Matthew 25.31-46 Parish Communion HT 23rd November 2014
Today in the church calendar we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. And the passage from Matthew is one of real hope for it speaks about Christ being our King as He has been given all the power in heaven and earth in order to be ruler of all. Christ is already ruler of all and taking note of all our suffering and struggles with living out the faith He has given us.
These past two weeks I rediscovered a term I hadn’t heard in a very long time. I was reading an article about why Pentecostalism is rocketing in growth. The author suggested that this growth was due to Pentecostals tending to be less “nominal” in their faith than other believers.
Q sharp intake of breath through teeth by me. I mean, how dare he?! How judgemental of the author! What does he know of our faith and our church?!
And yet that word nominal struck a chord with me for it’s exactly what Jesus is speaking about in the passage because he speaks about the difference between those whose faith influences their actions and those whose faith is just a pretence, who are followers only in name but not in practice. In fact, Jesus is describing those whose faith has been empowered by the Holy Spirit, who have a sense of God working within them to reach out to others compared to those who have not allowed the Holy Spirit to fill them.
This was the conclusion of the article, which was that Pentecostals will say they are growing because the Holy Spirit is moving in a powerful way and this influences their spiritual practice and engagement with their communities.
Now talking about the Holy Spirit moving in powerful ways can be tricky for some of us Anglicans. We’re not used to the more, dare I say, supernatural aspect of God working in us. I don’t know about you, but I much rather sense God while sitting quietly in prayer rather than speak in tongues, shaking or falling backwards. Basically because I have a tricky back…. But there was a time when I belonged to a more Charismatic church that I did do all those things and to experience God in such a way was an amazing experience that kick-started my faith. I had a real sense of God being really real. I still do.
And actually I had forgotten and perhaps even dismissed those early experiences of God moving powerful through the Holy Spirit until I had a chat with a very young boy a couple of weeks ago at a local school. This boy was about ten and, while pointing to my dog collar, asked if I was one of the priest type people kinda thing. Of course I said yes, as then wasn’t the time to explain the C of E’s holy orders and my position of Deacon. The boy went on to say how he went to the youth Christian music festival, Soul Survivor. He said the worship music was awesome and that the he saw the Holy Spirit moving in the people, tipping them over and speaking in tongues. He then said something which quite amazed me. He said “What more evidence do you need for the existence of God when you see people being filled with the Holy Spirit?!” What more evidence do you need?! Now there’s a phrase I don’t hear very often. And it’s easy to dismiss it as just a child’s simplistic view of God. But hang on a minute, didn’t we hear just a few weeks ago Christ saying something about having the faith of a child? To accept things with the heart rather than the head? Aren’t you just even a little curious about how what life would look like if everyone asked for the Holy Spirit to come, fill them afresh with the power of God?
However, this passage from Matthew is not just about those who really get Jesus’s message and live a spirit filled life as Kingdom people and those who don’t because this passage is also about what happens to such people, in other words God’s judgement. The word judgement is not an easy word to hear for it speaks about right and wrong. In our culture today there is a real backlash against the idea of being right or wrong as everything now is subjective to personal experience. There is even the term “rightism” for those who continually push for what they think is right according to them. And perhaps, in some cases, being in the right is not necessarily the way forward when it is better to accept that there isn’t always a black and white answer.
I have heard this passage from Matthew many times and each time I am struck by the reference to goats and sheep. For a long time I wondered why did the sheep need separating from the goats? I really didn’t like the idea of goats being intrinsically evil! But over the years I have learned that the sheep and goats in Palestine do look very much the same. In fact, according to Tom Wright, the only way to tell is by their tails as sheep’s tails hang down but goat tails stick up! And they need separating at night because goats are less hardy than sheep and so need to be kept warm! And so the illustration of the sheep and Goats is not because goats are evil and sheep are good. No it’s to show that it’s very difficult for us to judge who is a nominal Christian, someone just pretending to believe and those who are true believers. And, actually, that is not for us to judge at all because the danger of judging others easily opens us to fall into the trap of deciding who is in and who is out of the church, or even worse, who is good and who is evil. The problem of seeing the world in such black and white terms is that it stops us from seeing the face of Christ in the faces of the people we meet. Then how stinging will it be to hear:
“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.”
Only by spirit filled do we have the strength to help and support all those who cross our path. Wouldn’t you rather hear:-
“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.”
It’s quite easy to become fixated upon the story’s telling of the final judgement and perhaps putting that thought away into some dim and distant future but the real hope is Christ is already among us, working through us, ruling the world as our King and Saviour. And He’s here, waiting to be asked to enter our lives afresh. Come Holy Spirit come, pour out your living water in us today.