Proper 29, Year A. Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
We have come to the end of the church year. Next Sunday we enter Advent, that beautiful season of anticipation as we begin the cycle of the year again.
This last Sunday of the church year is called Christ the King Sunday. Pope Pius the XI proclaimed the feast day in 1925 as a deliberate reminder to the faithful that they owed their first allegiance to Christ Jesus, their ruler in heaven, as opposed to the more immediately intimidating supremacy claimed by Benito Mussolini, among others. Pope Pius noted, in stark contrast to the violence seemingly enveloping the world at that time that “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.”
Corresponding to the end of the church year, the Gospel lesson this morning marks an ending also. Matthew places this apocalyptic description immediately after the series of parables we have been reading over the last several weeks, and immediately before Jesus announces his passion and crucifixion. According to the Gospel of Matthew, this is the last teaching of Jesus to his disciples, and by extension, to us. This is what he wanted them left with.
Apocalyptic visions are, by their nature, uncomfortable. At least they are unless one is a great deal more convinced of one’s own saintliness than I ever hope to be. And even if you are, convinced that is, when we start talking about separating out goats and sheep, sending the former off to eternal punishment and deeding “the kingdom” to the other – how comfortable is it to be waddling our beatific, sheeply way off to the kingdom if we know our more boisterous goat brethren are gnawing away at Satan’s shoes in eternal damnation?
Some things to keep in mind: apocalyptic visions are not meant to be a description of what is, or even of what will be. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, they do not describe for us the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. Rather, they give us insight into that which is beyond human understanding. As one homilist said, they are attempting to give us the essence of a reality which largely remains a mystery for us. (Greg Crawford).
Bypassing for the moment sheep and goats and punishments and kingdoms (I’ll get back to that in a minute), what do we see here?
Look at Jesus first. He is Son of Man, coming in his glory. He is Christ the King with the nations gathered before him. He is the shepherd with his mixed flock of sheep and goats. And shockingly, he is the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. He is the “least of these”. Jesus is telling us, God, creator, King, shepherd and Lord is here. As one commentary puts it, “God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.
Now that we’re looking into the faces of our neighbors, lets turn our attention back Jesus’s flock. Jesus only addressed his disciples on this occasion, but now we are His flock. We do not always work and play well with others. Like the fat rams of Ezekiel’s description, we push with flank and shoulder, and butt at all the weak animals with our horns. Inside the church and outside its walls we spend time, energy and resources arguing over doctrine and detail, who is right and who is wrong; righteous behavior, and unrighteous; ultimately who is “in” and who is “out”.
Jesus had given the answers to this final exam multiple times in multiple ways: love God, and love your neighbor. Forgiveness, mercy and compassion were paramount throughout his life and ministry, even when they were inconvenient. Still, the “sheep” , the righteous ones of this story are surprised. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ The sheep served their neighbors in the way that they did because it was the right thing to do, not because it was doctrinally correct, not to appear pious, and not to save themselves from eternal punishment. Jesus celebrates this service born of love to the vulnerable of the flock.
The “goats” are equally surprised. They weren’t bad goats necessarily. They lived in the flock easily enough. They never knowingly offended God. They answer, as perplexed as their ovine brothers before them, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ You can just hear them thinking, “We’d ‘a helped if we’d known…”
Figured out yet if you’re a goat or a sheep? Don’t worry about it. Mark Douglas in Feasting on the Word reminds us, “Christians are always both recipients of the gospel and witnesses to it. Each of us is both unbeliever and believer, both commanded to care and in need of care, both judged by the Son of Man and identified with him in our weakness, both under judgment for our failures to pursue justice and saved by grace, both a goat and a sheep.”
King and servant, glorious and humble, simple in lifestyle, extravagant in love, Jesus gives us today a gift. His vision is neither threat nor promise. It is an invitation to recalibrate our lives, knowing that he is in us, in ALL of us. Give extravagantly of your love, your compassion. Live as what you are, his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.