Friday, 21 November 2014

Christ the King : the sheep & goats


 Matthew 25: 31-46

As my job as moderator involves driving from Taunton to cover the area from Falmouth to Swindon, I spend a lot of time in the car, listening to Radio Four. I was fascinated this week to hear a trailer for the first of this year’s Reith Lectures, to be given by Dr Atul Gawande on “The Future of Medicine”.

In the first lecture, “Why do Doctors Fail?”, Gawande explores the nature of imperfection in medicine. In particular, he examines how much of failure in medicine remains due to ignorance (lack of knowledge) and how much is due to ineptitude (failure to use existing knowledge). His suggestion is that more lives could be saved by doctors if they got on with applying what they already know about medicine, consolidating knowledge, if you like, rather than spending so much time and effort pushing back the boundaries of what we know – learning new stuff.

This got me thinking about our lives trying to follow Jesus, to live as good Christians. It’s not easy, is it ?– we often fall short or fail. How much is that failure to live well due to lack of knowledge and how much is due to failure to apply and live what we already know?
Should we spend more of our time trying to understand more about our Christian faith, or should be use our efforts to get on with living what we know?

It’s an intriguing question as we turn to today’s gospel reading.

Jesus’ story of the end of time is not really all that complicated is it ? – whenever you serve the lowest and the least, you serve me, says Jesus. On the other hand, whenever you fail to serve others, you fail to serve me.

It sounds a bit as though Jesus is telling us that to follow him and serve him we have to simply be nice – be as nice as we can, as thoughtful and kind and generous as we are able.

Here is a possible message for today, when in the lectionary we celebrate “Christ the King”. Jesus Christ is the one whom we should serve in all parts of our lives and all the people who we meet in our lives.
Serve others and you serve the King.

But I’m not sure this is an altogether encouraging message of good news, because we’re all still left with the difficulty of being nice – something that is admittedly more difficult for some of us than for others – but even the nicest of us can’t be nice all the time. And does Jesus really want to be seen rather like Santa Claus, keeping a list of the nice sheep and the naughty goats so we can be rewarded not with lots of presents but with eternal life – as long as we’ve been nice enough? Like children waiting for Christmas, does Jesus want us to live in a state of worry that we might be caught not being nice, and miss out on all the goodies?

I think I want to tell you this morning to stop worrying quite so much. The way Jesus tells the story, those who have been good and those who have not been so good are all equally surprised when they are told what has been going on.

The sheep, the good ones, those on the right, are told “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me something to drink”, and so on – and they are bewildered “when Lord did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink?”. They are just as bewildered as the people on the other side who are told “I was hungry and you did not feed me…” they too answer “when, Lord did we see you hungry and not feed you…”.
No-one, whether they served the ‘little ones’ or not, knew what they were doing – somehow Christ was entirely unrecognized.

So it seem to me that Jesus’ story tells us to relax a little – to be unselfconscious about serving others, unconcerned about the reward we might or might not get. Jesus tells his followers on many occasions to love God and love other people – we know it is right to be concerned for the needs of others – and maybe part of what we learn in this story is that Jesus wants us to get on with it.

Also, as Advent begins next week, the story tells us that Jesus is there to be served in others, but that he might go unrecognized. Maybe this Advent we can look more closely for those who need our help and look more closely for the face of Christ in the face of the needy.

If you are looking for someone to serve, I commend to you the URC’s partnership with Christian Aid this Christmas, helping mothers and babies in Kenya through health projects, immunization schemes, and so on. Every £1 we give for that work this Christmas will be matched by another £1 from the UK government. You can find details on the URC denominational website.

And since Christmas is coming, then we can be of good cheer as we remember that ours in not a God who demands our service from on high but a God who comes to be with us so that our world can be flooded with the grace and love we need to be more faithful servants of the world’s neediest.

If we look for Christ’s love this Christmastime, we will be given all the resources we need to be loving to others, so that Christ will be honoured.
May it be so. Amen.

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