26 November 2017
Trying to separate the sheep and
the goats on Mission Sunday
Sunday, 26 November 2017
The Kingship of Christ, the Sunday before Advent
9.30 a.m.: Castletown Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.
Readings: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Matthew 25: 31-46.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen
I must be getting older, because every year I seem to moan earlier and earlier that Christmas is coming earlier and earlier.
The Christmas lights were switched on in Limerick early last week – with more than a full calendar month to go to Christmas Day – and were still on in O’Connell Street and Denmark Street as I was making my way through the city centre early on two mornings last week. Christmas decorations have been up in shops and shopping centres for two weeks or more now.
The shops want us to believe that Christmas has already arrived as they try to ooze a festive air. It seems once again this year that Irish shoppers are planning to spend more in these weeks before Christmas than our counterparts across Europe.
People love the carols, the traditions, the goodwill and the good feelings we get from even just thinking about Santa Claus and the elves, the tree and the lights, the crib and the Baby Jesus. I have already seen crib scenes in decorative lights in churches in south Dublin, London and Lichfield in the past week, and in Italy the week before … although Advent has not yet begun.
If Christ must be at the heart of Christmas, then waiting for Christ, anticipating Christ, must be at the heart of the Advent season, which begins next Sunday.
We have made Christmas an oh so comfortable story, with images of a sweet baby Jesus, surrounded by adoring, cute little animals and being visited by benign kings. In reality, though, Christmas is never a comfortable story in the Gospels.
Christmas is a story about poverty and about people who are homeless and rejected and who find no place to stay.
It is a messy story about a new-born child surrounded by the filth of animals and the dirt of squalor.
It is a story of shepherds involved in dangerous work, staying out all night in the winter cold, watching for wolves and sheep stealers.
It is a story of political deceit and corruption that lead to a cruel dictator stooping to murder, the murder of innocent children, to secure his grip on power.
Those images do not sell Christmas cards or help to get the boss drunk under the mistletoe at the office party.
That is why in the weeks before Advent the Gospel readings remind us of what the coming of Christ into the world means, what the Kingdom of God is like, how we should prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Traditionally, this Sunday was known among Anglicans as ‘stir-up Sunday.’ The Feast of Christ the King is a recent innovation, dating only from 1925, when the concept of kingship was losing credibility in western societies, not so much to democracy but to the wave of fascism sweeping across Europe.
The mere mention of kings and monarchy today evokes images of extravagance or anachronism. But Christ comes not as a cute cuddly babe wrapped away in the manger in the window of a large department store. Nor does he come as a remote European monarch, whether barmy or benign.
Instead, our Gospel reading tells of Christ coming in glory as the Son of Man (verse 31), as the king (verses 34 and 40), and as Lord (verses 37 and 44).
It is so stark and challenging it forces us to ask what the coming of Christ, the second coming, will be like, and what Christ has to say to us about the way we live and the world we live in today.
The division of people into sheep and goats is a good image. We all love to divide people into the insiders and the outsiders, us and them, friends and foes, Manchester United supporters and ABU fans. We do it all the time, and sheep and goats are a good short-hand term for what we do.
Sheep and goats behave differently, but in the Palestine of Christ’s time they were fed together. Even to this day, in Greece and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, sheep and goats are often difficult to tell apart until they are separated. And when it came to insiders and outsiders, goats were insiders and sheep were outsiders.
Goats are lively animals and very curious. They are happy living either in herds with other goats or on their own. Sheep are more docile, easily led, and always stay in groups.
Goats are gentle browsers, sheep are destructive grazers.
Goats nibble here and there, sampling and chewing on a lot of things without actually eating them. Sheep eat grass and plants all the way down to the ground. They are greedier than goats, and are more likely to overeat if they find more food than they need.
Goats are climbers: they almost never slip or fall; sheep, on the other hand, are much less sure-footed and easily fall and get stuck upside down.
The parable of the lost sheep just would not have had the same resonance if it were told as the parable of the lost goat.
Sheep can and will stay out all night, and are more resilient in bad weather. That is why the shepherds on the first Christmas night were out on the hills tending their sheep. But goats need warmth at night, so might even have been in the stable alongside the ox and the ass.
