For those who know me & have asked - I'm fine, thanks: down to 3 month check-ups at the dermatologist now & all nasty moles removed with no sign of more cancer.
Meanwhile, back at the coal-face:
This week's sermon so far (will need finishing off later/ tomorrow morning:
Christ the King
Today is the very last day of the current lectionary year – next week a new year begins for the church, with Advent Sunday. That means today we mark ‘Christ the King’.
You might wonder what it’s all about. What does it mean to acknowledge Jesus Christ as King – and why are we doing it now, just as Advent is about to start, rather than after Easter, perhaps even at Ascension, when the hard part is all done for Jesus and he is about to take up his triumphal place in heaven.
And anyway, you might well be wondering, does the lectionary and its themes really make any impact on our real lives?
What’s it all about? This week’s gospel reading is another well-known one, but another quite tricky one to understand.
Jesus tells the story of the end of time, and the separating of people, like sheep and goats.
At one level, it seems Jesus is warning his listeners about what will happen “When the Son of Man comes in his glory.. all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another”. This is the moment of truth: the final judgement – the time when people will be made to see whether they have served Jesus Christ.. or whether they are to face eternal fire, for neglecting the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Jesus could be warning his listeners ‘be nice to strangers.. because in serving them you are serving me’.
This is a perfectly straight-forward message, and plenty of Medieval churches used to have ‘Doom’ paintings in them, with pictures of people on Jesus’ right being whisked up to heaven – and the unfortunates on the left being forced into the terrible suffering and flame of the underworld. If most medieval worshippers had been able to read it might have said ‘Be good.. or else!’.
To be honest, I feel really uncomfortable about such a theme of 'judgement' – perhaps because I fear ending up in the wrong group – of turning out to be a goat when I’d hoped to be a sheep, but also because I don’t believe this is consistent with the gospel Jesus taught through his whole life. Jesus taught grace, the undeserved love of God, the free gift of forgiveness and acceptance which delights in the return of the prodigal and the repentance of the sinner. Jesus doesn’t anywhere tell people to love others in order to gain heaven – he says simply ‘follow me’ and ‘believe in me’. In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, when his disciples criticize a woman for spending money on costly ointment instead of on the poor, Jesus says ‘she has performed a good service for me’. The gospel cannot be reduced to ‘serve the poor and earn a place in heaven’.
So perhaps there’s another way of reading this story which is more consistent with the whole of the gospel.
This story of the sheep and goats comes towards the end of a chunk of the gospel where Jesus has been teaching in parables. If the kingdom is like this.. then what do you think? I want to focus for a moment not on God’s judgement of us but on our judgement of the situation.
Perhaps it is best to treat this story as another parable, which tells us about God’s kingdom. It seems to me that the last few weeks have all been building up to this - wise or foolish virgins; thankful, hard-working slaves or head-in-the-sand people; sheep or goats. It's not so much about God's judgement of us (and certainly not about condemnation) but about our choices, our discernment. ‘Where do you stand?’ says Jesus ‘what do you think? Are you going to be wise and thankful and care for others… or are you going to be foolish and begrudging, and too concerned to be ‘religious’ to live your life for anyone else?’
Are you in this kingdom, subjects of the King, or not?
If, in the end we discern that Christ is King, this has HUGE implications for our lives - this means following Christ is not just a leisure option but the basis for our whole lives.
If you’re wondering what difference the lectionary makes to us – today it is forcing us to look at the biggest question for life of all.
What are we here for? What is the point of our lives?
If you judge that we are meant to be living as children of God, servants of Christ the King, and followers of his way, then your life is meant to be lived in the knowledge that we can joyfully spend our lives in love of God and of others, and even risk losing our lives, knowing that in the mercy and grace of God we will be made whole and be accepted and loved and received into the bliss of heaven.
And if Christ is King then this has implication for our celebration of Advent (starting next week!).
We are preparing for the coming of the King – but wrapped in the flesh of a helpless baby. We are preparing to receive not just a messenger from God but the message made flesh.