Reading Matthew 25: 31-end
Preacher Revd Tom Carson, Mortlake Team Ministry
I want to begin today by reflecting on how well you can locate your parish priest. And so I’m going to give you three pieces of information about Robert, David and Neil – and I’d like you to see if you can guess which information belongs to which priest.
So Team Vicar/Rector A was born in a place called Irvine; before ordination you’d have found him as a learning support worker at a primary school and a Stock Controller at Tesco; and if he wasn’t here in church right now, the place he most want to be found is doing some fly fishing.
Team Vicar / Rector B was born in Ashby-de-la-Zouch; before ordination you’d have found him as an Associate Lecturer at the OU and teaching in various colleges in London & Surrey; and if he wasn’t here in church right now, the place he most want to be found is walking in Northumberland or on the South Downs.
Finally, Team Vicar / Rector C was born in Blackheath, SE London; before ordination you’d have found him as an National Coal Board bureaucrat… In Belgravia!; and if he wasn’t here in church right now (and he assures me that he was in no way stating this as a preference), the place he would most like to be found is at the Odeon Cinema Richmond watching the latest in the Hunger Games cycle.
Well, I wonder if you can decide which is which?! Keep a mental note of the score in your head… [Get them all to stand up in turn.]
Thank you very much to the parish clergy! I wonder if you were at all surprised at any of those locations they might like to be found? I know that I certainly was.
But, of course, we’re not here this morning to find out about your parish clergy whereabouts, but rather to seek to locate and to worship Christ the King. How would he respond to a request for those three pieces of information? Where was he born? A stable in Bethlehem. What was he doing before… ascension? Hanging around on earth, teaching about the Kingdom of God. Where would he most want to be found today, if not in church? It’s this last question which is so important for us to ask. Of course, we meet Christ here today through Word and Sacrament… but where do we find him outside the walls of this church? Where would Christ most want to be found?
On the Feast of Christ the King we stand on the brink of Advent, the time during which we prepare for the judgement of Christ. And so our Gospel reading today depicts Christ as the ascended King, seated on the throne of glory – and he’s coming in Judgement. But interestingly he directs our attention away from Heaven as the place where we might encounter him, right back down towards the earth.
We might be looking up to heavenly, but Christ tells us he’s here among us: ‘I am the stranger,’ he says; ‘I am the naked’; ‘I am the sick’; ‘I am the prisoner’. This story is not so much a narrative account of the final Judgement far off in the future, as it is an existential test for us today. How do our own lives look when we hold them up to the light of Christ’s words?
The sheep and the goats are asked to look back from the end of their lives, and spot where they’d served Christ in the needs of those around them. ‘When was it that we saw you…’ they all ask. And so encouraged by this story, we can all do exactly the same in the present: when do we see Christ? And perhaps it helps to take the long view, to look at the way we live now in the light of our whole life span. What sort of life would you like to look back on from the end of your days? What sort of person do you want people to speak of at your funeral? What might others write about you in cards of condolence?
These are the sort of questions which Christ asks the sheep and the goats to consider, but he does so for our benefit today. He does so because we are able to choose what sort of person to be today, tomorrow, and the next day.
Each day we have hundreds of moments when we can choose whether to act like a sheep or a goat: moments at which we can decide whether or not we turn towards others in love, or away from them. The point of this story is that Christ’s royalty is to be found first and foremost in others before it can be found on the throne.
The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (who’d detest the idea that he was being quoted from a pulpit) had an idea he called the eternal recurrence. It’s a self test that goes like this. Imagine that the life you now live will happen again and again and again and on to infinity. You will relive the life you are currently leading an infinite amount of times more, forever and ever and ever. He asks us to imagine that we can’t change the past, but that the choices we now make today are fixed for eternity. If that was the case, would you continue to live in the way you do now? Would you make choices about work, the same decisions with what you do in your spare time or the same relationship choices that you are now making if you had to live them over and over and over again? I think this is a brilliant test for each of us to apply to ourselves. We can’t change the past, but we are in control of what we do with the rest of our lives.
Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats is not so different. It asks to consider the choices we make today from the perspective of eternity and question how we are living. Now some of us might respond to such a challenge quite radically. Perhaps viewing our lives in such a way may help us to realise that we’re not in the right job, or making the best of the life we have, and know that we need to make a big change.
For others, it may just help us to see where Christ is all around us at each moment, and that we have the chance to love him in the face of our neighbour. It might inspire us to make that phone call, to pop in for that cup of tea, to do that bit of voluntary work, to spend more time with people instead of getting all our paperwork or e-mails in order… The actions which Christ spots aren’t huge or world changing, but really rather ordinary: ‘you welcomed me’; ‘you gave me clothing’; ‘you took care of me’; ‘you visited me’. They’re quite unspectacular everyday actions; none of these things will ever make headline news.
In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons, Richard Rich is young and enthusiastic, and seeks fame, success and riches. He’s highly ambitious and wants to have power and recognition. He goes to Thomas Moore seeking his advice about how to achieve it… Moore says ‘You should be a teacher, Rich.’ But Rich rejects the possibility saying, ‘If I was a teacher, who would know?’ Moore’s replies: ‘You will know it; your pupils will know it; and God will know it. A pretty good audience that.’
The story of the sheep and the goats reminds us that God does know it, even when we don’t. That God is the only audience we need. That what Rich missed most of all was the chance to see Christ in the faces of those pupils.
Where do you or I need to go to find Christ?