Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-34, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
The last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost is Christ the King Sunday. The collect speaks of God’s will being the restoration of all things to God through Jesus. Jesus, who frees the world from sin and rules the earth.
Like the gospel reading for the past three weeks, today’s gospel speaks of judgment. Here, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” Speaking of separating the sheep from the goats suggests that on the day when Jesus “comes into his glory,” we will be gathered before him and judged.
Those who have cared for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and welcomed the stranger – will inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them. Those who have ignored the needs of others will be cursed and sent “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Joyful anticipation of Christ’s reign can quickly turn to dread as we consider the judgement that awaits those of us who have not always offered food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, or visited those imprisoned. If the thought of being judged according to our deeds doesn’t make us uncomfortable – it should. As Paul writes in Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Perhaps we can get a pass on not having clothed the naked because we’re far more likely to see people who don’t have enough clothing to keep them warm or dry – they aren’t technically naked. Perhaps, too, Jesus will give break if we’ve done some of these things some of the time. Surely, judgement is not an all or nothing, a pass/fail, sort of thing.
Jesus, in the scriptures, speaks in the extremes – just as we sometimes do, ignoring all the shades of gray. Things are not so much right or wrong, good or bad, as they are mostly right or mostly wrong, mostly good or mostly wrong. I think we are more likely to make mistakes when we judge others and fail to see that despite their mistakes, they, too, were created in God’s image. They, too, are worthy of love.
We do better to read today’s gospel as a challenge to do better, and to love more and judge less. God does not call upon us to judge others, nor does God call upon to help others because we are afraid of God’s judgement. God’s will for us is that we love others as Christ loves us. God’s will for us is for us to act out of love – to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Love requires us to forgive, to see the needs of others and share God’s love in tangible ways.
Righteous in today’s gospel, means faithful – it refers to people who strive to do God’s will. They ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
The response to their question is, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Helping others out of compassion and love is what God wants – not doing what we believe will help us on judgment day gain admission into the kingdom. The righteous are righteous because they respond out of love to God and others.
Scriptures about judgment, challenge to me and my way of life – they are not a threat to act right or be sent into the eternal flame. Just as important, though, is that these scriptures challenge us as a church. There are too many people for us as individuals to help – so we must work together to make a difference.
Today’s letter to the church in Ephesus speaks of Christ being seated at the right hand of God to rule and have authority over all things – including the church, which is referred to as Christ’s body. Here and in other scriptures, we are reminded that it is the church that represents Christ in the world today. And what is the church? We are – or at least we are part of the church. Our presiding bishop likes to refer to us as the Episcopal branch of the Christian movement.
When we consider ourselves as a part of something bigger than ourselves, like St. Paul’s, we may begin to understand how the people viewed themselves at the time of Jesus. The concept of individual’s being judged according to their individual actions was not widely believed. Instead they believed they would be judged as a people. An entire family or community would suffer for the sins of just one person.
Likewise, they would be judged by the collective work of the community. With this in mind, we can read the gospel as speaking to what is expected of us as a group not just us as individuals. Are we, as a church feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty? Are we helping those in need?
I can say that St. Paul’s itself is not covering all the bases, the needs in this community exceed our ability to care for everyone – but we are not alone. There are other churches here reaching out, and our support of our dioceses and the larger church extends our outreach even further.
We need to ask ourselves, “How is God calling upon us to care for our neighbors?” This question is for ourselves and our church, for we are a part of St. Paul’s, the Episcopal Church, and the Christian Movement which seeks to share God’s love with all who are in need. Knowing we are acting alone may be comforting, be we must still ask ourselves how we can contribute to the work of this church to reconcile one another to each other and to God. This is how we can do God’s will and act out of love rather than fear.
Let us pray.
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20,21