Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Have a sermon – The Reign of Christ

Matthew 25:31-46

We’ve come to end of the church’s year, and the last of our readings from the Gospel of Matthew. Today’s reading comes from the end of Jesus’ life on earth; it’s the last public teaching he gives before sharing a final meal with his disciples on the night that he was betrayed. We definitely finish the year with a bang. Today’s reading, the prophecy of the Last Judgment, is one of those parts of the Scriptures that make Christianity the religion that it is. Our faith and our lives as Christians would be very different if this story was not part of our inheritance.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, or the reign of Christ. In today’s story we see Christ as that king, as the Son of Man, coming in glory to judge the nations. This isn’t really a parable, although there are elements of parable in the description of people as sheep and goats. This is a prophecy, a foretelling and forth-telling. Unlike the readings of the last few weeks, when we have had to decipher who the bridesmaids or the slaves or the master or the bridegroom might be, the identity of the characters in this story is perfectly plain. Jesus, the one about to be betrayed and executed as a criminal, is the king, the Son of Man, the one who will judge the nations. This is what we mean when we confess that Jesus is the Christ. We affirm that he is the ruler of our life, the one with the right, responsibility, and power to judge us. No other leader, no government, no philosophy, no party politics, no family member, has that right. The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the 11th partly to say exactly that. In a world becoming increasingly secular, where faith is seen as a personal and private choice, this feast says firmly that our first allegiance as Christians is to Christ. We’re Christians before we’re anything else. In a world terrified of religious extremism, in a country that demands that people of faith are “Australian” before we are Christian, or indeed Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, this is a terrifying claim to make. Jesus Christ is Lord. He is our ruler. Our first allegiance is to him.

The Son of Man comes in glory to judge the nations. Today’s reading is the culmination of the stories we have heard over the past few weeks: the stories of the ten bridesmaids and the three slaves. Five bridesmaids were wise and five were foolish; two slaves were rewarded and one was cast out. As you know, I struggle with these stories of judgment; I find it hard not to see in them a contradiction with the God whose greatest commandment is love. Yet, today, in the prophecy of the Son of Man coming in glory, we see that there’s no contradiction between these stories of judgment and God’s love. In today’s story, we see the basis on which judgment is made, and it agrees completely with the two commandments on which all the law and prophets hang: the commandment to love God and love our neighbour. The criterion of judgment is how well we have loved “the least of these who are members of my family”.

The Son of Man judges the nations on the basis of how they have treated the least. It appears that what God cares about most is not how we think, but how we live. Four times the criteria of judgment are given: twice by the Son of Man, positively and negatively, once by the sheep and once by the goats: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ Throughout the gospel we have seen what the will of the Father is, and here in Jesus’ very last teaching we have it confirmed. It is not enough to say, “Lord, Lord”. The sheep are distinguished from the goats on the basis of their care for the little ones. This is a complete surprise to both groups. At the end time, how many non-Christians will find themselves among the sheep, and how many Christians will find themselves among the goats? I have no idea. That’s none of our business. As Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Our concern is not with how God will judge other people. Our concern is with how God will judge us. And this prophecy tells us that.

Following Christ is not about simply about belief, about an intellectual faith that says, yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Following Christ is about living the way Christ lived. Love is at the heart of that; love for God and love for neighbour. Now we see how intimately the two are connected. The incarnation reveals to us that Jesus is God, Emmanuel, God with us. This story tells us that when we care for our neighbour, especially for those considered least, then we are in fact caring for God in Christ. It’s all about love and living that love out in action.

If that’s the case, why do we bother about worship, about church, about the spiritual and intellectual part of our faith? If judgment is going to be based on feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, and welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked and caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned, then why don’t we spend all our time in community service? What are we doing here?

There are several answers to that. The first is that living life following the way of Christ isn’t easy. We human beings have a propensity for selfishness and exploitation. We tend to care most about ourselves and those close to us and forget those out of our sight. Looking at the world around us, we see humanity’s violence and hatred and indifference. Humans need the constant reminder that all of us are created in the image of God and loved by God, regardless of race or nationality or gender or sexuality or age or religion. We need to be reminded that we see Christ in the hungry and thirsty and strange and naked and sick and imprisoned. We need constant encouragement to love God and our neighbour. Gathering together to worship the God in whose image we are made reminds us of the importance of human life – all human life. It helps us live up to the demands of the gospel.

Following the way of Christ isn’t just difficult. It can also be dangerous. Today’s story is told just before Jesus is betrayed and killed. Anyone who cares for the little ones of the world challenges the big ones of the world; anyone who gives their first loyalty to Christ runs the risk of angering the world’s powers. We don’t face these challenges in Australia, but Christians in other countries run the risk of being killed for following Christ. There is no way they or we could have the strength to live out our faith alone. It’s the community that gives that strength.

Finally, the world is huge and the need is great. We can’t, each, alone, feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked and care for the sick and visit the imprisoned. We can’t even, alone, care for all those in our immediate vicinity who need help. But we can do it in community. Together, as we each do the little that we can, that our gifts and skills qualify us for, we are able to collectively care for Christ. Within our own congregations, when age or illness prevents us from doing the caring ourselves, we can support those others who are able to care, with our prayers and our money and our good wishes. We in Australia can help care for people of other countries through the work of the universal church. The demands this story make on us are difficult, and can seem overwhelming. But they are not demands that we are to meet alone. Together, as the church, in community, we can live as the sheep.

Paul in his letters talked about “faith active in love”. That is what we are called to as followers of Christ. That is how we live out our confession that Jesus is the Christ, the one true king. It’s a high and difficult calling that Matthew reveals to us, but it is also a wonderful and inspiring way to end the church’s year and the year of Matthew. Thanks be to God.


November 24, 2008 - Posted by | Life, etc.

1 Comment »

  1. On study leave, didn’t get to worship yesterday (saw son #2 off to Fiji for schoolies).

    So thanks Avril, this filled a gap for me. A great reminder.

    Comment by PaulW | November 24, 2008 | Reply

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