When you enter the chapel of the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville, Spain you are met by a greeter. It is not a fellow parishioner with a gentle smile on her face, handing you a service folder. No, instead you are met by a painting where a figure is coming toward you. The painting is by Juan de Valdés Leal (In Ictu Oculi – In the Blink of an Eye) and the figure is death. Death is depicted as a skeleton coming toward you. Under his arm, he carries your coffin. With a skeletal hand, he snuffs out the light of life. With a skeletal foot, he steps on the world. Death confronts you with his claim to rule over you and all things.
If you go further into the chapel, however, you will experience a vision of life. There, deeper in the chapel, is another group of paintings. Using Old Testament and New Testament stories, the artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo created a series of paintings about acts of mercy. The paintings reveal people clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, caring for the sick, and offering hospitality to strangers. In the chapel, these paintings surround you with works of love.
So, when you enter the chapel of this hospital, you go from death to life, from the frightening thought that death rules over you to the comforting experience of Christ’s rule, revealing a kingdom where love is expressed in acts of mercy that endure.
For me, this hospital chapel captures the message of our text from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is speaking to His disciples at the end of His ministry. We have come to the end of the Church Year and are reading the end of His teaching at the end of His ministry. All that is left now is His Passover and death. Yet, in this context where death looms large, Jesus reveals a kingdom where life looms even larger.
Jesus reveals that, at the end of all things, He will return in glory. He will be surrounded by angels and sitting on a throne. All nations will be gathered before Him and He will judge the living and the dead. What amazes me about this vision, however, is the way in which Jesus reveals that even the smallest acts of mercy are part of His Kingdom that never ends.
Jesus reveals that even the smallest acts of mercy are part of His Kingdom that never ends.
As Jesus reveals His final judgment, those who are blessed are amazed. They are amazed by God’s unexpected presence in moments of grace. Jesus opens their eyes to see times when they were near His presence in a suffering world. Visiting someone in the hospital. Offering shelter to the homeless. Dropping a winter coat into a clothing drive. Putting a jar of peanut butter into a food bank. Such thing are acts of mercy for Christ. He is here in this suffering world with you and, on the Last Day, He will remember your work of love.
In our country, it is difficult to see the presence of God. There is so much crime and so much suffering and so little acceptance of Christianity. We see the problems of homelessness and the pain of sickness, but not the power of faith. Our minds are overwhelmed by the overcrowding in prisons and the undernourishment in homes. All this suffering makes it seem like the Kingdom of God is far away. Yet, Jesus promises us that He is here.
All this suffering makes it seem like the Kingdom of God is far away. Yet, Jesus promises us that He is here.
When Christ died on the Cross, He entered suffering to conquer it and rule over it for you. When God raised Him from the dead, He seated Jesus at His right hand to rule over all things. Today, we remember there will come a day when Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. On that day, He will take away all suffering and bring about a new creation.
Until that time, however, He has not deserted our world. Rather, as the poet Paul Claudel once said, Jesus enters into suffering so He might fill it with His presence.
On this, the last day of the Church Year, we come to remember and proclaim that Jesus, our Savior, will return to restore all things. While we await His return, we are not disheartened by the darkness and death of our world. Like those who enter that hospital chapel, we faithfully walk past the vision of death to partake in a vision of life. We care for the poor, visit the sick, and soothe the suffering, trusting that these small acts of service have eternal significance in the Kingdom of our Lord.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 25:31-46.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 25:31-46.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 25:31-46.