20 November 2011
Christ the King – Year A
10.30 Parish Communion – Woodchurch
Reading: Matthew 25:31-end
May I speak in the Name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Let me tell you a short story about transformation – specifically the transformation can be brought about by serving the needs of others
The Church that Vivienne and I attended before we moved to Woodchurch was called St Peter-ad-Vincula in Coggeshall in 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 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 first 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, no, I am not talking about the Deanery Synod…
And yet as I handed out the food and the hot drinks I consciously bore in mind this verse from today’s gospel reading:
“..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.”
And as I looked these desperate men and women in the eye I found myself consciously serving Christ as I served the most needy. 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.
Let me ask you a question – What image first 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?
Well, of course, Jesus resides in all those images and we think about what each means for us and the church at different times but today we are thinking about a particular image and that is Jesus Christ as King – and not only as king of a renewed creation 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 ignore the whole concept of judgement is to let ourselves off the hook – if we 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 from what we are to what we are called to be?
In my view to ignore the whole idea of judgement because it seems old fashioned 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 us – 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 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 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 – that is the salvation issue here – not what we believe in our heads or profess with our mouths but what we do with our hands for those most 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.”
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 to serve Christ in those around us when we are not here.
So, if I may be so bold as to suggest, we as individuals and as a church 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 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.