Each week when I get to worship and I look out into our congregation, it appears as if we have assigned seats. Without fail, almost every single person who comes to worship on a regular basis finds a seat each week, and it just so happens to be the same seat week after week. Sometimes this is incredibly helpful, perhaps someone asks me if so and so is in worship and I can draw up your seating chart and see if your seat was filled on any given day.
Or other times, someone will be we trying to remember the name of someone else in the church. And in this exercise, they will say, “you know, they sit next to the window over there.” Even if they can’t remember the name, they know where they are supposed to sit.
Turns out research has been done to study why it is that humans like to choose the same seat. Researchers found that most people like to choose a certain space and claim it as theirs, and others basically agree to this. It’s kind of a mutual agreement where each of us seems to basically agree to follow and keep some kind of peace with our fellow human beings.
Researchers focused on students in a classroom and concluded that this type of behavior really helped the students be successful. They found that since students are “not wasting mental energy making themselves psychologically comfortable in a new position every day, it makes it easier for them to achieve their goals, like concentrating on the lecture at hand.” I don’t know how this impacts us in worship, but maybe sitting in the same place allows you to spend more time attending to worship. https://qz.com/1349508/the-psychology-behind-why-you-always-want-to-sit-in-the-same-seat/
While most of us like the comfort or routine of our normal place, sometimes people—even church people—can take this seat saving too far. One Sunday in 2016 in Pennsylvania, a young man went to church and found a seat. Evidently, he was in the wrong seat, because someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to move. This angered the young man, but he soon calmed down after talking to the pastor. But then another man approached the young man showed him a gun and a fake badge and escalated the situation, and eventually he shot and killed the young man. This story is tragic and so unnecessary, but someone lost their life because someone else thought the young man sat in the wrong seat at church.
I hope the stakes aren’t so high at this church, and I don’t want to suggest that just because you sit in the same place each week you really think you own it, but we do have to be careful when we begin to think the church belongs to us. If you were with us last week, we began a message series called Defining Church. And last week we looked at the question, What is the Church?The reason we have to be careful thinking anything at the church or about the church belongs to us or to any particular person, is that Jesus makes it clear that the church belongs to and is built by him. The church is built by Jesus to serve the world.
When you begin to think about things in the church as you own, you can have a tendency to begin thinking that the church exists to serve you. While you are an important part of the church, while you play an important role in the church, this church does not exist to serve you. So today, we are exploring the question “whom is the church called to serve.”
Truth be told, there are many ways that we could begin to answer this question. The quick answer is that the church is called to serve God, but this isn’t really self-explanatory. To help us understand who we should serve, I want to share with you something Jesus had to say about this. Matthew, who wrote about the ministry of Jesus, shares with us some of Jesus’ teaching about who the church is supposed to serve. In fact, what we find is that Jesus has some pretty serious words to share with us on who we are supposed to serve. Let’s take a look. If you have a Bible with you, I want to invite you to turn with me to Matthew 25:31-46.
31 “Now when the Human One[b] comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
What we find here is that Jesus is beginning to teach about judgment. Now, judgment isn’t something that many of us like to think about, but it is part of faith and it is something that will happen. You will notice here, that while we are talking about defining church and understanding who the church is called to serve, Jesus bring everyone in for judgment. It’s not just the church, but it is all the nations who are gathered before Jesus—that is, all different kinds of people are brought before Jesus. And then, Jesus separates them into two groups and proceeds to judge them. He says:
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
To the group that is to his right, Jesus gives them praise. He said that he was hungry and they gave him something to eat. He was thirsty and they gave him something to drank. He was welcomed and clothed and cared for and visited by them. Even though this group fed and clothed and visited and cared for Jesus they were confused. They didn’t remember doing it. They didn’t remember caring for and doing these things for Jesus, but yet Jesus said that they did them.
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
In this moment, Jesus identifies himself with those left out of society. Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the stranger, the one sitting in prison. He says to the crowd that he is praising, when you did something for those that are left out, for those that are downtrodden, for those that are hurting, you did this same thing to me. Jesus is expressing that all of humanity will be judged by how we respond to human need.
