I never thought I’d say this, confession time, but Saturday evening in our household is Strictly Come Dancing night. The girls are totally hooked to the costumes, the dancing and the excitement of who will get chucked off each week. I wander in and out as I get things ready for Sunday – but I have to admit, in a strange way it draws you in.
One of the things I find fascinating is how people react to being judged. Sometimes they seem on the verge of tears – which I find quite understandable – you’ve given your best to something, not your natural talent only to have your efforts archly, condescendingly ripped apart. But of course the contestants could take the judges’ comments as advice, timely warnings that if taken could avert catastrophe. If only Jonny had managed to do what they said and keep his rear tucked in!
When we hear passages about judgement in the Bible, like the gospel reading from Matthew 25, we face a choice in how we approach it. The message of judgement will not be comfortable, it would be tempting to stop up our ears, carry on and hope for the best, but if we listen and take note, it will do us a lot of good.
If you had come to this church 500 years ago, on the eve of the Reformation, this chancel arch would have been one huge painting. Up at the top, Christ was seated in majesty, judging the world. On his right, and your left, the blessed rise out of their graves to everlasting life. On that side, demons haul sinners away to the gates of hell. I imagine that when the sermon got boring, our predecessors would look at the picture – maybe some got drawn to the images of bliss, others of a more nervous disposition were fascinated by the gory scenes on their right.
And when we read Matthew 25 verses 31 to the end, we may identify more with one than another. Do you see yourself as a sheep, looking forward to eternal life in the presence of Christ? Or does a guilty conscience trouble you, as you worry about the fate of the goats?
Christianity comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable. It may be that if we identify with the sheep, we might need to be challenged. And if we worry about being goats, maybe we need to hear the good news of God’s invitation, to be forgiven and free. So as we think about this part of the Bible, please do consciously engage with the bits that might not at first sight appear to apply to you.
When I prepare a sermon I always ask ‘Where’s the good news here?’ For however challenging or difficult a part of the Bible is, we must believe that in the end God’s message to us is good news. There is a lot here!
Firstly, it tells us that Jesus will reign, that’s what we remember this Sunday as we think about Christ the King. Kings and Queens today are either found in fairy tales, or they are constitutional monarchs, like our own Queen and Prince Philip celebrating 60 years together. The Biblical background to Christ the King is an all-powerful monarch who nonetheless gives himself to save his people. In v. 31: ‘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.’ Even now, Jesus is at the right hand of God, and one day his kingdom will come with power. The whole world will be as God intended it to be. Over it all, as King, will be Christ.
Secondly, we are invited to join that Kingdom. If we have faith in Jesus, that promise of verse 34 applies to us: ‘You that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ It has always been God’s plan that his people should live with him in a perfectly renewed creation forever. He invites us – so let us respond, take up the invitation.
Thirdly, the good news is that good will triumph and there will be an end to evil. We see very clearly here that kind, loving, serving deeds are rewarded by Jesus. These are simple practical actions in verses 35-36: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick.
It’s not hard to think of equivalents today: Doing the shopping for the housebound lady next door, putting a tin or two in the supermarket’s box for the homeless. Popping in to check on those who are unwell, phoning those who are going through hard times. Sharing garden produce, welcoming the less well-off to a church social. Giving to charity. Defending those who are oppressed. Hosting a refugee family.
Some of these actions are simple: like the guy who approached me at Chippenham station and pointed out I was standing on a platform where there were no train tracks, and the one I wanted was over there. Others are more complex – I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s given money to a beggar, feeling sorry for them and a bit guilty too because I’m also wondering how it will be spent. I got sent this excellent guide: ‘How to help homeless people’ by the Church Housing Trust, because we have to be both generous and wise.
In the first century AD, when Jesus taught, most people lived in small communities. They knew their neighbours but not much further afield, they knew who was in need, and were mutually accountable to one another. Today we are so interconnected that we daily see images of suffering people from the other side of the world, yet at the same time we may have little relationship even with the folks next door.
