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Christ Incognito

November 25, 2014

“Christ Incognito” Matthew 25:31-46 © 11.23.14 Christ the King A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was time for the angels’ regular corporate meeting, and the myriads of the heavenly hosts had gathered in a place called the Quantum Center, AKA “Hermione’s Handbag,” on the shore of the Crystal Sea. The building was bigger on the inside than on the outside, hence its name. Gabriel, who always moderated the meetings, made his way to the podium, on which was a tablet for his notes. Some of the heavenly beings had already glanced at the refreshment table and were complaining about what was being served. Angel food cake. Again.

Gabriel called the meeting to order, opening with prayer, of course, then got down to the business at hand. After a quorum had been declared and the minutes read, he noted the first item on the agenda, to universal groans: long-range planning. “I hate these kinds of meetings,” one angel said to his neighbor. “They always last an eternity.”

“OK, OK, I know everyone believes there’s a better way to spend our time. But I have my orders from the highest authority. We’re supposed to brainstorm ways that the Lamb of God, our Shepherd King, can make himself known now that he’s no longer physically present with humankind. The floor is now open.”

Michael was the first to speak. “I liked it when we smote evildoers, the enemies of God. How long has it been since the Lord got his wrath on? I’m itching to wield my terrible, swift sword. I still remember the look on the faces of the Egyptians when we sent those plagues and when we drowned their army in the sea. Or if we have just gotten so lovey-dovey that we don’t want to do that kind of thing anymore, maybe somebody could find their water turned into wine or their flour lasting several months, even though they use it every day.”

Gabriel dutifully wrote the ideas down on the smart board, though he was saying to himself how old-fashioned Michael’s proposals were. This was brainstorming, after all. Then he pointed to Ariel, who had his hand up. “Yeah, spectacular stuff and some divinely-sanctioned violence are fine, but these days people like a good show. How about if we find some preachers who are really failed actors and put it in their minds to go on the road with a traveling tent revival. I’ll bet that would pack ‘em in, night after night. Some music with a good dance beat. Big screen videos. Animated preachin’. Then would come the big finale, with healings and dramatic conversions. Just like in our Lord’s day. That’s my idea.”

“How about this?” It was Azazel speaking now. “We whisper in the ears of all the heads of governments, corporations, non-profits, and at the same time put it in the hearts of ordinary people, that now is the time to end fighting and terror and hatred and prejudice. Spend money on feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the sick, discovering new ways of solving old problems. Surely when old enemies embrace each other and suffering is done away with, everyone would know Jesus is present. Human beings simply don’t do such things without divine intervention. I think it would work.”

Gabriel finished writing the last suggestion, then turned to see if there were any other spirits who wanted to speak up. From way in the back of the room, an angel came to the microphone. Timidly, Bar-el began: “I’m just a lowly file clerk in the Book of Life room, but if I may, I think that the most effective way to make Jesus known would be if people could meet him every day as they went about their business. Something simple, like when they gave a cup of cold water to a thirsty child, they were actually giving it to Jesus. Only, they wouldn’t know that; it would only be later on they were told, at the Last Judgment. It might be interesting to watch what people do when they don’t know they’re in the presence of God. They might even like the surprise at the end to find out who is was they were serving.”

“I must say, Bar-el, that’s quite an idea. I may have to recommend you for a promotion.” Gabriel addressed the rest of the gathered millions. “What do you say? Shall I recommend this idea to the Master?” “I’m for it,” Michael offered. “And I even have a slogan: ‘…unto the least of these.’”

The rest of the meeting dragged on for centuries, as expected, but nobody noticed, because angels live outside of normal space-time; past, present, and future are one eternal now. Meanwhile, in real time, folk were going about their daily routine, unaware of the angels’ plans to send Jesus to them in the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, and the stranger. In every nation, there were some who lived lives of compassion and kindness, alert to serving those in need, while others kept on being cruel and thoughtless and turned away from the squalor and pain. Imaginative and committed men and women found ways to overcome great odds and conquer ancient hatreds and fears, while others, with no less imagination and commitment, discovered how to exploit those same fears and feuds for their own interests. Ordinary people from all walks of life, every race and tongue, were meeting Jesus daily, but they didn’t know it.

