Sermon: The Great Surprise

Last Sunday in Ordinary Time (Christ the King Sunday) Year A
Matthew 25: 31-46

This Sunday, the Sunday before Advent, marks the end of the annual cycle of lectionary readings. For the past year we have been guided by Matthew’s gospel. Next week, Advent Sunday, sees the beginning of the year of Mark.

This final Sunday in the lectionary is given a special name. It is the Sunday of Christ the King and the focus of our worship is on the reign of Christ. It’s a great excuse to sing some big hymns! But more importantly, it is an opportunity to reflect on what it means to call Christ our king. For he is a king unlike any other; a king who defies all our preconceptions.

As we come to the end of our readings from Matthew, our gospel text seems like a good place to finish. It marks the end of Jesus’ ministry of preaching and teaching. After this final parable, Matthew turns to plot against Jesus life and the events leading to his death on the cross.

Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel begins with these words: “the Kingdom of heaven will be like this…” And then follows three parables of the kingdom, of which today’s lesson is the third. They have a common theme: “the king is returning, but are you ready to meet him?”

It will be like a bridegroom arriving suddenly at a wedding feast; a wealthy landowner returning from a long journey and calling his managers to account. It will be like a shepherd separating the flock; the sheep from the goats, one from another.

These parables do not make easy reading, for they speak of judgement and division, punishment and reward. It all seems very black and white – we are much more comfortable with shades of grey.

And faced with this alarming prospect, what is our response to be? Jesus calls us to be prepared, like bridesmaids waiting for the arrival of the groom; put our faith into bold and risky action, like the servants who were entrusted with their master’s wealth; and in today’s parable, show compassion to those at the margins of society – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner.

But there is more to this parable than a simple call to compassion. At the heart of the parable is a surprise. In fact one commentator, Brian Stoffregan, suggests that rather than calling this parable “The Final Judgment” a better title might be “The Great Surprise”. He writes:

“Small, seemingly insignificant and forgotten deeds done in everyday living are lifted up as service to Jesus himself.  The sheep in the parable today were surprised – unaware of the good things they were doing.  Their ministry had become a natural response to being a part of Christ’s family, a natural outflowing of life, an internalized faith and lifestyle – so much so that they were unaware of the good works they were doing as they shared God’s love.”

In other words the sheep are surprised – surprised that through such ordinary acts they have been ministering not only to others, but to Christ himself. And on the other hand, the goats are also surprised – surprised that by their lack of love for their neighbour, they have missed the opportunity to serve Christ himself.

Notice by the way that those on the left aren’t judged because of something they do. They are judged because of something they don’t do. It would seem that sins of omission can be just as deadly as sins of commission. The good things we don’t do can be as dangerous to our spiritual health as the bad things we do do. That is why one traditional prayer of confession has the words:

We have sinned against you
in the things we have done
and the things we have left undone.

How can it be that good and responsible Christians fail to show compassion for others? It is easy for us to be busy in Church affairs, and other worthwhile concerns, and yet to have too little time for simple kindness where it is needed. It is easy to pass people by, for all sorts of reasons: because we find them difficult to talk to or relate to; because we consider them undeserving of our help or responsible for their own predicament; because we think that in this country nobody is really poor – and isn’t that what the social services is for?

Or simply because we are too busy to get involved. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan, where it is the respectable religious guys who pass by in their hurry to get to worship, and the non-believing Samaritan who stops to help?

For me the parable of the Good Samaritan came sharply alive in a simple encounter (or perhaps I should say, non-encounter) which happened many years ago. One of Mary Ann’s cousins invited us to the church he was then attending, Kensington Temple. It is a large and lively Pentecostal church in Notting Hill. We attended the evening service, which was specifically designed for people to take non-Christian friends, as an opportunity to meet Jesus in the worship. The church was packed and there’s no doubt that it was a powerful and exciting event.

After the service, we made our way to Notting Hill Gate Underground Station, as did many of the other worshippers. As we walked down the steps into the station, we passed several people sheltering from the cold. Most of them were too tired and apathetic even to beg. And so we passed by, avoiding eye contact, as one does.

