23 November 2008
Christ the King
10.30 Parish Communion – Appledore
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7, Ephesians 1:15-end, Matthew 25:31 – end
What image comes to mind when you think about Jesus?
Baby Jesus in his manger at Christmas?
A 30 something Jesus perhaps being baptised by John and starting his ministry?
The Last Supper?
Jesus on the cross?
Today we are thinking about a particular image and that is Jesus Christ as King – and not only as king of the earth but also as the judge of us all.
Because of course the story of Jesus’ relationship with humanity did not end with his death, resurrection and ascension nor does it end with his sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to empower and guide his church. Rather we believe that at the end of the current age Jesus Christ will return to earth and that we will each be judged according to the way in which we have lived our lives and spent our God-given time here.
Now I accept entirely that this is an image of Jesus and an aspect of Christianity that does not feature too highly in our church or our society at present. After all we live in an increasingly post-modern era in which all values are relative, no values are absolute and therefore no one can be judged one way or the other. It is simply not politically correct to talk about judgement and therefore the image of Christ returning as King and Judge can be sidelined either as medievalism or as belonging only at the crankier ends of the church.
But in my view to sideline Christ as the returning King and Judge does our faith a grave injury for at least 3 reasons:
Firstly it ignores the fact that this image is not merely the product of a few random verses of the bible that have been leapt upon by the hellfire and brimstone brigade – rather it is a central tenet of our faith that we proclaim each week in the Nicene Creed:
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”
Secondly it takes away the end of the Christian story – admittedly the end of the story does not always make comfortable reading, and I will come back to that in a moment, but to ignore the end because it makes us uncomfortable is surely the ultimate wimping out not to mention a betrayal of our baptismal calling to be transformed by our communion with Christ; and
Thirdly, but in many ways most importantly, to sideline and to ignore the whole concept of judgement is to let ourselves off the hook – if we are individuals or even as a church buy into the concept of Jesus as no more than a spiritual indulgent uncle who will simply usher us into the presence of God regardless of how we have lived then what possible incentive do we have to change?
In my view to ignore the whole idea of judgement because it seems old fashioned or not PC or because it makes us a bit uncomfortable is actually to ignore most of the point of Christianity.
So on what basis does the returning Christ the King judge the nations – how does he separate the sheep from the goats – those who belong to his flock and have heard his voice and those who have not?
In today’s gospel reading the people of the nations are judged and sorted using one simple criteria – the extent to which they have loved and cared for the poor and disadvantaged in society. Have they fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, taken care of the sick, visited those in prison? Christ is clear – those who have done those things for the least in society have done them directly for him and they will be rewarded with eternal life. Whereas those who have ignored the needs of the outcast have effectively ignored Christ and he will therefore effectively ignore them for eternity.
What is especially interesting about this basis for judgement is what is not included – the debates about sexual orientation with which the church sometimes ties itself up in knots about would make you think that it is a primary issue directly related to salvation and yet it receives no mention here at all. I’m sure there are plenty of other things you can think of that are not mentioned here. What matters is the extent to which we love others and how we demonstrate that love in practical action.
As I am sure you all know Jesus summarised all the law and the prophets with the Golden Commandment to Love God with all our being and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. When Jesus was asked who was our neighbour he told the parable of the Good Samaritan who, of course, gave practical help to a stranger in need.
The more theologically minded amongst you may now be thinking that this all sounds a bit like salvation by works rather than by faith. Surely, you may say, if we have faith in Christ then we don’t need to do any good works such as looking after the poor and needy in order to be saved. The answer is that faith in Christ is in many ways a prerequisite for being part of this story but if that faith does not lead to the fruits of love for others then to what extent was faith ever more than skin deep? As St James, the brother of Jesus, said in the second chapter of his letter: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” and as St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “…if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
So our love of God, our faith if you will, is one half of the equation and it is our desire to worship and encounter God that brings us here on a Sunday. But our love of others, especially the poor and needy and those most unlike ourselves, is the other half of the same equation and it is that love which should empower and motivate us when we are not here.
I have a short story of transformation that I think illustrates the point really well.
The Church that I attended before being ordained was called St Peter-ad-Vincula in Coggeshall, Essex. St Peter’s is very much of the Anglo-Catholic tradition and Vivienne and I went there not because we were Anglo-Catholics by conviction but because we felt that commuting to church in another town was not sustainable or healthy and because we wanted our children to be brought up within our local church community. Now whilst we enjoyed attending St Peters it was also painfully apparent in the early days that it is possible for churches to become so tied up in getting the rituals just so that they seem to lose sight of love and grace – in other words the worship there was often beautifully conducted but it sometimes seemed to lack a certain spiritual core – part of the equation seemed to be missing.
And then the priest received an invitation from a church in nearby Colchester to ask whether we would be interested in helping out one evening a month with the Colchester Soup Run. As you can probably guess this involved making soup and sandwiches and taking them to nearby Colchester and distributing them to those who needed feeding. The priest put this idea to the congregation expecting little if any response but so many hands went up volunteering to help that we ended up with a rota of 4 or 5 teams of 8 people each divided between those who made the food and those who gave it out.
I went onto one of the distribution teams and I soon got my chance to hand out food to the homeless. I don’t mind saying that I approached the evening with some caution as we were going to a part of Colchester that one wouldn’t usually go at night and we were going there to meet with the sort of people that one would usually give a wide berth by day or night – the unwashed, the shambolic, the alcoholic, the shouters, the loners and the losers of our society.
And yet as I handed out the food and the hot drinks I bore in mind today’s gospel reading and I found myself consciously serving Christ as I served the most needy and, as I later wrote in my diary, I felt a major part of what it really meant to be a Christian slot into place that night and start to grow – recognising both the humanity and the Christ-like-ness of the people being served was the most potent means possible of experiencing God’s kingdom at work and, for me, it completed the equation of love.
And I’m pleased to say that I was not alone in that transformation – many of the people who took part in the soup run felt the same and it continues to be a substantial part of the practical ministry of St Peter’s – but more than that I believe that by taking part in that collective practical ministry they filled in the centre of the church’s spiritual life – they still have their beautiful rituals that they like to get just right but they are also not afraid to roll up their collective sleeves and treat the homeless drug addicts like Christ, and that seems to me like a well rounded understanding of our Christian calling.
So, if I may be so bold as to suggest, we as individuals and as a church and as a cluster should pray for and look for every opportunity to serve the needy and the poor amongst us and around us and to greet each such occasion as an chance to serve Jesus Christ himself. By doing so I have no doubt that not only shall we renew our individual and collective calling and vocations but that if we allow the spirit of Christ within us to serve the spirit of Christ within others we shall all be united with Christ and so enter into eternal life.