Welcome + Worship + Witness

Canon Philip Gray: Being vulnerable, being Christ-like

23 November 2014
10.30 Priory Sung Eucharist
The Feast of Christ the King
Canon Philip Gray, Vicar of St Margaret’s, Ilkley
Ephesians 1. 15-end; Matthew 25. 31-end

Anyone who reads the financial pages of any serious newspaper will know the immense power of the consumer. One of the present narratives is the radical change which is taking place in the way we shop. The old major supermarkets are suffering immensely: Tescos, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s as many consumers choose to shop instead at the discount shops of Lidl or Aldi or the like. Consumerism is driven by the autonomous, informed choices that individuals make in a marketplace. Every one of these individual choices is having profound effects on our economy, social life and ultimately our society.

The 25th Chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel is the final chapter of the Gospel before the writer gives us his Passion Narrative – his account of Jesus’ last week, his death and resurrection. That 25th Chapter comprises three parables, the three parables which we have heard in Church over the last three weeks. The first two parables provide us with an answer to the question “How must Christ’s disciples live as await the coming Christ?” The first answers that they must be ready and waiting, like those prudent bridesmaids who had their lamps lit, ready for when the bridegroom returned. The second answer is that they must use those talents given to them by God. They must be faithful and fruitful servants who are ready to offer what they have created from what they have been given when their Master returns. The third parable, today’s parable of the sheep and goats, introduces something new and the very significant thing which we can so easily miss is that this parable answers a different question.

The parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, both answer the question: how the disciples will be judged at the end time. In the parable of the sheep and goats none know the master. Here we are being told how those who are not disciples will be judged. In this parable it is the nations, everyone else who does not know the King, who are gathered before him. These are those who have never known Christ, heard of him or believed in him. However, they have throughout their lives lived alongside the Disciples of Christ and the parable tells us very clearly that they will be judged by the criteria of how they have treated their brothers and sisters in need.

The key with this parable is the complete surprise that both the righteous and the unrighteous express that the King had been present amongst them, and that he had been hungry and thirsty and in prison and sick. They did not know that he had remained with his disciples and so they are also surprised that their works of charity were going to be rewarded and their neglect too was going to receive its reward.

Matthew has very deliberately placed this parable last, just before the Passion Narrative. In the section that follows he is going to tell the central story of how Jesus goes to his degradation and death in order to save the world. But the thrust of the whole of his gospel has been that those who follow Jesus will be expected to follow him in the same way, the way of the cross. So if they follow all that Jesus’ has taught in his book they can only end up one place and that is the place where Jesus is going: to be marginalised and rejected by the world. They will be the hungry and the thirsty, the imprisoned and the sick.

We so often read and hear the parable of the sheep and the goats as a sort of Christian “do-gooders” charter. That has become the fashionable way to interpret it. But it simply misses the point in its context. Its message and lesson is far more unpopular and difficult than that. We are far more use to others when we require their help than when we just give it. Our poverty is far more blessed than our wealth. As St Paul says elsewhere “it is by being poor that we make many rich”.

St Matthew’s Gospel ends with the assurance that he is with us always, until the end of time. But we might reasonably ask in our troubled and broken world what evidence we have for that presence with us? The trouble is we always want to think of that presence in terms of God’s power and majesty. But the message of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew is that the presence of God in his world is found through a crucified God and is seen primarily in a suffering Christ on a cross. That is the nature of his Kingship, one that turns our ideas of monarchy completely on its head.

Our King continues to be found in the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and naked, the ill and the imprisoned, because it is here that Christ’s followers are most closely in union with him. They are in need because they have followed his teaching and his example and through it have become poor and persecuted.

I do not underestimate just how difficult a message this is to hear and receive in a consumer society. For consumerism is all about our individual autonomy and rights, what we deserve and the pride, self-concern and self-righteouness that accompanies this. So the fashionable interpretation of the sheep and the goats fits in well. For when we are doing good to others it feeds all these self-perceptions and we can easily be proud of ourselves and our self-righteousness. But the true message of Matthew expresses everything of which we are afraid, our being dependent or a burden on others, our vulnerability, even our humiliation. But we are far nearer to Christ when we allow ourselves to receive from others rather than just do good.

So maybe the message of Christ the King is that all those things that we fear most, these are the very things which ultimately will bring us closest to Christ. These will be the greatest ways as a Christian that we serve our fellow men and women. It is indeed an almost impossible message for a consumer society to hear but it is also one that can bring hope to us all at the deepest levels of our humanity. Amen.