Sermon on Matt. 25:31-46 for November 23, 2014, The Sunday of Christ the King
[Jesus said:] “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.”
If you could travel in a time machine and go back in history, when would you go to? That was the question they asked many people for the radio program and podcast that I like to listen to called “This American Life.”
When they first asked the question, my knee-jerk reaction was to go undo what happened in the year 312 CE at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
Here’s what I would do. I would go back in time with a pair of Ray Bans or some other polarizing sun glasses. I would go up to Roman general Constantine, who was going to win the battle and become the Roman Emperor, and say “These may help with the glare, sir.”
Then he would put them on and look up at the bright sun, and then look at me and say “Much appreciated.” And history would change. Because then he would not see what he thought he saw when he looked up at the sun that day: a big illuminated cross, along with the words, “by this sign, conquer.”
They say that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, I guess the same thing holds true in this case. If you are used to being a general in the Roman army, a sign in the sky must mean go conquer somebody with it.
Anyway, after seeing that vision, he ordered all is troops to scratch a Christian symbol onto their shields. And, they won the war. That victory set in motion the chain of events that led to both Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and then, eventually, to the proclamation of Christianity as the religion of the empire.
(BTW, general persecution of Christians had already ended in 311, with Galerius’ edict, the Edict of Milan – or of toleration).
Why would I undo that moment in 312? Because the conqueror, Constantine hijacked the church for his own political purposes. He made the church wealthy, gave it lands, built basilicas, and promoted Christians to high ranking offices. And then, he called an Empire-wide council of bishops at Nicea which he presided over.
The question he wanted settled at Nicea was: which of the different versions of Christianity was going to be considered right, or “orthodox”? What must everyone believe about such questions as the relationship, in the Trinity, between the Father and the Son? Christians at the time were quite divided over the question – both sides, of course, assumed that human beings could know with certainty answers to questions like that!
So, one side won; the Christians of the other side were branded heretics, and the whole thing was summed up in the Nicene Creed. From then on, believing the lines of that creed was what was important about Christianity. From then on, God’s chief concern, it would seem, is orthodoxy; correct belief. At least, that was the church’s main concern.
Can we, for a moment, go back in time to an open air gathering of poor Jewish peasants in Palestine who were listening to Jesus? He had been telling parables. They were about the catastrophe coming in the near future and how to prepare for it.
In that setting, he tells a parable about the separation of sheep and goats. It is a parable, like the others. A lot of the specifics are fanciful, just as in the previous parable about a bridegroom showing up at midnight. But, as most parables do, it makes one point, and makes it rather sharply. The point is all about what matters to the King. What he thinks is so crucial that it makes all the difference.
But anyway, think for a moment about how far it is from that gathering of people in Palestine, listening to Jesus’ parables, to a sunny battlefield where a Roman general thinks the Christian symbol is for conquering with the sword. And then, even further away, to a time when Christianity is the State religion, wealthy, privileged, and completely beholden to the Roman Emperor.
And just consider how far apart those two different ideas about what is important are: for Constantine and company, it’s all about orthodoxy; right belief. For Jesus, it is all about orthopraxy; right practice.
How are the sheep and the goats distinguished? Who inherits the kingdom? The ones who care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger (meaning the non-citizen, the alien) those who lack adequate clothing, the sick, and prisoners of conscience.
Creeds, like the Nicene Creed, ask what you believe and what you deny. The king in this parable asks how you lived.
I love the way the author, Peter Rollins puts it. He says people ask him if he denies the resurrection of Jesus. He says yes, he denies it. He denies the resurrection whenever he sees hungry people and does not feed them. He denies the resurrection when he sees people thirsty for justice and cannot be bothered with them. He denies the resurrection when he sees suffering and turns away.
But conversely, the resurrection of Jesus is affirmed when he participates in acts of compassion and mercy, in the work of justice and reconciliation.
This is the kind of affirmation about what we really believe that matters far more than a line about metaphysics in a pre-modern creed.
So, I would like to go back with a pair of sun glasses to the year 312. Maybe the whole history of Christianity could have gone another direction.
