22 November 2020
Today is the 22nd November which means that Christmas Day is only just over a month away. Given our current uncertain and parlous state I expect that many of us are thinking about Christmas with varying degrees of joy and apprehension.
But, as I alluded to last week, although Christmas is not far away chronologically there are still two important Church seasons to come first. One is Advent which starts next week, and Advent, like Lent, should be season of prayerfully waiting and preparing ourselves to remember Jesus’ birth into the world. Sadly, it almost goes without saying that most of the world tramples over the true purpose of Advent and are so bored with Christmas by the time it actually arrives that they chuck out the tree on Boxing Day. It should not be so with us. Regardless of how locked down we are in December let us keep Advent properly this year.
But there is another season to complete before Advent, and that happens today.
Although it is easy to miss it because of special events such as Remembrance Sunday, 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 I saw a story about a man of 45, i.e. 7 years younger than me, 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 society which has only a constitutional monarch it is hardly conceivable to think about judgement being handed down by an absolute monarch and, therefore, the image of Christ returning as King and Judge can be side-lined either as medievalism or as belonging only at the crankier ends of the church.
But in my view to side-line Christ as 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 nutty brigade – rather it is a central tenet of our faith which, as I said last week, we proclaim each week in the Nicene Creed and shall do so again in a moment.
Secondly to ignore Christ as King is to take 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?
Without judgement what is the point either of repentance or transformation? Yes, God accepts us all as we are, but he does not want to leave us where we are. Rather we are called into God’s presence precisely in order that we might slough off our sin, be changed into his likeness and do the things he would have us do.
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 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. There is certainly no mention here that we are saved on the basis of who we are against which is how many Christians sadly seem to treat their faith.
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. We have certainly sought to feed the hungry locally with our foodbank here, our support of the Paddock Wood foodbank and supporting the needy internationally with our support of MAF, the Delhi Brotherhood and others.
But I wonder whether we sometimes think of such charitable work as merely an optional extra to our faith – a nice thing to do if can afford it and if we have the time. Is our charitable giving, not to mention our charitable thinking, the first thing to go when pushed?
Today we are reminded, as boldly as it could be put, that our charity for others is not an optional extra but is a primary salvation issue and the basis on which we shall all be judged. If we believe that Jesus was born into the world as a baby and are happy to celebrate that next month, then we must also believe that Jesus will return to the world as our King and Judge and we shall face him and he shall ask – ‘did you feed me, did you clothe me, did you give me water?’
What is your answer? What is our answer?