We live in a world that seems to be increasingly self-centred, selfish, self-serving, self-obsessed. A world that seems often harsh, intolerant, judgmental, hostile and exclusionary. We are seeing a growth in nationalism – people putting their country’s needs first and subordinating or even rejecting the needs of the global community. Perhaps the world has always been this way. But it seems to me to be a growing trend over the past several years.
What do we as Christians do in such context?
When we want to know how to be behave in the world, the best place to go is to the Gospel narratives, to see how Jesus behaved. And to hear how Jesus spoke – not just his teachings, but what he said to people informally and how he spoke to and engaged with people.
In Matthew 15 we find the story of Jesus feeding the four thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread. The story starts with Jesus healing people of a wide array of afflictions, leaving the crowds amazed. But in the middle of this story is a profound verse that ties the entire story together:
Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
What we see here in Jesus is kindness. He is kind. We could say ‘compassionate’ and that would be correct. But ‘kind’ is a much simpler, shorter word. It is the word a child is likely to use.
If we scan through the pages of the Gospels, we will see more and more examples of Jesus being kind. He is thoughtful, considerate, sensitive, responsive, engaged, attentive, slow, open, willing, touchy, generous. in a word: kind.
Psalm 23 is also a set reading for today: The Lord is my shepherd. The shepherd also is kind. Indeed, there are numerous passages in the first and second testaments about shepherds who care for and protect their sheep, who seek lost sheep, who bind up and heal injured sheep, who fight off wild animals. These images of shepherding are images of kindness.
Our primary readings for today are Matthew 25:31-46 and Ezekiel 34:1-24. Both readings focus on Christ as King – Ezekiel in the form of a prophecy and Matthew in Jesus’ own words about the return of the Son of Man. And both passages tell us the same thing about what Christ will do when he returns:
Christ will separate humanity
Christ will divide us in two groups: those on his right who will inherit eternal life and those on his left who will go away to eternal punishment. This splitting of the world into two distinct groups is hard for us to grasp and accept, but this is what the passages say.
Matthew divides the world into the sheep on Christ’s right and goats on Christ’s left. Ezekiel prophesies two further divisions. First, the sheep on the right and neglectful shepherds on the left. And second, a dividing of the sheep into the lean sheep on the right and the fat sheep on the left.
This separation that the Son of God will create leaves:
Sheep (lean/thin sheep) on the right
Goats, neglectful shepherds and fat sheep on the left
Surely, we want to be on Christ’s right!
Our passages give us clear, detailed reasons for this separation, which show that we have a great deal of control over which group we may be assigned to in future.
Matthew 25 makes it clear that the division is not based on our belief in Jesus as the Son of God, of our adherence to Christian doctrine, our participation in Church, our tithing, etc. No! Instead, the separation is based on kindness to those who are vulnerable. That’s it. Such a simple thing, it might seem. Just kindness. Compassion. Caring. The sheep who go to the right hand of Christ as those who care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25:40).
Ezekiel 34’s first separation is the shepherds from the sheep. The shepherds here are the leaders of Israel. In our time, the shepherds are the pastors of the church – ministers, priests, clergy – as well as lay leaders – wardens, councillors, elders, ministry leaders. God’s charge against the shepherds was that they did not take care of their flock. They were neglectful, so that the flocks became vulnerable to wild animals. Even worse, the shepherds were eating the sheep entrusted into their care! Thus the Lord says, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ez 34:10). Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for the flock, specifically by those into whose care the flock has been placed, i.e. church leaders.
And Ezekiel 34’s second separation is a separation within the flock of sheep – the fat from the lean. This is not a commentary on body size! Instead, the fat sheep are those members of a church who inflate themselves at the expense of others. The Lord says, “You [the fat sheep] shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak [lean] sheep with your horns until you have driven them away” (Ez 34:21). The separation is based on bullying, criticising and breaking down each other in a church. Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for each other within the flock.
How then do we turn to Christ’s right?
We as individuals – and we as a church community (for my congregation, it is the parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton) – can and should live our lives in such a way that we keep turning to Christ’s right, turning to the right, turning to Christ’s right. And we can do that on a day-to-day basis by showing kindness and compassion to those who are going through hard times, by caring for the God’s people if we hold positions of leadership in the church, and by treating each other kindly within the church community.
The theme I was allocated for today’s sermon was ‘Make it simple’. Make it simple! What a theme!! I’m good at making things complex, nuanced and sophisticated; not at making the complex and (ultimately) unknowable simple.
So I start this message by sharing my testimony of how I became a Christian on 21 October 1984.
I then use the four readings allocated for today to pull out two main themes:
Psalm 116 uses the phrase “I call on the name of the Lord” four times, emphasising that in response to both the highs and lows of life, we are to choose to call on God’s name.
Joshua, in Joshua 24:14-18, calls people to choose this day who they will follow: God or not God.
In Ephesians 4:25-5:1, Paul exhorts Christians to “be kind and compassionate” to other people and to “walk in the way of love”.
And in Luke 6:27-36, Jesus says, “to you who are listening I say: Love”. This is always his command and call, the most basic command that he gives and the one that he gives most frequently. This time, he ups the ante by calling us to ‘love our enemies’, because loving those who love us is something everyone does. We who follow Christ, however, are called to more than that.
Together, these readings present to us a very simple (albeit not easy) approach to Christianity:
It is really as simple as that. And while these sound like two things, they are in fact one, because God is love (1 John 4:8). So, in truth, at its simplest level, being a Christian means: