Todays readings for Christ the King - The Reign of Christ, also the Last Sunday After Pentecost Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Psalm 100 Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 25:31-46
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
Today is a great day for baptising a baby. It is the last Sunday of the church year the festival of Christ the King and it is a great day because the readings today tell us just what it means to profess the Christian faith. In a few minutes we will be bringing Charlie into the family so what does it mean to be a Christian?
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,” Jesus says, talking about himself in the third person, “then he will sit on the throne of his glory”. OK, so we have a wonderful image. Jesus surrounded by angels, who are very difficult to describe, but fiery, and shining and metallic, judging from the passages where they are described. So far this sounds wonderful- just what you would expect of a King. And then the Son of Man is going to judge- well, that also fits into this royal picture. For most of the world’s history the ruler has also been the judge, whether a benign despot or not- in fact in many repressive regimes that is still the case. But then the scene goes very wrong because here is the moment that parable enters the picture. What Jesus is judging is the sheep from the goats.
It is extremely interesting that in the earlier picture of judgement that we had from Ezekiel, it is the Lord God, who is doing the judging- so Jesus is claiming that when he, or the Son of Man, sits on the throne, he will be the Lord God. And do you notice what, in this earlier parable, who or what is being judged? Well, sheep, and sheep!
Now I want you to leave behind your image of merino sheep and saanen goats. These are easily distinguished. The sheep and goats that Jesus is intending to separate are almost impossible to distinguish from one another. In fact, genetically they are quite different and yet the external appearance is very similar. The way you can always tell is to look at the their tails- sheep tails go down and goat tails go up! The other things to remember is that in the Hebrew language there is a word for big cattle, that is cows and oxen, and a word for small cattle that is sheep and goats. The whole point of Jesus’ parable is that they are very hard to distinguish.
In the Ezekiel passage they are all the same, ‘sheep’, the point of difference is that some are fat and some are lean. These fat sheep at fat at the expense of the lean sheep. They “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [their] horns until [they] scattered them far and wide”. To scatter a herd animal is to destroy it, these sheep have been treated with contempt and they have been ravaged. This is about justice, or rather injustice, but God will be the King that restores justice and cares for them in the person of King David. David has been dead a long time when this prophetic statement is made, so it is the new David that the prophet refers to.
This is the role that Jesus is claiming here at the end of Matthew’s gospel. And it is a reign all about justice and righteousness. If Jesus is separating, or judging between people that are very difficult to distinguish from one another, what are his criteria? By what means is he going to judge? Does Jesus line them up and say- have you believed all the things that you have been told about me? NO
Does Jesus line them up and say- do you acknowledge me as Lord and believe that everyone who doesn’t do that will go to hell? NO, Does he say- have you been a good person who has never interfered with other people and kept yourself to yourself? NO
This judgement, expressed in a much more positive voice than the earlier one in Ezekiel, is about what you have done for Jesus. But the thing that is surprising to those being judged is that they might not have known what Jesus looked like. Those being judged have no idea, themselves, whether they are sheep or goats.
“Come, you that 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 gave you clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me,” Jesus says to those at his right hand. But they protest that they have never done these things for Jesus. Yes, they might have done them for someone in need, indeed they certainly have, but not Jesus and Jesus explains that they didn’t recognize him in the little ones but that he was there. And the converse is true. The ones on his left hand have no idea that they might have rejected Jesus- if they had seen Jesus, blond and blue eyed, dressed in a suit and a tie, driving respectable car, and in need they would have gladly helped him. But no, Jesus says, I was in the refugee, black and muslim, or bearded and wild. I was sleeping rough on the streets of Melbourne. I was living aged and alone in your suburbs, I was sleeping in my car with my three children, I was being chased from Myanmar, I was starving in Yemen, I was being hounded like a stray dog in the streets of Brazil. These are the most terrifying words that Jesus uttered, I think, because it is so easy to miss Jesus.
In light of the current situation on Manus, let me read it to you again in a paraphrase written by the brilliant theologian + Stephen Pickard: 31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations including Australia will be gathered before him, and the Lord will separate people and governments, one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was an asylum seeker and you gave me safe haven in your own home; I didn’t have a visa or passport but you treated me a child of God; I was a stranger who couldn’t speak the language and you welcomed me with the language of love, 36I was frightened and with barely the clothes on my back and you clothed me with kindness and care, I had lost loved ones in conflicts and persecutions and you comforted me, I was in detention and despairing of life itself and you never gave up until I was freed.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you an asylum seeker and welcomed you, or without visa or passport and treated you as a child of God, a stranger of different race and language, sick, afraid and befriended you, in detention and we became an advocate for your plight? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these asylum seekers and refugees, you did it to me.’
The secret is to be committed to justice, because when you are putting the needs of the little ones, those without power and influence, those with nobody else to depend on, when you are putting their needs at the forefront of your attention, then you won’t miss seeing Jesus. The secret is to love your neighbour as yourself, no matter how impoverished the neighbour is.
So which are you? Are you a sheep or a goat? Are you a fat sheep or a thin sheep? Which side of the divide do you inhabit?
The greatest difficulty is that for most of us we are in both camps. Sometimes we are caring for others and sometimes we are prioritising ourselves, and the minute we begin to prioritise ourselves, our own needs above the needs of those who are the little ones we step into the other camp.
Now, please don’t hear me saying that we need to care for ourselves, I am not saying that at all, but caring for ourselves in order that we might be able to care for others is different to thinking in a mindset that puts our own desires at the top of the list.
Many of us here know in our heart of hearts that we give what is left over of our lives to God, after everything else. And that is OK if you don’t mind sitting with those on the left, but if you want to be on God’s right hand you need a different attitude of heart.
And most of us do want to be in the right hand group, but things prevent us. Three things spring immediately to mind, though the list could go on. The first is fear. Do you remember that last week the man buried his treasure because of fear? And it is fear that stops us using our gifts to be the people that Christ is calling us to be. Fear is a great motivator- we only need to look at the suggestion that refugees are terrorists to see that. We can be afraid of losing face, or damaging relationships and of all kinds of other things that might prevent us from caring for the little ones. And the second thing is linked to this, we can have a mentality of scarcity that says, if I give this away I won’t have enough for myself. This is also motivated partly by fear, but also partly by a seldom mentioned vice, greed. This fear is also played on in our society- they are dole bludgers taking from us, or like the Schroeddinger’s refugees simultaneously taking our jobs and too lazy to work. Another sin that motivates us is sloth- we don’t do things because we are too lazy, or too tired doing all the less important things and we are told all the time that we deserve things so therefore our desires become in our view needs.
On the other hand the emotions that motivate us to care for others are first and foremost, compassion. We need to love with God’s love, and to respect others, to give dignity where it is lacking. And remembering that this is a continuation of last week’s passage, we need to give of ourselves and our wealth with abundance, with generosity.
Now, the self care that I spoke of earlier is important- it is very easy to get completely burnt out by your recognition of the needs of others and your desire to give abundantly. You have to be in this for the long haul. I have seen a number of friends who have been far more active in the current crisis with the men on Manus than I have who are burning out. And when this particular problem is resolved another will take its place. We always have the poor with us, as Jesus reminds us.
The thing that strikes me is that what we are called to here is to imitate Jesus and at this festival when we think about Christus Rex, the reign of Christ over our world, our church and ourselves it is abundantly clear that we are called to be his hands and feet here on earth. Jesus turns this around so that being about Jesus is being about others. If we want to worship God, the way to do that is to love. In order to take our place in the family of God we must love.