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Sermon for November 23: Separating the Sheep and the Goats
You may have noticed that God has been on a tear lately. In recent parables, God has invited people into his kingdom and then kicked them out for wearing the wrong clothes; shut them out of the eternal banquet for forgetting to pack enough lamp oil; and thrown someone into the outer darkness for poor investment strategies. And today the son of man is making the final selections for eternity. Forget about Cal versus Stanford. It’s the sheep versus the goats – and the outcome is final: winners inherit the kingdom of God and losers are thrown into eternal fire. So, are you ready? Are you ready for the judgment day? This isn’t a question Episcopalians like to think about much. First of all, it’s too hypothetical.
After all, we’re not even sure what “judgment day” is. We know that
fundamentalist Christians believe that the last judgment will come in the context of the end of the physical world with floods, plagues, war, famine, and fire. That ultimately Jesus will appear, riding at the head of a column of angelic soldiers, destroy the evil of the world, and bring about God’s kingdom on the earth. It will
be victory for the righteous and death for the sinner.
Well, I don’t know about you, but if that’s judgment day, then I’m not ready for it at all. It’s not because I don’t love a good military parade, because personally I think that half-time is the best part of a football game. It’s also not because I’m afraid of being judged a sinner, although I certainly am one. And it’s not because I don’t look forward to the kingdom of God, because the coming of God’s kingdom is my heart’s desire. It’s because a Jesus who punishes – a Jesus who judges without mercy – a Jesus who slaughters non-believers, is not the Jesus I know. The Jesus I know was born in a cave. The Jesus I know chose peasants to spread his message. The Jesus I know knelt on the ground and washed the feet of those peasants. This Jesus is different.
This Jesus is Christ the King, identified by the theologian Eusebius back in the third century as one of three roles – prophet, priest, and king – assumed by
Jesus. And it is as king that he judges the people of the world. This Jesus sits at
God’s right hand in a heavenly place – far above all earthly rule and authority and power and dominion and puts everything under his feet. This Jesus remembers everything we did – and did not do – in his name. This Jesus is the Jesus who somehow, somewhere meets and judges us in a very non-hypothetical way. Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the day we are warned about judgment day. On that day, we are told, we will discover whether we have been listening to Jesus the prophet – have been worshipping with Jesus the priest – and, most importantly, whether we have been acting on what we heard and on what we have said we
Because we are judged not by what we believe, but whether we act according to our beliefs. And we know what those beliefs are because we tell each other what we believe every week. We believe in one God. We believe that God created us, redeemed us through Jesus Christ, and is still with us in the form of the Holy Spirit. We believe that we are all one community in Christ – those of us who are living in this world and those who have passed beyond it. We believe that this community of Christ should care for one another and love our neighbors as ourselves. We believe that we must witness to our beliefs in everything we do.
We believe that Christianity does not end with coffee hour.
Because it is what happens after coffee hour – outside of the church walls – by which we are judged. We are judged not on how we act when we eat and drink together, but whether the people outside of our community have anything to eat and drink at all. It turns out that Christ the King – this harsh, judgmental Jesus that seems so alien to many of us – is the same Jesus who loved the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden. “Come to me you that are blessed… for I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” Feed the hungry.
Clothe the poor. Love the stranger. That’s the Jesus we know and love.
Jesus lived in an agrarian society so he explained his judgment in a way that farmers could understand. He knew that sheep were allowed to wander. They fed themselves. They ventured into the world. But they were guarded by shepherds because they were valuable. Goats, on the other hand, had to be brought in at night. They were domestic animals used for domestic purposes. They needed regular feeding and milking. It is the animal that is not kept, is not taken care of, that ventures outside of the safety of the community, that is blessed. Because
Christianity does not stop at the property gate.
Christ the King, Christ the Judge has something in common with Christ the servant; he prefers the outsiders. Even the Christ who judges us is the good shepherd –the one who seeks us out when we stray, who binds up our wounds when we are injured, and who strengthens us when we are weak. But not when we are fat with power. Not when we fail to feed the hungry. Not when we forget to welcome the stranger. Not when our Christian values stop at the church door.
And it is by those values that we will be judged. We will be judged not on what we say we believe, but by what we do. And Christ’s judgment is not relative.
We can’t say, “Well, I did better than those people,” or “But those people didn’t believe in you at all.” Ezekiel tells us that God judges between the fat and the lean sheep – apples with apples – each person according to the right and wrong they have done in the name of whatever God they worship.
My favorite section in “The Last Battle,” the final book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia takes place after the final apocalyptic battle that destroys the land. The Narnians, who worship the great god Aslan, are the good guys of the books. Their primary enemies are the Calormenes, who worship a cruel god named “Tash.” When the battle ends, the principal characters of the novel find themselves in a beautiful and rich land which they believe is Aslan’s country. They come upon a young Calormene named Emeth who did what was right by defying his evil captain. Emeth is awestruck by the beauty and peace which surrounds him and glory and majesty of Aslan. But he is afraid, because he has been a servant of Tash his entire life, and now realizes that he should have been worshipping Aslan. When he meets Aslan, however, he is surprised to learn that all of the good deeds he has done for Tash are credited to Aslan, while all of the evil that others have done in Aslan’s name was actually done for Tash. For no evil can be done in the name of Aslan, while no good can be done in the name of Tash.
I find this passage very comforting, particularly when I look around and see all of the evil that is done in the name of various religions, Christianity among them. Because, like C.S. Lewis, I believe that our God is a good God and does not accept the evil done in his name. Our God has given us the standard by which we, as Christians, have, through our baptismal vows, agreed to live. And that standard is love. Love not only for those we love, but for those who hate us as well. Love not only for other Christians, but for strangers. Love not only for those in our household, but those beyond our walls.
The vision of a healed, whole, glorified Christ the King gives me joy. But it is the prophetic Jesus, the poor, humble, broken Jesus that is our guide. Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we enter the season of the advent of our Lord and the church clock starts again, offering us a fresh opportunity to follow the guidance of Christ the prophet and to better worship with Christ the priest. It is time to make our Christian New Year’s resolutions- resolutions that will prepare us for the judgment day.
We can resolve to remember our baptismal vows to love one another. We can resolve to live our lives – all of our lives – according to what we profess to believe. And we can resolve that when we see anyone hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison we will remember that each of those people is the same Christ that sits in glory – the same Christ that is prophet, priest and king – the same Christ who judges us not by our words but by our deeds. And if we can do that, then perhaps when we are asked if we are ready for the judgment day, we can say, “Yes, teacher. Yes, Saviour. Yes, yes, yes, my King.”
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