Sunday 22nd  November 2020

Christ the King

Psalm 95

 


O come, let us sing to the Lord;
   let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
   let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
   and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
   the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
   and the dry land, which his hands have formed.


O come, let us worship and bow down,
   let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
   and we are the people of his pasture,
   and the sheep of his hand.


O that today you would listen to his voice!

Ezekiel 34. 11-16, 20-24

 

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Ephesians 1. 15 - end

 

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Matt. 25. 31 - end

 

‘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. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “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?” And the king will answer them, “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.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me 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 nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 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.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Commentary

 

"with the eyes of your heart enlightened you may know what is the hope to which He has called you."[1]

The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died this month, will be very much missed.  HIs writing and broadcasts brought the Biblical truths of Judaism to life, and made them relevant in our modern secular world. In her eulogy [2] to him, Melanie Phillips recalled him saying that for Christians religion was about souls, not society; for Jews holiness lay "in our acts, relationships and social structure". She went on to point out that the "West's idea of religion is shaped by the notion that it is about believing in God and the supernatural". Is that how you see it? Today's readings might help.

The story of the talents (last week) and sheep and the goats (this week) is the last section of Jesus' teaching in Matthew's gospel. Immediately after this the passion narrative begins.

If the story of the talents expresses the penalty of being indifferent, apathetic or simply lazy, this week repeats the message in graphic contrast. Again it is indifference that lies at the heart of the problem. Without claiming any higher motive or transcendent belief, some people noticed the needs of others and responded in good practical ways. They hardly put much store by it and are refreshingly astonished that they had been of service to God. Others simply did not notice the plight of neighbours, or if they did, they ignored the need for action. We are reminded again that apathy and indifference are the opposite of loving kindness. (See Rev. Marian Bond's sermon from 15th November on this website).

The contract (covenant) between humankind and God throughout the Old Testament is founded on the one hand by God's loving faithfulness to his creation. On the other side, his people love Him in return and express it in their love and care for neighbours and the Earth.  It is a call to community, and to social and ecological justice.  Matthew was writing to those who would shortly be called Christians, who, like him, mostly came from a Jewish tradition, probably about the time when the Christians were being dismissed from the synagogues (c 85AD). He passionately needs to express the continuity and fulfilment of Judaism [3] in spite of what happened to Jesus and the tribulations for both communities. For Matthew, our social responsibilities and practical love of neighbour are of the greatest importance. No other gospel writer includes the story of the sheep and goats, and Matthew is well versed in the writings of Ezekiel.

The passage from Ezekiel came from the time of exile and the scattering of the Jewish nation; another story of divine judgement acted out six centuries before Jesus.  The analogy of sheep, meaning wayward people or those needing leadership and care, is truly ancient.  In the first part of Chapter 34 the false shepherds (false prophets) take a hammering.  Later they morph into the "fat sheep" that have greedily prospered at the expense of their neighbours. God's priority is his scattered and vulnerable flock. Judgement is followed by restoration.

Ephesians has a very different emphasis. The writer prays for his non-Jewish Christian followers to receive wisdom and "revelation as you come to know Him (Christ)". It is a prayer for the Church. If we read on we are told "By grace you have been saved" (2:5), through faith (2:8), – not the result of works, so that no one may boast" (2:9). What an apparent contrast!

Theologians have fought long and hard over this. Do our acts of kindness count for anything?  Matthew, and I dare say Jonathan Sacks, would say, Yes!  Or is coming to know Christ at a personal or community level the gracious transforming factor, and no amount of good works could ever be enough? Paul, who had a personally transforming encounter with Our Lord, which must have included forgiveness for being an accomplice in the murder of Stephen (imagine that!), was sure of it.

How should modern Christians understand the dichotomy?  Deny the difference, try to argue the two positions into a novel alignment?  Perhaps the better way is to try to understand each of the writers' unique position, their personal and social context, and above all their passion for saying what has the deepest meaning for each of them. If the way of salvation for Matthew and Paul appeared to be different, might that encourage us to reflect truthfully on what we see God doing in each of our own lives? We might each see an aspect of divine love slightly differently, but authentic nevertheless. As we grow in response to the love of our Lord and King we may be freed to tell it to others as it is to us: witnesses to a profound truth. If so, like Matthew or Paul our stories will be authentic and passionate. Two millennia on, we could witnesses and pray for the world; "with the eyes of (our) heart enlightened (we) may know what is the hope to which He has called (us)." A secular and often indifferent world needs to hear this from us, just as it does from countless witnesses including Matthew and Paul, and the unique and wonderful Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

 

Mark Taylor. Reader in the Benefice of Calehill and Westwell

[1] Ephesians 1: 18

[2]" Sacks knew faith and reason can live together"  Melanie Phillips. The Times 10th November 2020 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sacks-knew-faith-and-reason-can-live-together-9wcsb5l3d

[3] Matthew 5: 17 - 6: 21