It is the last Sunday of the church calendar, and the theme is Christ the King. But our readings today are blending in a couple of other images with that. Let’s have a look at them.
The first is the theme for today: Christ the King. That’s about Christ being King of our world, and everything that happens in our world happens within the rule of Christ. Christ rules OK! You can see the image in the south window of Christ as King. In the second lesson, the epistle from Ephesians, Paul says that God has put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head over all things for the church and also that Christ is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named. Christ rules over everything on earth.
What it means for us as Christians is the way we live in this world. We should live knowing that Christ is our King, and that affects everything we do. We are here to help build the kingdom, a place of justice and peace, a place of fairness and equity, a place of love and forgiveness.
The second image in today’s readings is the shepherd. We have another stained glass window in the All Saints Chapel of the Good Shepherd, which is a particularly lovely one. The picture of the shepherd is given to us in both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading. In the passage from Ezekiel, God is speaking through the prophet, saying that he, God himself, will look for the sheep that have wandered off and gather them up and bring them to safe pasture, binding up the injured and strengthening the weak. And then God will set up a shepherd over them who will care for the sheep.
But another theme creeps in, which you miss if you’re not careful. Some of the sheep are fat sheep, who took more of the food by butting the weaker animals out of the way and scattering them. The fat sheep will be destroyed for oppressing the weaker ones. They will be ‘fed with justice’.
You have to be careful not to take metaphors too far. We would expect shepherds to be fattening up their beasts to sell for meat, not punishing them for oppressing the smaller, weaker animals.
But there is a theme of judgement. The shepherd will judge the sheep, and wants to weed out the sheep that looked out for themselves only and treated the other sheep badly.
The Gospel reading brings all the themes together, Christ the King, the shepherd and judgement and gives them a new twist. It begins with an image of Christ sitting on his throne in glory, with all the people before him and he starts judging the people and separating them out.
In the Holy Land, sheep and goats often form part of the same flock, with the shepherd herding both kinds of animal. I have seen them. In Jesus’ story, the Son of Man is separating out the sheep from the goats, instead of fat sheep and lean sheep.
And the Son of Man tells the sheep to enter into the kingdom prepared for them. And he tells the goats to go off to the eternal fire.
The sheep are puzzled and the goats are upset and perplexed. The sheep weren’t even aware that they had deserved a place in the kingdom. The goats were even less aware that they had done anything wrong that merited the fires of hell.
And what it comes down to is the way they treated others. The sheep fed the hungry and gave drink to the thirsty. They welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked. They cared for the sick and visited those in prison. And Christ was in each person who was fed and watered, welcomed and clothed, cared for and visited.
And the goats didn’t do any of all that, so they didn’t minister to Christ. They don’t even have enough insight to understand what they’ve done wrong.
There will be a judgement. We will all be judged. We will all be held accountable for what we have done and not done. We will all receive God’s justice at the last reckoning. While we are here, we have the opportunity to reflect on what we have done and not done, and we have time to repent and be forgiven and to start again and do things differently. God will always forgive us when we repent.
The way we treat people matters, and it’s not just the people we like or the people who live in our area –we know what is going on in other parts of the world – we see it on the television all the time – and we have to take responsibility for caring for people who are suffering.
At General Synod this week, there was a presentation on the way Christians and Moslems are suffering at the hands of the Islamic State and in the war in Syria. So many people have been driven from their homes, persecuted, murdered and injured, deprived of their livelihoods. It is utterly wicked. But when we ignore the plight of the victims, we could be colluding in the oppression.
More locally, we have opportunities to care: when we volunteer for the Foodbank, or donate food and goods to the Peoples’ Kitchen or the Changing Lives Hostel, we are feeding the hungry. When we use our gifts in the service of others, we are ministering to Christ. We may not be able to do everything, but we should do something. When an opportunity to care comes your way, you should take it.
There are no assurances. I can’t tell you that you’ve ticked all the boxes and you’ll get through. I have no guarantees that I’ll get through either.
Christ is our king, our judge, and our shepherd. We have to live in faith and love with hope.