The judgment isn’t based on fame or knowledge or wealth but based on the help that is given to fellow human beings. The judgment is based on simple help, on everyday things. It’s not about, necessarily, giving everything you have, but about giving at every opportunity you have. It’s about giving and doing the simplest of things to those around you that are in need, that are hungry, that are thirsty, that are sick, that are in prison. Then Jesus continues:
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
Those that stand to be judged are those that didn’t help. It might be easy for you or me to judge those that don’t help but be careful. It’s not that the people who didn’t help are calloused or mean spirited. When Jesus accuses them of not helping him, they seem confused and respond: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’
These people likely lived well intentioned lives. They were looking for the deserving people to help in life. If they would have known that Jesus needed help, they surely would have helped. Instead, all they saw were common people, people who always stood with their hand out, people who always were asking for assistance, people who seemed to only want things from them. Because of this, they made the decision not to help; they didn’t want to enable that behavior; they didn’t want to encourage it. But had Jesus come, surely, they would have helped. Alas they did not, so they receive judgment.
This is how Jesus says that he will judge all the nations. Here is the thing about the nations, this is kind of a code word for those outside of the community of faith. In the time of Jesus, this was likely referring to those outside of the Jewish community. The Jewish community that Jesus and his early followers were part of had a deep tradition of caring for strangers and those in distress, but the other nations wouldn’t have known this tradition.
Even though they were not well aware of God’s requirements of caring for others, they provided this assistance, this aid, this welcome to all those that were in need. They helped the outcast, they housed the houseless, they cared for the sick, they visited those in prison. By doing these things, the nations were acting like the people of God. For Matthew, who recorded what Jesus said here, the people of all these nations were acting the way the church should act.
If this is what God desires or requires from the nations, from those who don’t know the saving love of Jesus, how much more should the church, should people of faith, care for all people. I know this passage about judgment doesn’t really speak directly to defining what church is, but if we see what the requirements are for those outside of the church, how much more does God desire the church to do? How much more caring does God desire of the church? How much more serving does God desire of the church?
When we think about our question today, whom does the church serve? The church serves God by serving the world. The answer that God whispers to you is, you are called to serve the outcast. You are called to serve the hungry. You are called to serve the sick. You are called to serve those that are in prison. You are called to serve those you might not like. You are called to serve those that are different from you. You are called to bring hope to those that are experiencing hopelessness. When the church faithfully serves the other, the church has faithfully served God. On multiple occasions, I have said that the church does not exist for itself, but the church exists in and for the world. The church exists to serve God by serving the world.
If you have grown up in church or if you have been in the church for a long time, it can be tempting or easy to begin to think that this is “your” church. You know, you put yourvolunteer time into the church; you give of yourday to attend worship; you give yourmoney to support the work of the church; so naturally, you might begin to imagine, that this is your church. And if the church is really yours, it should serve you or at least you should get a say or get to decide who the church should serve.
Now I do realize this can be a delicate or a touchy subject, but Jesus already tells us how he is going to judge the nations—he is going to judge them on how they serve others—do you think it is any different for the church? If you are part of the church, you have already received the life-giving love of Jesus. If you are part of the church, you have already received the goodness of Jesus; you have already seen what God can do—how much more should you serve, should you care for others?
I realize that there are a lot of complexities when it comes to helping people. I realize that it is physically impossible for you to correct all the injustices someone else has encountered. I realize that the church cannot heal all poverty, disease, and pain. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. That doesn’t you and I shouldn’t be inspired by the undeserved love we have been shown by Jesus to spread a similar love to all that we encounter.
This is the type of thing that should be the defining characteristics of Christian churches. In this church we are preparing for Soulfest on Saturday. Soulfest is the yearly block party we have where we invite the whole community on our campus to experience the love of Jesus, and we serve God by giving away free coats and blankets. –We still need more coats by the way. In doing this, we aren’t checking employment papers, we aren’t asking questions about eligibility, we aren’t trying to figure out who deserves God’s help and who doesn’t; all we are doing is trying to share the love of Jesus that we have already received. In doing this you are serving God by serving others.
No matter what day it is, the church is called to serve God by serving others. The church is called to serve God by serving the world. So let us go; let us honor God; let us serve others; and let us be the people that Jesus recognizes as his own.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.