We are so aware of need, we could give our all, but what then? We can be bewildered as to how to respond, feel guilty turning away the charity doorstepper. As St Paul says in Corinthians, it is important to give prayerfully, generously, without compulsion and responsibly. God wants us to develop maturity in our giving, so each one of us needs to work this out for ourselves. And the question is not ‘How little or how much must I give?’ but ‘How much of me, my life in Christ, and all that God has entrusted to me is reflected in my giving?’ For giving changes us. We are transformed, and others are transformed by our gift.
It may do so in a deep way. Martin Luther King said: ‘We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring’
For instance it is good that the government has reduced the waiting time for Universal Credit – people claiming benefit just don’t have 6 weeks’ living expenses in their back pocket.
Making structural changes involves difficult issues, and I have sympathy for those who implement them. One thing we can be sure of, our fourth point: that when the Kingdom of God comes, suffering will be no more. Evil will be destroyed. This is really the other side of the same coin. If the new creation is entirely good, there can be no evil. None at all. I used to homebrew wine – make a gallon at a go, but if a single tiny fruit fly got in the whole lot would turn to vinegar. Even a tiny bit of wickedness would spread.
The challenging thing about the people in the passage who are described as goats is that if we met in the street we wouldn’t think they were bad. In v. 41-43 Jesus does not call them murderers, thieves, adulterers, drunkards – because they weren’t. They probably seemed very moral. They just didn’t help those in need. Maybe they lived in nice bungalows with well maintained gardens; they were quiet neighbours, kept themselves to themselves. Never hurt a fly. They just didn’t help either. ‘Not my problem. The state will sort it out. If I get involved where will it stop? It’s probably their fault anyway.’
I know that I’ve reacted to the needy like that at times. Rather than responding out of guilt, I should remember that fifth piece of good news: that when we help those in need we help Christ himself. In v.44 they ask: ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and not feed you?’ -the implication being that if they knew it was Jesus they would have done something. But Jesus says ‘Whatever you do (or do not do) for one of these, you do for me.’ In serving others, we serve Christ.
One of the big questions in this passage is when Jesus talks about ‘members of my family’ who does he mean? Does he mean Christians, who certainly often suffer double discrimination? Or does he mean that we are all children of God? It’s not entirely clear.
Maybe the biggest question though is what am I? Am I, are you, a sheep or a goat? Which side of the chancel arch are you? Destined for eternal life, or destruction?
The temptation is to respond by reflecting on what we do. how well do we measure up? So I do try and respond to need. But sometimes I walk on by – it seems too complicated or I’m caught up in my own world or don’t want to be drawn in. I give to charity but how much? – I suppose I could go the extra mile like John Wesley who gave up drinking tea so he could give to the poor. There’s always more that could be done.
Am I therefore a sheep or a goat? I feel like both. Which predominates? Have you done enough good, been enough of a sheep, to outweigh any goatish behaviour? To compensate for the wrong done? Let alone any good not done?
How do I know where I will be when Jesus divides us in two? How can anybody reach God’s perfect standard? Surely the answer is that We can’t. We cannot wipe away our sin, that foul spot never washes out, except when God forgives us through Jesus.
We could never do enough to reach some divine standard. The only offering that will satisfy is the perfection of Christ, his sacrifice of himself for us on the cross.
Our mixed nature, the sheep and the goat within each of us, can only be dealt with by being born again in Jesus. When we commit ourselves to him we receive new life that lasts for eternity, and the old way finally perishes the day that we die. In the light of the rest of the Bible, we cannot read this passage as an exhortation to do more so that we can be saved. It is not that. Instead it tells us that true faith results in actions.
If we trust in Christ, if we are truly his, then we will want to make a difference for others. If Jesus’ spirit is in us, then we will feel compassion for those in need. Yes, we may be puzzled by how best to help, yes we will still wrestle with our innate selfishness, but by the grace of God we should see progress. We will do something! Motivated not by guilt, but by his love, the love that was first shown to us, we will reach out in love to those in need and in so doing serve Christ himself.