The Last Sunday of the Church Year

November 22, 2020


“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and
his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger
and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then
they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in
prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 ESV)

In the news recently I have been struck by what seems to be a preponderance of times when people in authority
bend the rules to suit themselves and that might mean for something personal or for the organisation in which they have authority. No captain ever wants the ship to go down on their watch! We might know this happens – because people are sinful; we might have sympathy for the temptation that comes with authority, but if we’ve ever been in an organisation that is toxic, feels wrong, tolerates bullying or worse, the hardest part, it seems, is proving the problem exists. Whistle blowers are supposed to be protected but most people are realists and there are
consequences so they are often cautious. We can list examples in churches, in politics, in the military when things
have gone bad and one common factor or response to corruption or abuse of authority is the call for or use of
independent scrutiny and accountability. It seems that people have a difficulty with rules and not just those who
break the law but those who have responsibility for maintaining rules, legislation, codes of conduct, ethical
standards, and so on. There is often a real outcry at the ‘one rule for them but not for me’. If the student can’t mark
his own test, then we need more rules and processes to do it for him. And so it seems that the only way to maintain
a right course of action, to not transgress boundaries, are rules and more rules – which in themselves might not
necessarily be a bad thing. What else do we expect?

And that’s when philosophy and parents tell the young to look within – to values or commitments – and follow
them. Again, there is wisdom here to resist the peer group – to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do
for you. As a Sea Cadet chaplain, one of my roles is to teach the values of the Sea Cadets which are modelled on
the Royal Navy to cadets and there is general understanding when it comes to commitment, honesty, loyalty, self
discipline even, courage also. But the one, I think, with which the cadets find hardest to engage is integrity – the
standing upright, the standing up, for what is right. They can relate to all the other values and define them to a
degree around themselves but integrity suggests a standard, a something outside of themselves, that is right even if
they say it is right for them to do the opposite.

Why am I making the point that humanity doesn’t seem to do rules well? Because if there are passages that
destabilise people in the Bible, one of them, I think, is today’s Gospel – Jesus’ account of the what … in fact it is
an interesting exercise to name what Jesus says … is it about his coming in glory? … the separation of the sheep
and goats? … the consequences that befall the sheep and goats? … the confusion of both as to why they are
receiving what they are receiving? Both groups need to be told what is happening. And it is this telling, this
explanation, that causes the angst – as you did it to the least, you did it to me – as you didn’t do it to the least, you
didn’t do it to me. And we go into an internal audit – what standard? What grade? And people are flummoxed here
– did the goats never do a kind deed to anyone? Did the sheep really score 100%? Such questions throw us. Our
logic condemns us. Our assessment of the rules challenges us and people might in fear try and do everything and
they struggle with limited resources and priorities of action. Can I spend a night at home or do I have to go and feed the poor? And all that arises is guilt. Or our assessment of the rules is that they are not for me, because no one can keep them, so I’ll do my own thing and that can tend to perhaps arrogance and callousness about others and what arises is pride and self justification.

For a Church that makes a claim time and time again that we are justified by God’s grace through faith and to have
this Son of Man, this Shepherd, this King, this Son of the Father, this Lord not mention it once in this scene makes
us wonder. In fact when the judgement is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible there is a consistent message that ‘God
will render for each one according to his works’ (Romans 2:6) and also similarly in 1st and 2nd Corinthians (1 Cor
3:10-15 and 2 Cor 5:10). For Martin Luther, the letter of James, was not a favourite particularly when James is
explicit in chapter 2 – a person is justified by works not by faith alone (James 2:24). And this message does a mind
game on humanity and we are back with rules and standards and judgements – and we don’t do this well at all.

Who is the independent one called in to adjudicate or judge? That according to the story Jesus told – yes, we still
on the Mount of Olives looking at the temple precincts as the disciples wonder when all the magnificent stones will
be cast down – has to be God. In fact the titles Jesus uses of himself – Son of Man, Shepherd, King, Son of the
Father where the Father is God – so Son of God, and Lord – make it clear that Jesus is independent of us, not
beholden to us, to assess and deal with us, as God with us.

And where we focus on deeds and standards and success and fail and pride or despair, Jesus focuses on us –
personally. We tend to miss or rather assume that the deeds decide and miss the point that we are not dealing with
deeds but sheep and goats – which might look alike back then or even certain breeds today – but they are different
species! The sheep do not receive a reward or a wage but an inheritance. The goats receive the consequences of
their actions. Yes, it is a mystery!

Answer these questions in your head … if a person is saved, who gets the credit? [God] For what percentage of
salvation is God credited? [100%]

If a person is lost forever, whose fault is it? [Theirs] For what percentage of their being lost are they liable? [100%]

Try and make that work logically and it won’t work. It is a mystery. But that is the Biblical truth of salvation. God
doesn’t choose to save some and not others. Humanity doesn’t choose to accept or reject God. Instead God saves
and humanity sadly rejects. Both the sheep and the goats need explanations for what is happening to them and it is
given in terms of behaviour which we hear as rules but which is really a consequence of who they are, of their
relationship with God!

At the font a new creation comes into being – a person linked to Christ, to his death and resurrection – we say that
person is now ‘in Christ’ but for today think of Baptism as the changing of goats to sheep (and I’m not
kidding! ). And the sheep follow the shepherd, hear his voice, and life live to the full by doing what Jesus did –
serving those around them. As Jesus gives, so we give; as Jesus feeds, so we feed; as Jesus forgives, so we forgive;
as Jesus visits us when trapped, so we visit those imprisoned. What Jesus gives is always to share. We do not
deserve what we receive and those who receive from Jesus’ followers likewise don’t deserve what they receive,
especially as Christians seek to give to those who cannot give back.

James wants to make the point that were there is faith there are works, deeds, something living, animated, in
motion. Where there are no works, there is no faith – which is akin to where the heart is not beating there is no life.  Jesus on the Mount of Olives is saying that following him is about following him and involves a relationship –
sheep to shepherd in particular. There is no point in standing still and claiming you’re following someone. That’s
delusional. Rather Jesus would have us look around at our relationships with others and serve them – particularly
those who are least around us. There is no instruction to serve 100 people per day or 1,000 or 2 – there are only
people around you with their relationships and you use your wisdom and your relationship with Jesus to decide
who to serve when – but that is the description of discipleship – learning who to serve when – all the time. And
when you have Jesus and those round you in focus then the rules and fears simply slip away because you’re simply
too focused on Jesus and those around you.

Bible References

  • Matthew 25:31 - 46