For example, in the fourth century AD, Martin, a young soldier preparing for baptism, met a shivering beggar on the streets of Amiens, France. Moved with pity, Martin cut his cloak in two and gave half to the other man. That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Jesus wearing half a soldier’s cloak. Asked by an angel why he had on such a thing, our Lord said: “My servant Martin gave it to me.” Soon afterward, the soldier was baptized and eventually became a bishop renowned for doing miracles.

Time passed, and Francis, of the Italian town of Assisi, became dissatisfied with his life, despite his many advantages as the son of a rich merchant. One day while out riding, Francis happened on a leper traveling along the road. Something told him to dismount and hug the disfigured man. As he did so, he looked into the leper’s eyes and saw the face of Jesus.

In the early 20th century, in the midst of the terrible carnage and suffering of WWI, there lived a woman named Elsa Brandstrom. To hundreds of German prisoners, though, she was known as the “angel of Siberia.” Born into a wealthy diplomat’s family, she became a nurse after seeing prisoners driven through the streets of her native St. Petersburg on their way to camps in Siberia. She began visiting the men and saw unspeakable horrors. At 24, she began the fight of love against cruelty. Elsa prevailed against great odds to visit the hungry and give them food, see the thirsty and provide drink, and visit the stranger. Then she herself fell ill and was imprisoned. After the Great War, she started work among the orphans of both German and Russian dead and followed those efforts by helping refugees.

Paul Tillich, the great theologian, met her in that later period of her life. “We never had a theological conversation,” he recalled. “It was unnecessary. She made God transparent in every moment.” She was a woman, Tillich said, “whose life was spend abiding in love, though she rarely, if ever, used the name of God, and though she would have been surprised had someone told her she belonged to him who judges all [humanity]….”

Near the end of the same century, as the angels’ meeting turned to matters of renovation of several heavenly mansions, Will Willimon, at the time a Methodist pastor, had a somewhat bizarre experience. He was walking across the yard of his South Carolina church and spied a young, ordinary-looking man he didn’t know coming toward him. He headed off the transient at the church steps and inquired what he could do for him. “Oh, nothing,” the man answered. “That is, nothing more than you’re already doing.”

At this, the minister got put out and asked brusquely what the guy wanted. The traveler responded that he simply intended to give some encouragement and appreciation. Willimon began to wonder if the fellow had a gun or could be psychotic or both. When asked his name, the transient replied “Jesus Christ.” He told the minister he was going to Ohio on business, and left.

In a small Alabama town, the churches reached out for a decade to the mentally ill with a Thanksgiving dinner in a Cumberland Presbyterian fellowship hall. Many of the people had no family or none that wanted them. So the feast put on by the Ministerial Association was the only Thanksgiving they ever had. They began asking their counselors about it in September, looking forward to one special meal. The men and women of all ages filed into the hall, took their plates, served by volunteers, and went to find seats. Most were shabbily dressed, some fidgety and uncertain, many had “that look” that told anyone something was not quite right. The group was unpredictable. One year someone stood up and wanted to sing a song. The next, there was religious testimony and telling jokes. But the folks always left with a handshake, a smile, and a “thank-you.” Christ was there, for surely he dwells in and with such needy, troubled people.

Bar-el’s idea continues to work itself out, as people visit the sick and sorrowing, befriend the lonely and comfort the dying, reach out to the despairing and encourage the fallen, feed the hungry and help those whose only hope is the kindness of strangers. Christ is present as his people and anyone of good will do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. He comes to us, as Schweitzer put it, “as one unknown.”

Christ, incognito. He lives down the street and up the road and half a world away. He looks at us with longing eyes that plead for help and comfort. He reaches out his hand, hoping he will not be pushed away or ignored by people too busy to care. Christ, incognito. He walks among us. He is here in this room, for all of us are in some way imprisoned, lonely, hungry, thirsty, vulnerable, and marginalized, longing for someone to care, to comfort, to caress with the love of Jesus.

It’s all so simple. Nothing dramatic or spectacular. Just a random act of kindness, as they say, a gift given and unremembered. But when people touch each other so, when they treat their sisters and brothers in the human family with such regard and dignity and devotion, the angels smile.

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