Thursday, 20 November 2014

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns!

Christ the King Sermon 2014: Peter Lockhart

Today is the last day of the liturgical calendar.  It is the end of our Christian year.  Not unlike New Year’s celebrations at the end of December, or possibly even our birthdays, it is a time for both reminiscing and a time for looking ahead. 

The readings for the day lend themselves to helping us as they give us some criteria with which we might assess our faith: the criteria of our engagement with those who suffer.

The imagery from the readings that we heard from both Ezekiel and Matthew are images which contain an edge of judgement.  God, or Jesus, is described as a shepherd separating the flock into those who are righteous and those who are not.

The notion of Jesus acting as a king sitting in judgement over his people is not one that we might necessarily be comfortable with.  And even more tempting is to go down the path of trying to work out who is and who is out and why.

Of course most, if not all preachers, would encourage their congregations with the notion that they are numbered among the righteous or if not an invitation to become one of the righteous ones would be given.

But I do wonder whether this is the most helpful approach and on deeper reflection on the passages, especially the one from Matthew I would like to offer you a slightly different perspective which can be encapsulated in three ideas:

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns! 

Let me unpack these three interlinked ideas with you.

Firstly, ‘it comes as a surprise’.  In his commentary on the passage David Lose from Luther Theological Seminary notes that for both those who are identified as ‘sheep’ and those who are identified as ‘goats’ the judgement comes as a surprise.

After Jesus has outlined when he was present in both cases the response is to ask Jesus the question “When was it that we saw you.”  I must admit that the repetition of this phrase really struck me as I thought about this passage this:

When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

This notion of being surprised emphasises a couple of things for us.  The first is that it was not through careful planning and behaviour that the sheep or goats are judged but on actions that they were simply not aware of.  And, secondly, and possibly also more disturbingly, it is God alone who makes the judgement.

Unlike the sense of assurance of salvation that the eighteenth century evangelist John Wesley spoke of, in this passage we encounter that those who are chosen are rather surprised by their inclusion.

God alone decides the who and what and why and wherefore of salvation. Listening carefully to broader span of the New Testament we are also aware that the judgement day is the day of Jesus own death.  A factor which should be considered as we listen to Jesus words. 

Nonetheless, as we listen to this parable and to other teachings of Jesus around it what appears most certain around notions of judgement is that is God who decides and not our plans for inclusion that matter.  If our behaviour saves us it is not through our deliberate actions but the surprising choices that God makes.

This releases from the concerns about trying to do good deeds to save ourselves and allows us to turn to God in trust and faith knowing that the word of judgement encountered in Jesus death is matched by a word of grace exclaimed in Jesus resurrection.

We do not carry the burden of saving ourselves but trust in a God whose mercies are new every morning for God’s grace, ‘It comes as a surprise!’

Which brings me to the second phrase or point: That God is present!

The notion that God is present with us can be fairly vague but not in this reading.  God is present in a very specific way as an extension of the incarnation.

The incarnation extended and apparent not in the presence of the people of God but rather more confrontingly in those that Jesus describes as the least of these: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner.

In identifying his personal presence within these people Jesus continues the tradition and understanding expressed by the prophets like Ezekiel: God has specific concern for those who suffer in this life.  Salvation is not meant to be an after we die event but a restoration of humanity and community to those who are excluded in this life now.

One of the things that this challenges us on if we reflect on our personal journey of faith is whether or not we have viewed others as being Jesus with us.

As we engage with other human beings our starting point as Christians should always involve the idea that Christ is already present.  The notion of incarnational ministry, which is often expressed as we who are the holy ones being Christ for others, is actually around the wrong way: others are Christ with us.

Which brings me to the third idea if we understand that salvation comes as a surprise and that God is present then as people who know this we are invited to respond as we share in God’s concerns!

Growing up I kind of had this idea that being a good Christian was primarily about moral decisions accompanied by attendance at worship.  Don’t drink too much, or swear, be polite and kind, no sex before marriage, work hard and be honest.

But in Jesus judgement the criteria are far more confronting for us.

Feed the hungry
Give water to the thirsty
Welcome the stranger,
Clothe the naked,
Heal the sick
And visit the prisoner.

Marrying these comments with Ezekiel’s similar prophecy concerning judgement I believe that the criteria to which we are responding to be Christian and the call to follow Jesus must necessarily involve us in those God is concerned for.  Otherwise we simply and silently participate in the systems that allow others to suffer.

Listen again to Ezekiel’s words:

18Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? 20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

On a global scale we are among the fat sheep and as our reflection on abolitionist Sunday has reminded us many of the slaves around the world are propping up our lifestyles.  We are trampling on their pasture and muddying their waters.

So as we look ahead into the year to come, as we begin again next week our advent journey let us think about what it means for us to be Christians personally, followers of Jesus, and corporately as the people of God who gather in this Uniting Church.

The good news is that salvation comes as a surprise! Something out of our control that we do not need to worry about. That God is present!  Which calls us to honour other beings as a continuation of God’s presence in the world in Jesus. And lastly that we are invited to share in God’s concerns for those who are considered ‘The least of these’! 

For when the least of these experience God’s grace in the meal provided, in the clothing given, in the welcome of the stranger,  in the healing of the sick or the release of the prisoner then it may be actually true that it is on earth as is in heaven, even if only for a fleeting moment.

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