The image of Christ the King described in the Gospel reading today is certainly awe-inspiring, but also intimidating. Intimidating because it makes quite hard reading – that is, IF we look at it from an earthly perspective. Just picture the scene: Jesus is sat on the throne surrounded by all the angels and all the nations are gathered before him in judgement at which point Jesus separates the people, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are analogous of the genuine believers, whereas the goats are analogous of the false believers and unbelievers. The “sheep” are invited to take their inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world. The “goats” are sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
In this way we are confronted in a very direct way with the judgement of God, which is something I spoke about back in October, when we looked together at the parable of the wedding feast. At that time, I said with our justice system, it isn’t unusual for people to hear of a sentence and perhaps think “that’s not fair”. But God’s justice is absolute justice, and his judgement involves people who reject him having to realise the consequences of their rebellion. People so often seem to want to engage with life on their own terms or not at all. I would say ok, but are you prepared to take responsibility for yourself and the possible consequences of your actions? Throughout Salvation History the people of God have had to learn the hard way; I think there is nothing new under the sun, and God’s people today still don’t always “get it”.
That theme emerges again here. There are consequences of our actions. We cannot pretend to be disciples of Christ. There is no half-way house. We are all in or we are not in at all. The compassion shown by the sheep (that is the genuine believers) to those in need in this account is like an outworking of their salvation. Becoming a follower of Christ involves a life being transformed, and a life that bears the fruit of the Spirit. There must be integrity, genuineness and authenticity.
In the reading, both the sheep and the goats are surprised at the commentary on their life and actions, which suggests that neither was consciously or intentionally working for salvation. Those who were punished for their failure to minister to others were so blinded by their preoccupation with themselves that they showed no compassion. The parable shows that simply saying the right words, without living them too in a way that shows love and concern for people, is useless. At the end of the day we don’t do good deeds so that we might go to heaven. We cannot achieve salvation by works. We don’t work FOR salvation we work BECAUSE of salvation. We do good deeds because we have been saved; they are an outworking of the inner grace we have encountered and Christ in our lives.
In that great reading from Ephesians we see a window looking into Paul’s heart. Paul is thankful for the faith and love of the believers in the Church in Ephesus. His heart’s desire is that the believers may know Christ even better, and that the eyes of their heart “may be enlightened” in order that they may know the hope to which he has called them, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. Christ’s first mandate was “come, follow”. In our Gospel reading today we are told to “come and take”, i.e. lay claim to that glorious inheritance which is bestowed upon all who genuinely believe.
That belief comes from acknowledging Christ as King in our lives, Christ who is seated at God’s right hand “in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
In a very individualistic age, discipleship is not about us, about or own desires and wants, or about us cherry picking aspects of faith that we are happy to adhere to. It is about loyalty, fealty, truth and love which can only come from giving Jesus the place in our hearts and lives that is his by right. He is the Lord of Lords, and King of Kings.
Jesus was serious about expecting lives to be changed by the teaching. It wasn’t just for fun, God notices what goes on. God thinks that the lives we lead here on earth are of consequence, and so our behaviour has serious consequences. The way in which we treat others has importance to God, he takes note and there is judgement.
This last Sunday of the Church liturgical year, precedes the start of the new church year beginning with the first Sunday in Advent. Our collect today reminds us that today is ‘Stir Up Sunday’ a Sunday synonymous with Christmas puddings. The great cry ‘stir up’ was a reminder to congregations to get the Christmas pudding made in plenty of time to mature before Christmas. When I was a child, my mum always used to add the all-important coin to the mixture, and whoever got it on their plate on Christmas Day was supposedly especially blessed. I never really thought about it but both my brother and I used to get a coin!
The Stir Up prayer is actually asking God for something much more important. We are praying that God will stir up our wills, so that we might get on with doing the good works that he has planned for us to do. Then, as a consequence, we pray that we might receive our abundant reward.
In an age when so much is about how we feel, it is interesting to get another perspective. In the end, it is our will, rather than our feelings, that is the most important governor of our actions. Real love is not about feeling it is about choosing, by our wills, to do good to others even though we may not feel good towards them. Our feelings should not dominate our wills. And so we pray that God will “stir up” our wills, so that they will be in charge of us, doing what we know is right. In this prayer we recognise that we need God’s help in order for our wills to function properly.
The ending of a year is a good time to assess where we have been, what has been achieved, and perhaps most importantly, where we are going with our journey of faith. Good endings are as important as good beginnings. New beginnings are always exciting, offering us the challenge of new spiritual adventures and development. If, when we look at our spiritual lives, we feel that we have made no real spiritual progress, perhaps it is time to embark on more intentional prayer & Bible study. Perhaps you would like to put your faith into some kind of action, helping with the various forms of ministry exercised by this Church or community projects.
Lord of the past and the future: we thank you for the last Church Year. We thank you for the fellowship and joy of our worship together as a community. We pray for the coming year, that we may benefit from the teaching and wisdom of the church and grow in faith and knowledge of You our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer – Lord of Lord and King of Kings, Amen.