The Reign of Christ and Last Sunday of Pentecost, Lectionary Year A. Ezekiel 32:11-16,20-24, Psalm 23, Ephesians 115-23, Matthew 25: 31-46.
Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:45)
My brother sent me a news story this week about an Australian soldier who was invited along with his family to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Normally Australian corporals don't get invited to tea at the Palace, but they made an exception for Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith. While in Afghanistan, the Corporal charged an enemy machine gun position in order to save his comrades. This action was considered special enough that Corporal Roberts-Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth's highest decoration for valour in combat.
Typically self-effacing as soldiers are, "Big Ben" as he is known by the media said that "At the time it was just something that needed to be done". This battle-hardened soldier confessed that he was quite nervous to visit the Queen in her home, but found that "She’s a lovely lady and made me very comfortable. It was easy to talk to her."
If the Corporal was nervous to meet a gracious elderly queen with corgis as her feet, the encounter with the Son of Man in today's gospel is much more intimidating! Here, almost at the end of the gospel we have travelled with this summer and fall, Jesus tells his disciples that he will return in glory as the "Son of Man" to judge all humanity. The criteria for judgement are quite simple. Those who paid attention to the "least" around them will be given a place of honour and "eternal life", and those who ignored the "least" around them will be shamed and condemned to "eternal punishment".
In his commentary on this passage, David Lose remarks that there is a significant "Yikes factor" at work when we hear about the sheep and the goats and judgement. As he writes, "Not only does it feel more than a tad threatening but it also seems to run contrary to much of our inherited theology about grace". Christians are taught that we are saved by faith in Christ and by the underserved love of God, but if in fact our judgement and our fate in eternity depends on what we do in life, then do any of us have really have a chance? If the Sheep extreme is, say, Mother Teresa, and the Goat extreme is the unregenerate Scrooge (or maybe Bernie Madoff), where do we fall in the spectrum? How much do we have to do to earn sheep status? And what about this gospel lesson's emphasis on prison visiting? What if I don't know anyone in prison? Does volunteering for a food bank count instead?
Before we get too agitated about the Yikes factor here, we need to pause and remember that what we are hearing is not new. A few weeks ago in Matthew's gospel we heard Jesus say that all of God's law and teaching could be summarized as "Love God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself". Jesus reminds us that our regard for others flows out of our relationship with God who creates and loves us. It's not a matter of doing some many good works in hopes of earning Sheep status before the Day of Judgement. Rather, it is about recognizing Christ as the King of a realm that works by different rules than those of the world we know. If , as some say, the kingdoms of the world are run by and for the one per cent, the inner circles and cronies, then the Kingdom of God is about the all the rest, what Jesus today calls "the least." A Christian is someone who recognizes that God has different priorities. As the theologican Stanley Hauerwas says about today's gospel reading, "The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid 'the least of these.'"
So failure to act in the world as a Christian s not an option. If one decides to be a subject of Christ and live in the Kingdom of Heaven, I don't think it's possible to fail to act. People today speak of the church's irrelevance in an overwhelmingly secular age, but I think that as the spirit of that age becomes more and more manifest, the gospel speaks to us with a greater urgency. When wealth is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, when powerful voices seem to reject the notion that they should have to pay taxes, and when a presidential candidate blames the poor for not being sufficiently industrious, then there is a problem. As Christians, our calling to live and act differently in this world becomes clearer by the day, it seems. We may see the lmits to what our individual actions can do to change things, but we also know that the boundless love and righteous anger of God are limitless, and that both will one day be fully revealed.
Just as failure to act is not an option for Christ's followers, I don't think that trembling in fear of him is an option either. David Lose reminds us that today's lesson comes just before the final acts in Matthew's gospel, as Jesus chooses the the cross for all of us. In the paradoxical way of that cross, the shame of his death becomes the glory of the King who dies to serve his undeserving subjects. As David Lose notes, the one who will one day come to judge us is the same one who first came to be judged for us. So ... the one who came, the one who comes, and the one who is coming again -- is undeniably and unalterably for us...and all the world. And suddenly our "yikes" is transformed into "thanks be to God."
What Lose is saying is that Jesus chooses to make goats into sheep. Even if, as I've said here before, sheep can be kind of messy and dirty, they are still sheep. We don't become sheep by our own efforts and works. What we do as believers living as subjects in God's kingdom comes from the work that Christ has done for us on the cross. Everything else flows from that work of redemption and transformation. Which means that while we may, like the Australian corporal I mentioned earlier, be nervous about meeting Christ the King, in fact it is and will be a wonderful encounter. So if today's gospel makes you feel sheepish about being ready to meet Christ one day, it's ok to be sheepish. After all, he is a shepherd as well as a king.