It was only when I got home that I took time to reflect on this. I had gone to church to meet God. But as I headed home on a spiritual high, was I in fact in danger of passing him by? If we take seriously the astonishing message of Matthew 25, Jesus was present on the underground steps just as much as he was in the church.

But of course we shouldn’t find it so surprising; after all, Jesus spent so much of his earthly ministry identifying with the poor and oppressed. In the words of Rosemary Radford Ruether:

“The Jesus, who made himself one of the poor, one of the outcasts, and finally one of the dead, in order to witness to the true conditions for entering God’s reign, witnesses against this betrayal of his name. He flees from those who use his memory as a means of power and domination. To adapt the Jewish legend he is perhaps to be found among the beggars at the gates.”

Many Christians have encountered Christ anew as they have ministered to the poor, the sick and the destitute. For Mother Teresa it was the motivation for her ministry:

“every time I give a piece of bread, I give it to him. That is why we must find the hungry and the naked. That is why we are totally bound to the poor. The poor must know that we love them, that they are wanted. They themselves have nothing to give but love. We are concerned to get this message of love and compassion across. We are trying to bring peace to the world thru our work.”

In his book the Double Cross, Canon Paul Ostreicher tells of an encounter with a remarkable priest called Paul Gauthier. Gauthier was the head of a RC seminary in France, who after a pilgrimage to Israel asked permission to resign from teaching theology in order to serve a poor Palestinian Christian community in Nazareth. Ostreicher describes meeting Gauthier in a chapel carved out of a hillside cave:

“We had been sitting, talking, for more than an hour. Gradually more people came and sat down around us. It was time for the liturgy. The group that gathered could not have been more varied. No one asked to what nation, race, class or religious rite she or he belonged. The bread was broken, the wine poured out for the whole divinely human family. Here earth and heaven, time and eternity became one. All the paradoxes and contradictions of life were resolved. I understood better than before what Jesus must have meant when he said: “the kingdom of God is very near.” Of that celebration of life, risen life, I can say now; if that had been the only eucharist I ever shared in, it would have sufficed.

As we came out of the cave the sun was setting. I had a final question that related not only to this liturgy but to the life and work and prayer of which it was evidently the heart. “Is this,” I said, pointing to the cave and the settlement around it, “is this what you mean by mission? Is this how you bring Jesus to the people?”

A look of pity greeted my question. Almost as though he wished he had misunderstood me. “Brother,” he said, “I have not brought Christ to these people. Because, in their love, they allow me to meet some of their needs, every new day I rediscover Christ in them.””

Isn’t this the key to understanding the parable of the sheep and goats? Ministry to our brothers and sisters in need is not a distraction to the real work of the church, or an optional extra. Rather it is the means by which we may encounter Jesus, the way we may serve Jesus, in our daily living.

As we come to the end of our year of Matthew, this is the distinctive message that Matthew wants us to hear. At the very beginning of his Gospel we are told that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. As we read the Gospel we discover how this name, which is really a promise, becomes a reality. So Christ is present where two or three are gathered in his name (18:20); Christ is present wherever and whenever his disciples baptize and teach (28:20); here we learn that Christ is also present in the daily encounter with those in need.

Today’s parable gets to the very heart of what it means to proclaim Jesus as king, what it means to serve Jesus as king. If we think it is just about coming to church and singing these old, rousing hymns, we too, like the goats in the parable, may be in for a surprise. For the judgement described in Matt 25 doesn’t really lie in the future, at some undefined point in time. It is today, for we judge ourselves in the way we respond to Christ-in-our-neighbour  in the daily encounters of life.

As we approach the season of Advent with its theme of Christ’s coming we should remember that Christ may be much closer than we usually imagine. Today, we learn that he is as close as the next person in need.

As is often the case in my sermons, this draws on older material that I wrote several years ago. It may contain quotations that are unattributed: if so, my apologies.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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