23 November 2014
Christ the King – Year A
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 that can be brought about by serving the needs of others
The Church that Vivienne and I attended before I was ordained was called St Peter-ad-Vincula in Coggeshall in Essex. St Peter’s was and is a beautiful, well maintained, Church that had a wonderful music life and nothing could move during a Sunday service without having a bell rung or having some incense wafted at it. From the purely aesthetic perspective the worship life of St Peter’s was a joy to behold.
However, 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. In many ways Colchester is similar to Tonbridge – it is a commuter town with a castle and an historic centre but you don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to find lots of social problems.
Anyway, the priest put the idea of helping out with the soup run 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 specifically 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..”
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 worship 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.
For the past few weeks we have been travelling together through the Kingdom season and we have been listening to and thinking about Matthew’s parables concerning watchfulness, patience and using our God-given gifts to best effect so that we shall not only be ready to greet the master when he returns but so that we shall be ready to give a good account of the time and talents that have been entrusted to us.
And today we reach the end of that particular journey as we come to the feast of Christ the King and we see Jesus not as a baby in a manger, nor as a preacher nor even as a resurrected man but as a King sitting on a throne in heavenly glory. But not only as king of a renewed creation but also as the judge of us all.
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 a post-modern world in which all values are relative, no values are absolute and therefore no one can be judged one way or the other. On Facebook just a few weeks ago there was a story about a man of 45 who had just become a great-grandfather. You heard that right – a great-grandfather – his grandchild had themselves just become a parent at the age of 12. I made some quite innocuous comment about this and one of my vicar friends chimed in and said that I was being too judgemental.
In a post-modern democracy which has only a constitutional monarch it is simply not politically correct to talk about judgement being handed down by an absolute monarch 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 and shall do so again shortly in a moment.
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 which, in my view, is to restore in us the image of God, which has become tarnished by sin, by making us more Christ-like.
Gosh, I have mentioned the words sin and judgement in the same sermon. If I disappear during the week you will know that I have been taken to a CofE political re-education camp – please send bread and wine!
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 are all the things that are not included, but to which we often ascribe such importance – 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. There is no mention here of denomination or even religion, no mention of worship style or belief about particular issues.
The sole basis for Jesus’ judgement here is the extent to which we love others and how we demonstrate that love in practical action – that is the salvation issue – 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.
I know that as individuals and as a church there is lots of good charitable work going on here and I am always happy when I see the Bridge Trust box fill up each week. But, remembering that this is the primary salvation issue and the basis on which we shall all be judged, may be so bold as to suggest, that 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.