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Strengthening the connections between the Matthew 25 vision, Scripture and theology

Theology and Worship resources are designed to enliven the imagination as Presbyterians find their place in the Matthew 25 mission

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell

LOUISVILLE — New resources from the Office of Theology and Worship will help those engaged in the work of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation make a stronger connection between the three foci of the vision and the biblical passage — particularly in Matthew 25:31–46, which is known as the “Judgment of the Nations” passage.

When he was invited to offer a study guide to help people understand and consider how this passage of Scripture is connected to the Matthew 25 vision and its three foci, the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for Worship in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, approached the question as a preacher and worship planner.

“I thought about how I might both preach and pray about the connection between Jesus’ vision of the sheep and goats and the work of building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty,” he said.

In producing “God with Us in Jesus: A Matthew 25 Bible Study,” Gambrell realized it would be helpful to illustrate several different approaches to reading and interpreting Scripture. So, in the study he uses literal/plain reading, historical/critical reading and spiritual/symbolic reading to help learners gain various insights into the Matthew 25 vision.

“Scripture speaks to us on different levels,” Gambrell said. “Throughout the history of the church, Christians have read Scripture in a variety of ways.”

According to Gambrell, as people use the study, their main takeaway will be that God is with us in Jesus Christ. The whole gospel of Matthew, he said, is an affirmation of our faith, from the first chapter, where Matthew introduces Jesus as Emmanuel, “God with us,” to the last chapter, where Jesus says, “I will be with you always to the end of the age.”

“But we find out that Jesus is with us in a special way through our ministry with people who are hungry and thirsty, strangers or vulnerable, and those who are sick or in prison,” Gambrell said. “So, the Matthew 25 vision invites the church to be with Jesus in this work.”

For Gambrell, it’s easiest to connect Matthew 25 with poverty because Jesus literally talks about feeding people who are hungry. But our work must also address the systems of injustice and inequality that create poverty and perpetuate oppression.

When one uses scholarly and historical tools and digs into the Greek, one finds words likeethne” for the nations — the root of the word “ethnocentrism” — and “xenos” for stranger, where the word “xenophobia” comes from. “This is helpful in connecting Matthew 25 with the church’s work against racism,” Gambrell said.

For congregational vitality, Gambrell connects Matthew 25:31–46 with sacramental images. When early Christians read about eating and drinking with Jesus, perhaps they too thought of the Lord’s Supper. When they read about welcoming and clothing strangers, perhaps it made them think of what we do when we welcome new members of the church in baptism.

the Rev. Dr. Barry Ensign-George

The Rev. Dr. Barry Ensign-George, coordinator for Theology and Worship, worked on an accompanying piece, “Bringing Matthew 25 into Focus,” to go with Gambrell’s Bible study. While Gambrell helps reveal how other parts of Scripture, including Ezekiel, help ground and clarify the Matthew 25 vision, Ensign-George approached the question of how the Matthew 25 passage is connected to the church’s vision theologically.

“How is it that Scripture can guide our life as a denomination? What do we look for? And how do we understand the connections?” he asked. “How is it that the words of Scripture call us to join the mission of God in our world? Our confessions and the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity section of our Book of Order have wrestled with these questions and give us good guidance.”

By addressing these questions, Ensign-George hopes people in the denomination and beyond will grow in their ability to engage in gospel work “to help those with this question (about the connection of the Judgment of the Nations passage to the Matthew 25 invitation’s foci) see how the vision is grounded in Scripture and God’s call to faithfulness today,” he said, “and to see a piece of this work for themselves in God’s mission in the world.”

Ensign-George stressed that there are lots of good materials that have already been produced for the Matthew 25 vision. These new resources from the Office of Theology and Worship build on what is already available.

“As Ray Jones [Theology, Formation & Evangelism director] likes to remind us,” Ensign-George said, “’This —Matthew 25 — is gospel work.’”

 You can also download “A Guide to Engaging in Matthew 25 Resources and Studies” for some ideas on how to best use these new — and other — Matthew 25 resources.

 The English, Spanish and Korean versions of “Bringing Matthew 25 Into Focus”  and “God with Us in Jesus” are available here.


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