26th November 2107
Matthew Chapter 25 verses 31 – end
Christ the King
This Sunday is a special one- ”Christ the King” and the last Sunday of the Church year. Next week we begin a new church year with the four Sundays of Advent. This Sunday is quite often referred to as ‘Stir Up Sunday’ a Sunday synonymous with Christmas puddings. “Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that they, bringing forth the fruit of good works - may by you be richly rewarded: through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.” The collect that used to be used for this Sunday
The great cry 'stir up' was a reminder to congregations to get the Christmas pudding made in plenty of time to mature before Christmas. Not that many people make their own these days. All the supermarkets seem to find a famous chef to delight us with their own version of the pudding. An important addition to the mixture was always a coin, in my youth a silver sixpence, and whoever gets it on their plate on Christmas Day should get worldly riches heaped upon them.
This last Sunday of the year was designated Christ the King Sunday by Pope Pius in 1925 as a response to the political situation in the mid 1920’s when, after the devastations of the First World War, people were being duped by the rising nationalist movements and dictatorships like Mussolini in Italy and the soon-to-be prominent Hitler in Germany. Their messages of extreme nationalism and accompanying hatred towards some communities also challenged churches over which they increasingly claimed authority. Pope Pius hoped that proclaiming Christ’s ultimate authority would function as a wake-up call to Christians and to nations not to be taken in by dictatorships.
This morning we should be woken up to what it means that Christ is King and maybe then in small ways we can influence the life of nations. I worry when I hear politicians of all parties talking about only doing what is best for Britain and our exit from the EU, especially in recent weeks for England or Ireland. I’m sure we want to hear much more about what is good for the world as a whole, for all peoples and all environments. Ultimately it is all God’s world. Otherwise we risk falling into the same nationalist traps that alarmed Pope Pius in the 1920s and which came to fullness so catastrophically in the 1930s, precipitating another world war based on fears and hatreds rather than recognition of our common humanity.
Today we remember that Jesus is King, Lord of all. The reading from Matthew tells of the end of time when all will be judged by Jesus. Jesus uses the image of a shepherd who sorts out the sheep from the goats, so there will be a separation of people who have done good things and people who have failed to do good.
Jesus is coming to the end of his teaching in this Gospel, before he goes towards Jerusalem where he will be crucified. As he concludes this teaching session it is as though Jesus is shown by Matthew to say 'Look, what I have said is serious, this is important, listen to what I say because there are consequences.'
The good news is that the challenge which Jesus gives can be fulfilled by anybody. We do not need lots of money to give away. Jesus simply tells his followers to be kind to one another. Look after the poor, visit the sick give food to the hungry. We can all do this, and so we become a part of God's family.
In the passage this morning we hear the last teaching which Matthew records from Jesus, so we should expect it to be important. It is about the judgement of all people. We should perhaps begin by recognising the plight of the poor old goat. The sheep get all the praise and it seems as though Jesus is always getting at goats. Of course, goats are not worse animals than sheep. Shepherds separated sheep from the goats because sheep tolerate cold better than goats, so shepherds put goats in a protected spot while the sheep continued to forage.
The readers of the book of Matthew would be familiar with the image. They would have seen Shepherds separate sheep and goats. Using this language was also helpful at the time because the word sheep was often used as a metaphor for the people of God. Likewise the Messiah was often spoken of a shepherd.
This metaphorical and figurative language has throughout Christian history been taken very literally. The image is portrayed of Jesus sitting on a cloud at some point at the end of human history. The whole of humanity is lined up with Jesus sorting out two groups, one side going through the pearly gates to eternal bliss, the other miserable offenders are sent off to eternal damnation, in the same way that Jews were despatched to the torture and human ovens of the concentration camps.
Leaving such nonsense aside, what is the point that Jesus is making? Matthew appears to be concluding the teaching of Jesus in His gospel, by recording these words which show that Jesus was serious about expecting lives to be changed by the teaching. It wasn’t just for fun, God notices what goes on. God thinks that the lives we lead here on earth are of consequence, and so our behaviour has serious consequences. The way in which we treat others has importance to God, he takes note and there is judgement.
Jesus is using a picture which was familiar to his hearers to illustrate the fact that good and bad behaviour is different and is judged. Jews grew up familiar with the image of the Messiah as somebody who would come and judge humanity and separate them as a shepherd separated the sheep from the goats. Of course they expected that the sheep would be the Jews of Israel, and the goats would be everybody else.
Jesus tells his hearers that they are in for a surprise. There is going to be judgement, but the criteria for good and bad has changed! From now on the basis for being in God’s good books was to be based on the teachings of Jesus and obedience to them. If people wanted to be a part of the Kingdom of God then there was a positive way of ensuring success, treat your neighbour the way that you would wish to be treated.
Jesus mentions six deeds of mercy. They are not meant to be comprehensive, rather they show that Jesus is concerned by specific material acts of kindness towards the needy. This might sound like the teaching of a British monk, Pelagius, who ended up being branded a heretic. However it is the authentic teaching of Jesus who does not demand supernatural or spiritual exercises, just simple unobtrusive charity. Spiritual talent can easily be counterfeit, charity might appear more mundane, but it is much more easily recognised and accordingly is a better test of faith. We are faced by many opportunities to help the needy.
These acts of kindness can be provided by anybody, we need not have wealth to offer ourselves. To visit, to care, such things all are within reach of everybody. How do we do that? St Gregory’s is a food-bank collecting point and Peter empties our box each week and delivers the food to the central point. Their work may pass unnoticed by most people but it is service to Jesus Christ the king. The Coffee Team dispense cups of coffee and kindness after a service - The “Welcome Teams” greet people as they enter the church. Theirs is service to Jesus Christ the King. June and Jackie in the Sunday school help teach our young people about God’s love and they care for them. That is love and care shown to Jesus Christ the King.
In the story Jesus tells that those who are rewarded are surprised, because they had no idea that their acts of kindness were noticed by God. They were motivated only by mercy, not by greed for reward. It has been suggested that Jesus only wanted us to be kind to other Christians, but Jesus was never selective in his care for others and he even encouraged Christians to care for their enemies. Some theologians become quite animated at the thought that people appear to be earning salvation through simple acts of kindness and charity, but to do so is to miss the point of the teaching of Jesus.
Jesus is not speaking about a literal point of judgement in the future history of the world. Rather Jesus is stressing the need for us to take seriously his teaching on the importance of right behaviour now. In so much as people show kindness and mercy, they demonstrate the presence of God within them and live by the standards of the kingdom. Through their behaviour they make themselves citizens of that kingdom of Jesus today, they are one of Christ’s sheep.
The faithful will see everyone as a brother or sister in Christ and will respond to the need to care for all God's children. By their deeds they will walk in the way of Jesus, will be in a relationship with him, part of his family. The un-faithful will only look after them-selves and will find Christ to be far from them. It is self- determining. If we embrace the teaching of Jesus as our King then we become part of his kingdom now, not at some judgement at the end of time. So we find the kingdom to give meaning in our lives and we know not only the joy of considering the needs of others, but the delight of serving the King.
So for us, we know that we are called to the service of others, we are also called to work to change oppressive systems and human structures that fail to serve the needy and work against relieving troubled lives and broken sprits. God calls us to take the resources he has given us and use them for the good of all, and to be considerate of the plight of the weak and powerless.
On Christ the King Sunday we must decide to show that Jesus Christ is our King and we must do so by having the courage and commitment to become more and more a part of the reign of God.
Antony the Great said ‘virtue is not far from us, nor is it without ourselves, but it is within us,
and is easy if only we are willing’