Reign of Christ Sunday
Texts: Matthew 25:31-46;
Ez 34; Eph 1:15-23
THE SEARCHING JUDGE
I’d like to begin with an observation … or is it a riddle? You can decide: There are two kinds of people, those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. I wonder if it’s a riddle because I think about whether there really can be a group of people who don’t divide. Just making the observation itself creates a division between two groups of people: (1) those who divide the world into two kinds of people and (2) those who don’t. As soon as you say there’s a group of folks who don’t make such divisions, you’ve made just such a division!
So can there ever be a group of folks who don’t divide the world into two kinds of people? If there ever can be, I think it will be followers of Christ. I think it’s what we’re called to be. St. Paul, in several places, says what he says in Galatians (3:28): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The followup to today’s lesson in Ephesians is a whole chapter on breaking down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Yes, for St. Paul, being a disciple of Christ means living without distinctions between groups of people.
Why? Because usually in our divisions, one group is up and the other down; one group is in, the other out. We keep peace among the insiders by banding together against the outsiders. Jesus came to end all that by himself becoming an outsider. He let himself be declared a criminal and executed on a cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem. St. Paul even went so far as to put it this way: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) You see, our most basic division of the world is between sinner and righteous. God let Jesus be declared sinner in order to show God’s righteousness of not allowing such divisions between peoples in the first place. Yes, Jesus came to put a stop to our habit of dividing the world in two.
Today’s gospel gives another example. Those who are declared righteous by the Son of Man in the end are those who didn’t play the usual games of dividing the world between those up and those down. The hungry and thirsty, the stranger and poorly dressed, the sick and in prison, these are those who generally count in the down-an-out group. Yet God’s righteous are surprised to hear that that’s exactly where Christ was encountered in their lives. When they showed mercy to the least of this world, they showed mercy to Christ, who came to break down those dividing walls.
Think of just how difficult this is, not to be conscious of groups. Think of yourself in even a helping situation. I know that when I help at the R.E.S.T. site, for example, I am there helping to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger and clothe the underdressed. But am I not conscious of myself as belonging to the other group? Those who aren’t hungry or thirsty or in need of shelter and clothing? No, I’m usually quite conscious of being the helper of a group of helpee’s. There’s generally still two groups of us at the R.E.S.T. shelter, the helpers and the helpee’s. I think that Christ is ultimately calling us to even more: a life of compassion that simply responds in mercy to need without any real awareness of two groups. In the day that all of us would do that, we wouldn’t even need to reach out in mercy anymore, because everyone will have enough. There will no longer be two groups, the up-and-ins and the down-and-outs. In Christ Jesus we will all be one, all be made brothers and sisters.
There is one problem with this parable, though. The Son of Man does his own division between folks. The king separates between the sheep and the goats, those who find eternal life and those who are given eternal fire. Is this any better than our human forms of righteous vs. sinner? Why would Christ have to die on the cross as a sinner only to end up with an eternal form of dividing between sinner and righteous?
Let’s imagine this parable a bit differently. For, even if Jesus tells it as the end of the story, he is telling it at a moment when his end of the story on the cross hasn’t come yet. They can’t understand what that will mean yet. So let’s imagine two things about this story. First, that the cross has now happened for us listeners. How does that change things? For one it helps us to know better who the Son of Man is. Jesus the Christ is Son of Man by virtue of his being in a long line with Abel, who was murdered by his brother Cain. (See Matthew 23:35: “so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.”)
We must call on the sheep. Do you know individuals like the sheep in this scene, people who spend their lives on behalf of the little and endangered of this world? They do what they do because love and compassion so fill their souls that it doesn’t occur to them to look away from another’s need or pain. Think for a moment and you’ll soon have a small committee in mind to set among the sheep.Then be quiet and listen.
