If you had to make a bet, you would not have bet on her. Yet, she was the one who journeyed off into African tribal lands to live with the poorest of people and help teach them sustainable living.
The act seemed wildly holy and Jesus-like, but she would have never put it that way.
She sent back pictures of her time in the Peace Corp. and they showed her living in her small, dust floored hut, working beside the people in their small fields, and even dancing with them while they sang and worshiped.
She was the one who actually went out and did it.
Many of us talked about it. Many of us said we would go off and make a difference in the places in the world where there was suffering.
But, it was the one atheist in our graduating college class who actually did it. She was the one who went out and loved some of those people who Matthew would describe as “the least of these.” She was the one who went out and loved as Christ loved. And, here’s the real kicker, she did not even realize what she was doing. Christ’s love was working through her and she did not even know it.
Her story flashes through my memory whenever people corner me at the end of church halls and ask the desperate question, “What does God do to those who do loving things, yet do not believe?”
The question is always desperate, because they are not ever asking as if this were a generalized theological question for their own self-education. Rather, the question always has a name attached.
“My husband Bill was a good man. He loved everyone, yet he never believed. What will happen to Bill?”
“Rachel was the sweetest little girl, but she never had time to know the Lord before the cancer took her away.”
“My brother in arms, Chuck, lost his faith in the war, but he saved a bunch of us. If he ain’t going to heaven, then I don’t want to be there.”
Her story flashes through my mind when these questions fly my way because it is her story that reminds me of Matthew 25. Matthew 25 actually answers these questions and answers them quite clearly. Matthew 25 does let us know what the King of Kings thinks of the nations who have not heard of him or sought to worship in his name.
So, here is what Matthew 25 has to say:
As people from the nations come to the throne (people of the nations are people who do not know God or follow Jesus) the king declares,
"’Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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.'
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
And the king will answer them, ‘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.'’
This story is talking about my Peace Corp. friend and your husband Bill, and little, innocent Rachel, and your friend Chuck and about any number of other loving people.
This story is about those people who were filled with the love of Jesus, but did not know it. It is about loving people who showed that love onto the lonely, vulnerable, and forgotten.
Notice that the people in Jesus’ story are not surprised that they showed love by helping someone. They knew what they were doing, after-all they wanted to do something good! They knew they were caring for others and serving them.
What they did not know…and what they were surprised to discover…is that they were actually serving Jesus.
“When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you,” they asked. They were shocked when they were told that their love was directed at Jesus. They are surprised to find out that they care about all that Jesus cares about. In other words, they were surprised to discover that they had been loving with the love of Jesus and following the ways of Jesus the whole time.
Now, if I were to go up to my devoutly atheist Peace Corp. friend and declare that I know she is going to heaven because the Bible tells me so, I am pretty certain that she will look me straight in the eye and flip me the bird.
But, for Jesus, it is not about getting into heaven or not getting into heaven. For Jesus, it is about love.
Does the love that he showed on the cross, the love that cares for powerless and hopeless, the love that cares for the poor in spirit, the love that seeks justice for the lowly, the love that raises up the sinner to new life; does that love show up in real ways in the real world?
Jesus loved the whole world and died for it, and is therefore overjoyed when that love reaches the farthest points. Jesus will use whoever Jesus needs to use to spread that love. And, Jesus is overjoyed when that impulse to love is not stifled. There were those who did not help “the least of these” who must have stifled the love given to them.
My Peace Corp. friend did not stifle that love. Instead, she lived in it. She basked in its glow. She was the love of Jesus. She was no stranger to that love.
Now, being an atheist, she will certainly be surprised when she discovers that there is a King of Kings and a Lord of Lords. But, one thing she will not be shocked by is that the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords is not like the corrupt and powerful leaders and institutions of the world.
She will be happy to see that the King of Kings shows up in places like humble mangers and in vast fields filled with the poor, sick, and hungry. She will be happy that Jesus gives attention to those who she gives attention. She will be happy that the King of Kings loves the people she loves. I think she will be happily surprised to find out that the love of Jesus has been with her the whole time.
I think she, and all those who love others but do not know the Lord, will be happy to hear Jesus’ words of love that sound something like, “welcome to eternal life.”