Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon; Proper 29A, Christ the King Sunday; Matthew 25:31-46

A few years ago a young woman showed up for service and it was obviously her first time in an Episcopal church.  So we do what we always do with visitors: welcomed her, gave her some information, sat her with a parishioner who could help with the book juggle and Episcorobics, and invited her to coffee hour.  At coffee hour she asked if I had time to answer some questions.  Ten minutes later we were in my office.

I think her first question was, “Why do you wear a collar?  Isn't that Romish?”  This was followed by, “Why do you wear all that other stuff?  Why do you use candles?  Why do you use that red book – don't you trust people to pray on their own?”  And you know where this is going, don't you.

Then she asked what she really wanted to ask, “Do you believe people will go to hell unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior?”  Those may not have been her exact words, but that was her exact meaning.  No matter how it's phrased, there is a concern among some members of Christianity as to whether or not a person has said the magic words – I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.

I think this goes back to Matt. 28:19, “Go and make disciples of all nations . . .” where these words of Christ are taken to mean less about teaching and learning and more about converting.  I think people who have that theology see their sole purpose in getting people to convert, to save them from hell, and then move onto the next person.  And that is what I mean by “magic words.”  It is simply a formula or spell that, if said (and said correctly), will keep a person from being banished to hell for all eternity.

When I answered her question – Do you believe people will go to hell unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior – with an unconditional and unwavering, “No,” I confirmed her suspicions that every Episcopalian was going to hell and I was the antichrist driving the bus.  But at that point I began to explain my position.  So let's talk about this idea that a person has to say those magic words in order to be saved and why that isn't necessarily the case.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is John 10:16.  It's part of a larger passage (10:11-16) that I often read at funerals.  Verse 16 begins, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”  This is part of a lengthy discourse where Jesus is talking to some Pharisees and identifying himself as the good shepherd.  The sheep are symbols the people of God.

Jesus does something interesting here: he identifies the Pharisees and the Jews as but one of many folds.  In that identification, the people of God become all sheep, some of which belong to your fold, and others that are part of folds you see as outsiders.  There is nothing in there about requiring the other sheep to come to Jesus; but there is an indication that Jesus will go and get them.

Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the ten bridesmaids.  Remember that there was no difference between the ten – all were invited, all went to the appointed place at the appointed time, and all fell asleep.  The distinction was that five brought extra oil.  In that sermon I said that the five foolish women's lack of oil symbolized their singular concern with themselves, while the extra oil of the five wise women symbolized a willingness to think beyond their immediate desires.  Not everyone who says, “Lord, lord,” will be admitted.

But probably the strongest argument against requiring people to recite those magic words comes from today's gospel.  The parable of the sheep and goats is, according to one source, a summation of Jesus as Christus Rex, Christ the King, reigning in glory at the end of the age.  In this story, Jesus separates the people into two groups: one group is rewarded with eternal life, while the other group is rewarded with eternal punishment.

Look at this parable again.

You that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom because you fed me, you gave me drink, you clothed me, you visited me.  Note that in this gracious welcoming to the kingdom Jesus doesn't say, “Inherit the kingdom because you call me Lord, or because you recited the correct formula, or because you picketed stores demanding that their clerks say Merry Christmas.”

The people who were invited into the kingdom were invited precisely because they did the work of God – feed, clothe, welcome, aid and visit.

Those who were banished from the kingdom were banished precisely because they did none of those things.  Like the five foolish bridesmaids, they had a preconceived notion about the coming of Christ the King.  They may or may not be sure of his arrival at a specific time and place, but they are sure they will recognize him when he does come.  They are sure that because they have said the right words and followed the right protocol, they will recognize him and inherit the kingdom.  Their main concern is with themselves and getting it right.

According to today's gospel, however, that mindset blinds people to the presence of Christ in those around us.  And if we can't see Christ in others, we simply can't see Christ.

This brings us to an interesting question: if anyone who feeds, clothes, welcomes and visits gets into the kingdom, why bother with Christianity at all?

I think we bother with it because Jesus is our best example.  In Jesus we learn forgiveness.  In Jesus we learn suffering.  In Jesus we see grace.  In Jesus we see sacrifice.  In Jesus we see the homeless, hungry, naked, despised and condemned.  If we can see those traits in Jesus, then we should also see those people in those conditions as Jesus.

The young woman in my office was concerned I was leading you all directly to hell because she could see no evidence that any of us confessed and proclaimed Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.  I am less concerned with magic words and formulas than I am with opening eyes and getting people to see Christ in all conditions and manner of people around us.

On this Christ the King Sunday, let us look for our Savior and King; but let us never lose sight of where he lives.



First time comments will be moderated.