Sunday 26 November - Christ the King - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

 Christ the King 2017 – Mt 23:31-46

+ Christ the King said, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me’

I taught for a couple of years at a rather posh boarding school, the pupils included various continental royals and their clubs were what you would expect: shooting, skiing, fencing & the rest. But there was one which puzzled me, just called ‘The Goats’. Was it for aristocratic goat-fanciers? No, it was explained to me that it was for boys who were concerned that when they died Christ would lump them with the goats – those who had never done any good to their fellows. They went visiting round the local care-homes, raised money for charity and did a monthly soup-run in Bristol. Today, at the end of the Church’s year (forget all this Hogmanay nonsense), on the feast of Christ the King, the Church gives us this dramatic picture of the end of the world. Like a doom painting in a medieval Church we see Christ enthroned as King judging the world and separating humanity into sheep and goats. The goats go into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and all his angels; the sheep into everlasting life.

You may think, how awful – the fires of hell! But Jesus is using a form of speech, common in his day, called apocalyptic. Apocalypsis in Greek means revelation (what we call the Book of Revelation is also called the Apocalypse), but if you read Revelation there is much about the great tribulation of the End Times - fire and brimstone - hence the modern use of the term as in that great film ‘Apocalypse Now’. But in Jesus’ time ‘speaking apocalyptic’ wasn’t designed to teach the geography of the afterlife – bad luck if you were hoping to see all the people you don’t like turned into goats. It was designed to speak to us now – apocalypse now. Look carefully at his story, the fire of judgement is judgement on how we live now.

Who are the sheep and why are they saved? It is those to whom Christ the King says: ‘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.’ Note that here you get to heaven not for what you believe but for what you do, how you treat the weakest in our world. Elsewhere Jesus says that those who believe in him and are baptised will be saved; here it is those who are kind. This gives hope for all of us, and for those we love (or even those we don’t like) who die without faith in Jesus – as St Paul teaches us ‘God wants all to be saved’.

This teaching was so important that the church turned Jesus’ list into the ‘corporal (or bodily) works of mercy’ and taught it to all Christians. This building is two hundred years old, we will be celebrating this next year, and our predecessors here thought these ‘works of mercy’ so important that around 1860 they put them in stained glass over there, telling those worshipping here in all times to come: ‘go and do likewise’. We heard from Tony a short while ago that we are still doing exactly that at the Bethany Night Shelter. How can do more in our new buildings?

But there is more to it than this. What about those words with which I started, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me.’ There are two things here, firstly about Jesus and secondly about our Christian life.

St Paul persecuted Christians. When he was converted, Jesus said to him, ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’ ‘Persecute me’ – the persecuted Christian is Jesus. Here Jesus is saying that the poor and marginalised are him. We explored this yesterday at the St John’s Theology Symposium. Christ the King of the Universe, God and Judge, is also the homeless woman in the Bethany Night Shelter the young man with severe learning difficulties. Jesus didn’t say, ‘its like you did it to me’, he said ‘you did it to me’. Only Orthodox Christian theology can give this its full meaning. Jesus is not just a random old dead rabbi who said some good things, but the second person of the Holy Trinity, God the Creator of all, who became fully human, taking on our human nature. He is really, fully united with humanity in such a way that to help any human person is to help him. To persecute a Christian is to persecute Christ because by baptism we become part of his body the Church. The sheep and the goats suggest that not just Christians but all humanity are in a sense part of the body of Christ. We can even dare to go further and say that in taking a material body, Jesus makes the whole of creation his body. Lack of care for any part of creation is spitting in the face of Christ.

But go back to the story, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me.’ We have looked at the words ‘to me’; what about the verb ‘to do’? The sheep and the goats teach us that Christianity is not just about believing and thinking, it is a religion of doing. More than that, it is a religion of things. Doing good often involves giving things like food and drink, and in our life of faith we must also use things in the sacraments, bread, wine, water and oil. Thus we help out at Bethany and love Christ in our neighbour; thus we are discussing where to move the font to show the importance of Baptism in our Christian life; thus we share today in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. It all goes together, as St John Chrysostom wisely said: ‘If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice of the Eucharist’. Jesus Christ, the King who is also a beggar, is waiting to meet us in both.