So: sheep are outsiders, goats are insiders. And what happens to the insiders and the outsiders in this parable would be a shocking end to the story for those who heard it for the first time in the Eastern Mediterranean.
A scene of Christ in Majesty at the Last Judgment in a fresco in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
This story has inspired great works of art, from doom walls in English mediaeval churches, to popular images in Greek and Romanian churches to this day; from the sixth century mosaics that I was looking at in Ravenna ten days ago to Fra Angelico in Florence and Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
Perhaps because of the Ravenna mosaics, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, and other artists, we often see this story as one about individual judgment and individual condemnation, rather than the judgment of the nations spoken of in this reading.
The story opens with Christ coming again in glory, sitting on his throne of glory (verse 31), and the nations gathered before him (verse 32). We see not isolated individuals are gathered before the throne of Christ, but the nations – all the nations – assembled and being asked these searching questions.
These are questions directly related to that first Christmas story. They challenge us to ask whether we have taken on board the values of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3-11; Luke 6: 20-31), and whether we truly accept the values Christ proclaimed at the start of his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 16-19).
The questions he asks are put not just to us as individuals and as Christians. They are put to the nations, to all of the nations (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, pánta to ethne), each and every one of them.
And that is where Christ comes into the world, both at Christmas and at the second coming, with the Kingdom of God. At his birth, the old man in the Temple, Simeon, welcomes him as ‘a light for revelation to the nations’ (φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν, phos eis apokálypsin ethnon) (Luke 2: 32).
This is Mission Sunday, when we are asked to consider how we might bring the values of the Gospel to the nations of the world.
On Thursday and Friday, I was taking part in meetings in London and Birmingham for trustees and regional volunteers with the Anglican mission agency, United Society Partners in the Gospel.
In this diocese, on Mission Sunday, we are trying to support work in schools in Swaziland through USPG, and in this parish our harvest collection went to support the work of USPG with refugees.
On those two days in London and Birmingham, I found myself asking questions that were related to both Mission Sunday and the image of Christ the King.
Which nations on earth, at this very moment, would like to be judged by how enlightened they are; to be compared with the Kingdom of God when it comes to how they treat and look after those the enthroned Christ identifies with: those who are hungry; those who are thirsty; those who are strangers and find no welcome; those who are naked, bare of anything to call their own, or whose naked bodies are exploited for profit and pleasure; those who are sick and left waiting on hospital trolleys or on endless lists for health care they cannot afford; those imprisoned because they speak out, or because they are from the wrong political or ethnic group, or because they do not have the right papers when they arrive as refugees or asylum seekers?
When did we ever see Christ in pain on a hospital trolley, being mistreated at passport control kiosks in the airport arrivals area, trying to cross the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, or trying to cross the Mediterranean on a makeshift raft or an overcrowded rowing boat?
But – as long it was done in the name of our nation – we did it to Christ himself.
In his second coming, Christ tells us the kind of conduct, of morality, towards others that is expected of us as Christians. But he also tells us of the consequences of not caring for others.
Our Gospel reading makes a direct connection with the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. This Gospel reading challenges us in a way that is uncomfortable, but with things that must stay on our agenda as Christians and on the agenda of the Church and the agendas of the nations.
At the same time, our epistle reading challenges us to ask: what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints (Ephesians 1: 18)? What is the immeasurable greatness of his great power (verse 19)?
The genius of great power is revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice is not to gratify those who want a worldly king, whether he is benign or barmy. Instead, he displays supreme majesty in his priorities for those who are counted out when it comes to other kingdoms.
Christ is not coming again as a king who is haughty and aloof, daft and barmy, or despotic and tyrannical. Instead he shows a model of kingship that emphasises what true majesty and graciousness should be – giving priority in the kingdom to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner (verses 35-36).
As we prepare for Christmas, we can look forward to seeing the Christ child in the crib and to singing about him in the carols. But we can also look forward to seeing him in glory. Let us be prepared to see him and welcome in the hungry, the thirsty, the unwelcome stranger, those who are naked and vulnerable, those with no private health care, those who are prisoners, those who have no visitors and those who are lonely and marginalised.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
Keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the Sunday before Advent (the Kingship of Christ), 26 November 2017.
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