Sheep and goats – a matter of power?
Sermon for Adel Parish Church – Christ the King 2020
Matthew 25: 31 – end
This week we come the end of the church’s year, and the Sunday called ‘Christ the King’. The year that started with us anticipating the birth of the Christ-child in a humble stable, ends with us proclaiming him King – with power over heaven and earth.
Royalty is a bit out of fashion these days. We have great respect and affection for our Queen – but the notion that some should have power because of an accident of birth has largely been abandoned. However, democratic elections still result in some people having great power over the lives of others.
I want to start today with two pictures of power, both in the news in recently.
The first came in the reaction to the death of Peter Sutcliffe; and the apology issued by the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, on behalf of the force, for language used at the time of the killings.
The second has been the spectacle of the President of the United States attempting to cling on to power after the people failed to re-elect him.
Both the US President, and our police forces are given power on our behalf. The mission of the Police is to… ‘make communities safer by upholding the law fairly and firmly’. The US President swears to ‘preserve, protect and defend the constitution’. Both suggest an obligation to all people – especially those who most need protection – something apparently ignored in these two cases.
In 1970s Yorkshire, high ranking police officers talked of ‘innocent’ and ‘respectable’ victims of Peter Sutcliffe, implying that others were neither of those things. Implying perhaps that these deaths were less tragic, less worthy of police time.
In what he’s said since the election, I’m afraid the US president appears to want power mainly for its own sake, not to help the powerless. Over the last four years those in power seem to me to have used it to protect and support people like them, whilst dismissing others as unworthy.
In both these cases power has been used to judge, rather than serve.
Today’s gospel reading also begins with a striking picture of power and judgement…Christ in glory, attended by angels, seated on a throne. There’s no mistaking who the king is. And the judgement seems fairly straightforward too – there are sheep and goats – surely it’s pretty obvious which are which.
I imagine those listening to Jesus thought this too. Probably they were fairly confident about who the sheep were… …religious people…followers of Jesus…people like them. Because it’s not just US presidents and police chiefs who use their power to support their own.
But of course, it turns out not to be that simple.
This king, it seems, doesn’t use his power to benefit those like him, whilst ignoring the others. And he doesn’t want his followers to do that either. For me the interesting thing about this picture, is that the difference between sheep and goats is not at all obvious. Even individuals themselves seem surprised at which group they belong to.
This is a picture of Kingship using power for the good of all – especially those who need it most. Followers of this King are called especially to the poor, the needy, the prisoner, the stranger…those on the outside.
We might wonder what is specifically Christian about this…good people of all faiths and none spend their time and money helping of others.
Well for me this goes beyond an instruction to charity. In this passage, Christ says to the people, “I was hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, a prisoner, a stranger…the way you dealt with such people is the way you dealt with me.”
This is a completely different exercising of power. Christ comes not just to help the weak and powerless – he identifies totally with them. As Christians we are asked not just to help the weak and vulnerable we come across – but to meet our king and saviour in those people.
Christ says – when your life is disrupted by the powerless – when you have those uncomfortable encounters with the homeless, with refugees – that’s the place you can be sure to find me. It gives those people at the bottom of our society new dignity – and in a way, power, because it should change the way we look on them.
“Whatever you did to one of the least of these,” says Christ, “you did to me.”
There’s a sobering thought. When we come across someone in need and powerless, whatever we do – we’re doing to Christ…whatever we do, the positive and the negative. It’s not about our stated beliefs, or mission statements, but how we react when caught off guard. How we use our power over others.
After reading this I’ve been haunted a little by a plea for help to which I did not respond. I may have been right, that it wasn’t really something within my capacity…but I can’t help wondering…would I have responded differently had I thought it was Christ on the other end of the phone…
Of course, we cannot help everyone we come across in the way we might want, but we can control the way we look, smile, speak or ignore. We can try to look for Christ in those, the least of his children.
As Christians, though, we have not only this enormous challenge, we also have a promise. We may be lucky enough never to be cold, hungry or in prison…but at times we all feel helpless and overwhelmed. At times we are those ‘little ones’. And it is in these moments above all others that our King is with us. If we are in despair, Christ not only loves us, he dwells in us.
And when we are weak, vulnerable and powerless, we are the place where others can meet with Christ. There’s a thought for the turning of the church’s year!