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the realm prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” says the Son of Man. But the sheep just stand there, looking across to the other side, their eyes wide not with rejoicing or satisfaction, and surely not with gloating, but with astonishment and the kind of fear the compassionate have when they see others in danger. For over there, on the other side, among the goats, are so many of those for whom they have cared all this while, and now what will become of those others? Are they to be separated forever? Who will care for them now?
The sheep know about many kinds of starvation, illness, and imprisonment. They have fed the hungry with bread made from wheat and given water to the thirsty. They have visited those with pneumonia, cancer and AIDS. They have visited in penitentiaries. But they have ministered to others in need as well. They have provided sustenance for to fill spiritual hunger and the awful thirst for meaning, the very cravings that drove the goats to selfishness and seemingly unconcerned arrogance. The sheep have welcomed and befriended the goats when the goats were so estranged they’d become strangers even to themselves. And the sheep kept visiting the cells of those imprisoned in hatred, the goats who hated everyone, and themselves most of all. And the naked who lived without any chance of another’s love to clothe them, or to adorn their faces with gladness, those the sheep had clothed with their own humble garments of affection and care. To those sick to death with the boredom of their world’s routine, the sheep had come with the bread of encouragement.
The sheep had given so much of themselves to those others. How could someone now separate them forever from those others? How could the Son of Man in this moment call them “blessed?” How could they rejoice over their inheritance as they looked across the chasm, toward those who remained lost, sick, naked, and imprisoned in their own pitiful selfishness? How could they ever again sing a glad song? As we eavesdrop, we hear them weeping. They won’t move.
The son of man studies them and calmly says, “You cannot go across. It is too late. For you there is no more time.” For a moment there is stillness.
“Then you must go,” declare the sheep. “Son of Man, you must remember now how your own heart quivered in horror in the instant when you saw in Cain’s eyes what came bursting from his heart, and his strong hands were upon you. Son of Man, you must remember the moment when the soldiers pinned you to the cross, pounded in the nails, and you were condemned. You must remember the thirst out of which you cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Remember the torture of abandonment! You must go to them, Son of Man!”
A deep and heavy silence comes over the judgment scene. The Son of Man says nothing. He looks at the sheep, his own eyes now wide, looking like theirs. Then he turns, and he steps across. How could he not heed their voices? He had taught them to talk like that. They were using his own best lines on him. He would go. He could not judge from vengeance. He would have to go — to Bethlehem, to Calvary, to Antioch, to Rome, to Kansas City, to Calcutta, yes, even to hell. He would spend eternity, if it took that, like a shepherd forever in search of lost sheep, working restlessly to slake the final thirst and break down the last prison. Some might hide from him forever, but his heart told him, and the look in the eyes of those sheep told him, he could never give up. If he was to be king, he must be a shepherd king, a tireless, searching king, a king with holes in his hands and crowned forever with thorns, scouring endlessly the depths of hell, looking, calling, and . . .
. . .hoping one day to sit at the right hand of God, at table with everyone, every last one, to eat and drink of the supper which will have no end. His big brother Cain would be there. They would talk. Perhaps they would together solve the mystery of the offerings. Or perhaps they wouldn’t, because it would no longer make any difference. Most important, they would be brothers once more. Both halves of the human race would have a future.
Back here in space and time we taste of that meal when we share the bread and cup. We experience a moment of our own biographies outside of or beyond time. We sit together, little ones and bigger ones alike. But then we return to time, to play our roles as sheep and tireless intercessors before the Son of Man on behalf of the condemned. We serve as the caring ones, transformed in space and time as the feet, hands and voice of the Son of Man, the shepherd king. We restlessly roam the earth, invading the hells all around us, finding the naked, the hungry, the prisoners. We go tirelessly, nourished by our meal, looking, calling, hoping. . .
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 20, 1999
Note: The imagined parable that closes this sermon is adapted from Frederick Niedner, “The Searching Judge (excerpt),” Proclaiming a Cruciform Eschaton, a small booklet published for the 1998 Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University, pages 5-8.