I was jaded and cynical about academics by the time I finished high school. So the year after graduation I found myself in Albuquerque, New Mexico with Service Adventure, a Mennonite Mission Network program, living with a few other young adults all trying to live out our faith in tangible, hands-on ways.
My day began with a bike ride every morning at 7:00am to St. Martin’s Hospitality Center – a large downtown nonprofit providing services for unhoused people in the city.
I would say hi to Lindsay, security guard and he’d let me in the gate past the dozens people waiting outside for breakfast. I’d walk through the courtyard, lock up my bike, and walk into the shelter door, directly beneath a large mural painted on the building’s stucco in vibrant southwestern pastel turquoise.
The mural depicted our Matthew 25 scripture text. The answer to the question, “Lord, when did we see you?” was painted in blocky bold figures for all to see who walked under this mural: The Lord is seen in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.
This idea – of God’s presence dwelling intimately with those in need has animated Christian ethics and theology: we see who Jesus is bringing salvation and liberation to the world, by drawing close to those who are suffering and looking first for Christ’s saving work there.
- Catholics call this the works for mercy.
- This is the ethos that animates Mennonite Central Committee’s decision to stamp “in the name of Christ” on the label of every can of turkey shipped out to hungry folks and every bale of hand-sewn comforters to those who lack shelter.
- Habitat for Humanity builds homes because they recognize the divinity of those who need shelter.
- Taking Matthew 25 seriously has sparked the creation of prison ministries and abolition work and hospitals and sanctuary movements and refugee resettlement efforts.
The revelation that in the face of anyone who is suffering or oppressed we might meet Christ has moved countless people over the centuries to a life of service. I pray and I hope that you have encountered this call of Christ to come and follow him. And to follow Christ is to come alongside the struggling and the suffering.
The Albuquerque shelter where I worked made this clear – Christ’s words from Matthew 25 hung over all of us there, reminding us that He was present in the “least of these.”
Eight o’clock would strike, the metal gates outside would open and people who had spent the night out on the streets, braving the cold high desert air, would enter for coffee and breakfast and a hot shower. They all passed beneath the same mural, under the same words, “Come – inherit the kingdom, you have my father’s blessing.”
I often wondered what it felt like for those folks to walk under that mural depicting Jesus in the varied disguises of those in need.
Did this image objectify those who entered? Did it make them an icon through which others got to live out their service?
Was the image inviting to those who genuinely needed clothing and food and shelter? Or was it an ongoing reminder that they were the object of another’s pity?
Jesus, our messiah, isn’t an image on the wall to look at or a person to talk about. Jesus is God in the flesh – we have known him as the Human One, the Son of Man who came and lived among us and loves us still..
Jesus isn’t simply an inspiring figure, a mural that reminds us how to live ethical lives. Rather, Jesus walks with us, drawing us like a shepherd deeper into the good pasture that is the justice and peace and love of his kingdom.
My wrestling with the image of the mural of Matthew 25 plastered on the side of that homeless shelter is the same wrestling that I have with the mystery of Christ’s incarnation:
Yes, we are called to live as if Christ dwells in each person we meet, because indeed He does. And we must also give thanks for how God in Christ has welcomed and healed and fed and clothed and visited us.
Each of us, no matter if our house is sturdy, and our pantry, fridge and freezer stocked full, our closets bursting, and our health seemingly strong – each of us still has known what it is to be lonely or unsure, longing for God’s hospitality and peace, profoundly in need of God’s grace.
We are both called to extend God’s love and we must never forget that God’s love is always seeking us out in our moments of need.
And this is the paradox of this story.
Christ is depicted in a very powerful position in this vision. He sits as king on a throne of glory, with all the peoples of the world gathered around him. He has the power and authority to judge, to separate, to speak to all before him.
And yet for all this power – Jesus proclaims this vision not from heaven, but sitting on the Mount of Olives. This is his final teaching in the gospel of Matthew, and disciples listen in as they look out over Jerusalem below, the city in which he will soon be imprisoned and killed.
We can proclaim that Christ is indeed King, indeed the One who judges and reigns over the world and our lives because Jesus has also known what it is to be hungry and thirsty and naked and imprisoned, a threat to Empire and a stranger in his own land.
The mystery of the Incarnation is that Jesus is both the Good Shepherd who calls all to him and he is also the Lamb who was slain.
Jesus’ stomach has ached with pangs of hunger in the desert and he has fed the hungry crowds. Jesus knows what it is to be thirsty and yet he says that those who drink of the water he gives will thirst no more. Jesus was driven out of his hometown, yet offers rest to all who are weary. Jesus was mocked and stripped of his clothes, yet healed those who tugged at the hem of his robe. Jesus knows the brutal injustice of empire and the depth of death’s dungeon and yet death cannot hold him and his Spirit breaks open prison doors.
Today we celebrate Christ who is King and Christ who is the Common One among us. Christ looks out on us through the eyes of each person in need who crosses our path.
And this evening as we see one another’s faces across the table from us at the potluck or offering us the cup of salvation or the bread of life – we also see Christ’s face.
We come to this community of faith that is Christ’s body, because we are people in need of sustenance and food for this journey of life, we come to be fed. And we come to his table because we are called to offer the gifts of our lives for the service of others.
We are blessed to both give and to receive the love of God. For there are so many signs of Christ’s love, reminders to us of God’s kingdom breaking into our world. It might be a pastel mural painted on a stucco building, a visual reminder that Christ’s kingdom is present anytime the hungry find food and the thirsty something to drink.
That reminder of Christ’s love might be right in front of you tonight – a crusty loaf of bread, a cup full of juice, the hands offering them to you.
It might be in the next face you meet.
“Lord, when have we seen you?” we ask… and in our asking, and looking, and serving God, let us also give thanks that God in Christ has also seen us, and looks out on us and all the peoples of the world as the King and Lord of All and as the most Human One.