are away from your home country.
This is not only biblically, but it is historically true in America. Unless your family ancestry is entirely Native American, your family immigrated to the United States either voluntarily or involuntarily, because they were taken here as slaves. But 99 percent of us at Vineyard Columbus are descendents of immigrants.
When you are talking about one of these groups—the poor, the hungry, the immigrant—each of us should say, "Not only are you talking about my Savior, you're talking about me.'"
Get to know real immigrants.
Something happens to our hearts when we get to know someone personally, not just as a category like homeless or prisoners or Muslims or immigrants.
I was recently reading a story by Thabo Mbeki. When Nelson Mandela sat down with South African Premier F.W. de Klerk to negotiate the end of apartheid, two men on opposite sides of this apartheid battle for decades, Mbeki said, "It suddenly became clear that none in the room had horns. And try as you did to see, none of them was sitting uncomfortably … on a tail."
It is easy to demonize a homeless person if you don't know anyone without a home. You see someone wandering the streets and it is easy to hang a label on them. It is easy to do the same thing with undocumented immigrants, if you don't know anyone who is undocumented. But when you sit across the table with someone and have a meal, they're no longer an abstraction. They are a person made in God's image, who God loves and who Jesus died for.
The idea of welcoming someone who overstayed their visa and is out of status with the government creates tension for many Christians. They say, "Rich, I am a person who respects the law. I believe in Romans 13 where it says,
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
So how can I show welcome or compassion to an illegal immigrant?
The National Council of Churches, the U.S. Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox Bishops—representatives of 42 different evangelical denominations, Christian leaders of every stripe—were united around the idea that the American immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed.
There is nothing illegal about being kind to someone else. You are not breaking the law by inviting someone who is undocumented over to your house and eating dinner with them. You are not breaking the law by offering someone who is undocumented a ride in your car. You are not breaking the law by helping someone furnish their apartment, or taking care of their kids, or shopping for groceries. In Ohio compassion is still not illegal.
Christians in Arizona used to face a very different challenge. Before a state law was struck down, in the state of Arizona it was illegal for a church to drive undocumented children to church for Sunday School using a church van. And my Christian brothers in the state of Arizona had to wrestle before God with whether they were going to obey that particular law and keep kids from church, or whether they were going to practice civil disobedience. (It's hard to imagine a Christian legislator voting for a law that would keep children from attending church and hearing about Jesus.)
But right now we're not faced with that in Ohio. Being kind, being compassionate, being welcoming is not illegal. And advocating for change in our broken immigration system is also not illegal. But you say, "Rich, maybe I'm not doing anything illegal, but that guy, that woman who is not documented, who has overstayed their visa, the child brought here without proper documents, they're doing something illegal. They're violating the laws of this country. And if they claim to be Christians, and they are violating the laws of this country, they are disobeying the Word of God."
As I've talked with people who are undocumented in this church, their disobedience to American law weighs on them heavily. They don't want to disobey the law. They want to be obedient. They want to be good Americans. But they also want to obey all of God's Word and they find themselves trapped because God's Word also says in 1 Timothy 5:8, "Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."
So they say, "I want to provide for my family and I can't do that in my home country because there are no jobs, because my country is racked by war, because the government changed and if I go back I will be tortured as some of my friends have been. Because I am a woman and will be forced by my family to marry someone who is not a Christian. I want to provide for my children. I want to provide a better life for my spouse. So I am caught between these two Scriptures." They are saying to me as their pastor and to you as their church, "Will you help us so that we can obey all the Scripture. We want to be like you. Will you help us?"
I believe it is the will of God for our church to communicate to immigrants in Central Ohio that you are not only welcome here, you are wanted here. If you are someone who was born outside of the United States—the vast majority of you are here legally—please stand and allow us who were born in America to honor you and to communicate to you that we not only welcome you, but we want you and we want your families and we want your friends here in this church.
Rich Nathan is the senior pastor of Vineyard Columbus (Ohio), a former teacher of business law, and the co-author of Empowered Evangelicals.