Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 26 November 2023.
• First Reading: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 (God’s promise to search for His sheep and look after them)
• Epistle: Ephesians 1: 15-23 (Paul’s prayer: for the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so as to know Him better)
• Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Parable of the sheep and the goats. Judgment of the nations)
We have all seen the crime dramas, when it all comes together in the final scene. Agatha Christie does this with special emphasis when the amateur detective gathers the whole house-party to hear his or her conclusions. One by one each suspect is considered, and then rejected.
And then the climax comes, the culprit is revealed, often only after some highly improbable and secret piece of evidence has come to light.
The gospel of Matthew also comes to its climax, with Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple and His disputes with the various authorities.
Then come His warnings of the last things before His coming again. And this is followed by His parables of the Kingdom: the 10 young women, the talents and finally the sheep and the goats.
Only after all this does Matthew launch into the account of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.
But the parable of the sheep and the goats is different from the other parables because it is emphatically political. It does not deal with personal morality, spiritual life or salvation.
But it does deal with the judgment of the nations of the world. For all their wealth or poverty, the sophistication and subtlety of their laws, the magnificence of their public works, the might of their armies and the generosity of their health, education and social security systems they are all brought to judgment. There is no escape and none may suppose that this parable is to be regarded as a figurative illustration of the advantages of being kind and generous to others.
And then there is the question of just who we can identify as the needy people whom the nations had either supported or ignored.
I can find nothing in the gospels in which Jesus identifies Himself with the poor of the land as such. At His baptism, He is seen as one with the sinners of the world and He undergoes a baptism of repentance even though His is personally sinless.
But all the gospels and St Paul are clear in Jesus’ declaration that His closest and most intimate brethren are those who do the will of God. Nobody else. It is there near the beginning of Mark (end of chapter 3); it is in the middle of Matthew (end of chapter 12), and in Luke (chapter 8). John devotes a good part of chapter 17 to Jesus’ commitment to His disciples while Paul develops his theology of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).
In other words this theme of the intimacy of Jesus with His obedient disciples runs through the New Testament like a vein of gold in rock.
And the nations are judged on the basis of how they have treated the disciples of Jesus. It is not just their leaders. It is also their opinion formers, their cultural leaders, their songsters and comedians, their great and good.
All have had a part in setting the attitude of the state to those who are disciples of Jesus. It is not as if those disciples are without fault and the judgment of a nation definitely begins in the household of God.
But even so, if they belong to Jesus then His is their shepherd, seeking them out when they go astray, and moving to gather them, tend and feed and heal them.
If they were perfect in all respects then Jesus would not have to be concerned about them – but He is concerned and has dedicated Himself to them.
But this parable is about Jesus’ judgment of the nations of the world for their attitude to His disciples – not so much the institutions of the church but the lives of individual believers.
And so the questions in this area remain to be answered.
Writing to the church in Ephesus, Paul prays for the disciples in a city known for its commitment to paganism.
The many-breasted figure of Diana was a fertility cult which made the silversmiths wealthy, and who resented anything to upset their trade.
In this culture Paul was praying that the disciples in Ephesus may indeed have the Spirit of wisdom to understand and discern their times and to know and serve their Lord more fully and faithfully.
He also prayed that their hearts may be enlightened to see the hope to which they were called – and it was a very different kind of hope to that offered by Diana.
He wanted them to see that the power of God which had raised Jesus from the dead was the same power that was among them, no matter what kind of opposition they received from the city itself.
As we celebrate Christ the King, we are looking at One who is not only Head of the Church, but the One who has given His all for it.
Its life is His life, its breath is His Spirit, its strength is the strength of God who raised Him from the dead.
Whatever abuse and rejection the followers of Jesus find, He has already gone before them, and is the sure and certain hope of their life and resurrection.