The Christianity I Do Not Believe In
We are living in some very strange times; lots of things are changing at an unbelievable pace right now. Atheism has become popular, especially among the young.
Theologian NT Wright says that when he was chaplain at Oxford he would meet the incoming freshmen students by inviting them, one by one, to his office for a meet and greet. They would often tell him that he would not be seeing much of them since they did not believe in God. He would then ask them to tell him about the God they did not believe in.
Often they would describe an old man in the sky, angry, full of wrath, with a long list of demands no one could meet. He would tell them, “Oh, well; I don’t believe in that kind of God either.”
When I listen to some of the new atheists criticize religion as the source of wars and conflicts around the world, and when they criticize religion for being about power and control in the hands of manipulative males, I cannot help but say, “Yes, I agree! That’s not what it was meant to be about at all!”
Then my mind goes to that hillside in Palestine where Jesus sits telling parables about the kingdom of God to Jewish peasants living marginal lives on the fringes of the Roman Empire. That is where we learned what is important after all.
What it is Supposed to be About
It is about people; little people. People without titles, without power, without status or influence of any kind. It is about open eyes that see hurts and pain, and open hearts that do something about it.
It is about helping people get food, clothing and shelter; the basics. It is about welcoming the stranger with open arms. It is about responding pro-actively to oppression – not violently; not with a big Roman army on the conquering rampage, but with compassionate care.
It is not about basilicas, cathedrals and mega-churches. It is about communities; communities of people who, when they see each other, see Jesus himself, in need of their shared humanity. Communities like this one right here.
As I said, times are changing – and perhaps you feel as though the changes are mostly for the bad. But I must say there is a new fresh wind (or, should we say Spirit?) blowing through the church in these days. I read book after book and blog after blog, and listen to podcast after podcast from many people who are re-thinking what Christianity is all about.
Believe it or not, the name Constantine keeps coming up a lot as a major problem. I do not claim any originality for my time-machine fantasy. A whole new generation of people are distancing themselves from the Christianity of the Crusades and inquisitions and all forms of empire, in favor of a return to following Jesus. And the Jesus they are listening to is the one out on the hillside in Galilee with the people at the margins.
This is exciting. The word “mission” keeps coming up among these people in the emerging church, and it is not a mission to save the heathen. It is about looking around and asking: what is the mission this community is called to in our circumstances?
I love that question. That is my question. That is our question. Where are the “least of these” who stand in need among us?
Maybe, if Jesus were here, speaking to us the same way, he would tell a parable about sheep and goats, and he would say,
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
- “for I was a middle schooler having trouble with English and Math, and you tutored me;
- I was a homeless person and you served me breakfast;
- I was an elderly person and you called me and wrote to me and came to visit me;
- I was a grieving person and you were there for me;
- I was a gay person, and you welcomed me;
- I was someone who had a rough week, and I came to church, and your music lifted my spirits;
- I was a hispanic person and you treated me with dignity and respect;
- I was a black man and you did not assume I was a criminal;
- I was a child, and you helped make sure that by the time I was your age, I still had a decent planet to live on;
- I was addicted, and you supported my quest for sobriety.
- I was a fallible human being, frequently displaying the human propensity to mess things up, and you forgave me 70 times 7;
- I was a spiritually empty person and you lit a candle and taught me to pray in silence.
This is the mission we are called to. It is a high calling. It calls us to the best virtues humans are capable of.
The View from the End
This parable of the sheep and goats is set at the end of time. It is a familiar scene in Jewish apocalyptic and wisdom literature. There is often a great reversal of fortunes in which the ones who suffered are vindicated, and the oppressors get their comeuppance.
I think the setting at the end of time is perfect. At the end, you have a different view. You can look back, from the end, and see what really mattered. You have a wiser perspective.
From here, you see that what matters is people. What matters to God, is people. What matters, is how we treated people. What Brené Brown calls “whole heartedness.” Showing up. Being vulnerable. Making a difference.
God seems to take that personally. So we take that personally too.
This is why we are here.
This is what Christ the King calls us to.