When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
In my experience, Christians tend to gravitate toward one of two poles, and I don’t mean liberal or conservative, evangelical or progressive, Democrat or Republican. Rather, some of us are what a friend once described as “John 3.16 Christians,” while others see ourselves more as “Matthew 25 Christians.”
John 3.16, perhaps the most quoted passage in the New Testament, is a succinct declarative statement:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that all who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus is speaking these words to Nicomedus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus by night. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born “from above,” or “of water and Spirit.” The focus of their exchange is the importance of believing in Jesus. Those who believe in Him will enjoy eternal life. In subsequent verses Jesus states that those who do not believe are condemned.
In contrast, Matthew 25:31-46 is a parable of final judgment in which belief doesn’t factor at all. The Son of Man will come, Jesus says, and separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Those he will welcome into the Kingdom of God lived lives of compassion and mercy.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” . . . “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
As in John 3.16, there is condemnation in Matthew 25 for those who do not offer compassion to others. They will be turned away at the end of the age and sent to eternal punishment.
Most Episcopalians, though certainly not all, gravitate toward the Matthew 25 end of the Christian spectrum. In general, we’re more comfortable focusing on actions rather than on belief. There’s much to be commended about our focus on deeds and our willingness to be held accountable to such high standards of compassion. Yet there can be a hollowness to faith that isn’t grounded in a living relationship with Christ, and a tendency for harsh judgments of those who don’t see faith in Christ as we do. There’s a similar harshness in judgment among some Christians whose focus is on correct belief. Indeed, no one is harder on one type of Christians than other Christians on the opposite side of the John 3.16–Matthew 25 continuum.
This week I’ve been thinking about my own judgment day, what awaits on the other side of this life. This is I know: if my eternal salvation, whatever that means, depends upon either the purity of my belief or the depth of my compassion, I am lost.
Whenever I come across passages of Scripture that divide people into two groups, I see myself in both. A part of me believes in Jesus with all my heart. Another part echoes the cry of a desperate parent who came to Jesus seeking healing for his child: “Help my unbelief!” I can identify times when I have offered food to the hungry, clothes for the naked, and when I cared for the sick and those in prison. But I know all too well I am also that person who has turned away in indifference and fatigue.
Thus I am both a John 3.16 and a Matthew 25 Christian, trusting in Jesus more than I trust in myself. For that reason, I cannot judge others for their faith or lack of it; for their compassion or lack of it. In truth, as a sinner, sometimes I do judge, but then I am reminded of Jesus’ words: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3)
But what I can do is urge you, as I urge myself, to draw closer to Christ. Draw closer to Him in faith, on the edges of your day, in prayer and reflection on Scripture. Draw closer to Him by loving other people, and in particular, those in need of mercy and kindness. Some may be in prison, or hospital, or in a refugee camp. They may be your next door neighbor, or a member of your family.
As Christians we need not feel compelled to choose between belief and mercy, but rather see them as part of the same call–to know Jesus and his love for us, and then to share that love as best we can. Thankfully, we can leave matters of final judgement in God’s hands.