Where were you? A sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 23 November 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 23 November 2014: Year A, Christ the King

SERMON
Texts: James 2.14-16 and 26
Matthew 25.31-46

Where were you?

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sheep and goats are animals biologically related to each other, and both were common in Palestine in the time of Christ. Today we are more used to seeing sheep on our Scottish hills; for us, goats are relatively exotic. But goats are hardy beasts, well suited to the arid Middle Eastern climate and landscape, where they have been herded since prehistoric times for their meat and milk ( see Harper’s Bible Dictionary (1985), p350). During the day, sheep and goats can graze together, but come nightfall they must be separated, for whilst the sheep like the fresh air, the goats have to be kept together to keep them warm (Schweizer The Good News According to Matthew, p476; Fenton, Saint Matthew, p4012).

Perhaps one evening, as the sun set over the hills around the Sea of Galilee, a shepherd separated his sheep and goats, and as he did so, he was being watched by a lad from the nearby town of Galilee. Children are often fascinated by what is familiar to adults. This lad is no shepherd he’s learning another trade, that of carpenter. But now his day’s work in the workshop of Joseph is over, and he has time to watch the shepherd at work. It is a scene from his childhood he will remember, and a memory to which he will return in his adult life, for he will not always be a carpenter. He will grow up to be, among other things, a storyteller, who will take the ordinary things around him and use them to remind his people of their God and what their faith requires of them.

In the Gospel of Matthew, in chapters 24 and 25, we have a series of stories, images, parables, analogies, warnings, predictions- words of Jesus which speak of the end of all things. For Jesus confidently expected that one day God would, if you like, roll up history; that time would be brought to an end, God would appear, and the Kingdom of Heaven would come to earth. And so Jesus speaks of these things in various ways, and speaks of them to both to those who admire him, and to those who reject him. There has been, over the centuries, a huge amount of further speculation in the Christian world over the all this stuff. Theologians have argued about it, preachers have used it to literally put the fear of hell into people, artists have painted with relish their sometimes fervid imaginings of how it might all be. But today we simply have this passage, in which Matthew records Jesus doing as he so often did, taking a familiar scene and using it to illustrate his teaching. One day, he says, humankind are to be separated just as sheep and goats are separated by a shepherd. To one side- on the right side- go those for who are counted as ‘righteous’; on the other side, those who are to be cursed by God.

I can understand how it is that people look for a ‘last judgement’, look to God to be a judge of the world. We all know that there are good people who suffer, and who never receive judgement in this world. And we all know of the bad people who escape the judgement of the world. The Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, was probably responsible for the deaths of some 300,000 people during his brutal seven-year rule. He was forced into exile in 1979, when he was given sanctuary by the Saudi Arabian government, whose ‘motive was to silence him because of the harm they believed he was doing to Islam’. An obituarist wrote:

In the subsequent 24 years, he gave no interviews and stayed close to home. His life appears to have been a dull round of sports events, gym sessions and massage parlours. He had a Range Rover, a Chevrolet Caprice and a powder-blue Cadillac for his aimless shopping trips, and visits to the airport to clear through customs the parcels of cassava and other food items sent by relatives in Uganda. Amin brought bloody tragedy and economic ruin to his country, during a selfish life that had no redeeming qualities.

Patrick Keatley in ‘The Guardian’, 18 August 2003

It would be nice to think that God, in the end, could bring some kind of justice to Amin, justice which his police state denied to his thousands of victims. Our world cries out for justice, but sometimes it is hard to see it happen. When God reigns, might we not expect that that justice will at last come?

But trying to define just exactly what God’s justice would be like is very difficult for us to comprehend. And we make things worse when we try to make God’s judgements for him. When we, in the Church, say that some people are in and out, that some are condemned by God does that not strike you as profoundly un-Christlike? Christ, after all, asked us not to judge others, for then we bring judgement on ourselves: ‘judge that you be not judged’ he commanded us (Luke 6.37). The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reminds us of the dangers of judging others:

The world has often seen examples of the presumptuous religious individual who is perfectly secure in his own God-relationship, flippantly assured of his own salvation, but self-importantly engaged in doubting the salvation of others and in offering to help them. However, I believe it would be a fitting expression for a genuinely religious attitude if the individual were to say: ‘I do not doubt the salvation of any human being; the only one I have fears about is myself… A genuine religious personality is always mild in his judgement of others.

Kierkegaard, quoted in Baillie, A Diary of Readings, Day 105

This parable, and others passages like it, has been twisted by the parts of the Church. We have imagined that it speaks of the separateness of Christians, and the condemnation of all who don’t agree with us. Eventually, indeed, the theologians decreed: ‘Outside of the Church there is no salvation’ And so the Church was able to justify crusades against other religions, the burning of heretics, and treating non-Christians such as Jews as second class citizens. But this completely misses the main point of this parable.

