Living for others is the very heart of the matter

Peter Seal, 26 November 2017

Ephesians 1: 15–23; Matthew 25: 31–46

Today we keep the great feast of Christ the King. It marks the end of the Christian year, as we prepare for Advent next Sunday.

Listen again to these words – a great way to begin a letter. They come from today’s first reading: ‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints’. Paul begins his correspondence with the Ephesians by affirming them – a good model for anyone addressing a community of people. In just a few lines Paul sends positive signals. Here are more:

I have heard of your faith … and your love …

I do not cease to give thanks for you …

I remember you in my prayers …

I pray that … God … 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, [and] the riches of his glorious inheritance.

Can you imagine receiving a more encouraging and affirming letter? This is precisely the kind of hopeful and affirming tone that we Christians need to continue to use among ourselves in our own age. A tone that gives new heart to people. A tone that assures one another that we all have gifts which can be used richly. Last week Adrian MacKenzie encouraged us to dig out the treasure, the talents we have buried; to clean them up and use them again.

Paul goes on to remind his readers of the power that comes to them from beyond themselves – that is, the grace that is theirs because their Lord, Jesus Christ, is alive among them. The church, small though it is in Ephesus in Paul’s time, is no ordinary organisation. It’s a living and growing body, and every one of the men and women in it is part of that growing body.

We know that growth is not only about numbers, but also about depth. Our calling is not to be low church or high church, or any other description of church. No, our calling here in this place and at this time is to be what someone has described as ‘deep church’. That’s the pilgrim journey we are on together.

This brings us to today’s gospel, the famous parable of the sheep and the goats. This passage is not comfortable or easy; no, it’s challenging and disturbing. Indeed there are a few sentences that are really difficult. For example verse 41: ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’. And then the parable ends, ‘These will go away into eternal punishment’.

The temptation for someone like me is to try and explain these tough verses away, and make us feel okay again. But I can’t. What I can say from my experience, and from the experience of so many others, is that ‘being accursed’ and the threat of ‘eternal punishment’ simply do not fit with my experience of God. My experience is that of being loved, without limit; and forgiven when I’ve done wrong; and picked up when I’ve fallen flat on my face.

My experience of God is that of being loved, without limit; and forgiven when I’ve done wrong; and picked up when I’ve fallen flat on my face.

If that’s your experience too, then hang on to the truth of what God has shown you in that way. Our experience and how it leaves us feeling is a real revelation of what God is like.

It’s as though today’s gospel has two messages for us. First, Jesus is saying, ‘Yes, I am the king; the victory is won. My death, resurrection, ascension and glorification mean that there’s nothing to worry about. The victory of life over death has been won decisively once and for all, and for all time.’

The second part of the message is this. Christ the King seems to be saying to us, ‘I know that each of you is called to go on living in the world as it is today, with all its glory and all its pain … I know this, and that’s why my arms are outstretched in loving care. That’s why my eyes are those of compassionate love.’

Today’s gospel is one of the great passages of the New Testament. We cannot but be struck by the measured march of the prose and the majesty of all its images. The canvas on which these images are placed is cosmic. This sort of writing is like that in the first chapter of John’s gospel, or St Paul writing to the Corinthians about love.

There’s no middle ground here. The moral challenge, that of compassionate love, is laid down in front of us, and we are to choose our response. Even the opening words are like the lifting of a vast curtain on an unimaginably powerful entrance.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, then he will sit on his throne in glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.

As we watch the drama of the separation of sheep from goats, we need to understand that our inbuilt temptation – to be observers – is insufficient. The whole point of this scene is that there can be no more detached observers. We ourselves stand before his great throne. We ourselves, in our daily living, must move, as it were, either to right or left.

As we listen to the speech of Christ who is judge, listen again to today’s key images: I was hungry … I was thirsty … I was a stranger … I was naked … I was sick … I was in prison.

We often tend to think that God is exercised about our misdeeds. It can come as something of a shock to realise that God may be a good deal more exercised about the good deeds we do not do.

We often tend to think that God is exercised about our misdeeds. It can come as something of a shock to realise that God may be a good deal more exercised about the good deeds we do not do.

There’s a famous occasion that confirms this message about what Jesus wants us to do. In chapter 4 of his gospel, Luke takes us to the synagogue at Nazareth. The visitor (who is Jesus) reads from the scroll of Isaiah. He speaks of good news for the poor, release for captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed. Then we see him roll up the scroll and say, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’.

It was at this moment that Jesus defined what his life was all about. His purpose was to make clear to our humanity that we are called to give, to be concerned, to offer hospitality.

By happy coincidence Friday of last week was Children in Need Day. Millions of people helped to raise millions of pounds for so many worthwhile projects. Here we have a vibrant, imaginative and thoroughly modern way of showing concern through action. Alleluia to that.

Today’s gospel has far-reaching implications for our lifestyles here in the West. We’re not being called to a kind of hasty and self-justifying remembering of our good deeds. Rather, we’re being told that living for others is the very heart of the matter. Everything we have been given is for sharing. This is a truly radical message.

Someone once said that the difference is not between those who believe and those who do not believe. The difference is between those who care and those who do not care.

The reign of Christ the King is the triumph of loving care.