We need to pay attention in this story to the grounds on which the judgement is made. The King or judge in the story we can understand to be Christ himself. The King first pronounces his verdict on those on his right hand: ‘Then the King will say to the people on his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me”’.

The righteous are surprised at the verdict: ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’. And the answer comes, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me!’.

It’s interesting that they are so surprised. It seems that it never occurred to them that they might be doing this for Christ. All too often people ‘do good’ for the sake of doing good. We think we might be popular if we are seen to support to the right causes. We hope we will get into heaven if we help the poor. We feed the hungry and hope that it might show the Church in a good light. But these people whom Christ says helped him as they helped the poor had no ulterior motive. If we love our neighbour, we are to love him not because we hope for reward, not because it is good for our soul, not because we think it is our Christian duty. We love him because he is a human being. With this parable Jesus is telling his followers that they must be humanitarians. We are to help and to stand in solidarity with those who need our compassion. And it doesn’t matter who they are.

When those on the left hand have the verdict read out, they too are shocked: ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and would not help you?’ They are really saying ‘All we saw was a stranger, a homeless person, a prisoner, someone dying of hunger- how could we have seen you there? If we’d known it was you we’d have helped.’ But now it is too late!

This story of judgement cannot be used as a justification for causing more suffering and misery in the world. It cannot be used by us to split the world into the saved and the unsaved, and to make second class citizens of those who are not like us. Quite the opposite it is a call for Christians to even more dedicated to serving their fellow men and women, a call to stand in solidarity with those of our neighbours who are in need. The twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth called this parable ‘the Magna Carta [the great charter] of Christian humanitarianism and Christian politics’ (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, p508).

For this is a parable addressed to us, who sometimes think that we are definitely on the side of the sheep, but who might, in fact, be find ourselves standing with the goats, if we do not put our faith into practice. The parable is a challenge to us to be more fully human, for the sake of God, and for the humanity God loves.

We should have confidence that, if there is to be a judgement to come, we will be among those whom Christ has saved. And yet- if we claim to be Christians, but our faith does not make us want to serve others, then our faith is fatally defective. With searing irony, the author of the Letter of James asks his fellow Christians,

My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”- if you don’t give them the necessities of life?

We will soon be uncovered as hypocrites if we claim to be Christians, but do not act accordingly. And so James concludes, pithily: ‘faith without actions is dead’.

Too often, Christianity stands condemned by our actions. I have been mortified this week at reports that the Church of England has now decided that they can appoint women to the highest posts in that church, to allow them to become bishops. Not because I think they shouldn’t make women bishops; but because they have done it already the Church of England. Women succeed in leadership in all other aspects of life- we now have a female First Minister in Scotland, and half the Scottish cabinet are women. So what does it say about Christianity that parts of the church are so slow about this? Even within our own Church of Scotland, there are those who would deny women a full role in the life and leadership of the church- which is embarrassing.

However, a former Moderator of our church, the Very Rev Lorna Hood, is encouraging church members to take part in a world-wide campaign about violence against women during the next few weeks. Mrs Hood has a video on the Church of Scotland website about the global 16 Days of the Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign. She is encouraging church members to ‘Speak Out!’ in protest at violence against women, beginning on 25 November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The kidnap of the schoolgirls in Nigeria in April by the Boko Haram terrorist group was a stark reminder to us just how awful life can be for women in many places across our world. And all the news we’ve had recently about the way powerful personalities used their position to sexually attack women reminds us that violence against women takes place everywhere- and is often not treated seriously. Religious news last week was dominated by Christians struggling to believe that women are, in fact, in every way equal. Maybe in the next few weeks we can put across another, more positive message which actually does something to highlight something which affects to many women across the world.

At a conference on city centre ministry, I once heard a Methodist minister speak of a a group of nuns who used his church premises to minister to prostitutes, drug addicts and homeless people in the King’s Cross area of London. He said he once asked one of the nuns why the did this, going out night after night into the dark and dangerous streets. The reply was, ‘Because each time I go out, I meet Christ’.

If there is to be a Last Judgement, we want to hear Christ saying to us, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me’. Then we will know that our faith was really genuine.

Francis of Assisi was a rich young man, the son of a wealthy family, someone who enjoyed the good things of life- and yet for some reason he was unhappy, as if something was missing from his life. The story is that the great change in his life came one day when he was out riding, and he met a leper. Lepers, of course, were shunned in mediaeval times, as in Biblical times. Their suffering was awful; their disfiguring disease was repulsive to most people. But something made Francis dismount, and he embraced that poor man; and it is said that when he did so, the leper’s face turned to the face of Christ.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. . BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo