Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 26, 2017

2017.11.26 “What to Put Above the Church Door” – Christ the King Sunday – Matthew 25: 31 – 46

Central United Methodist Church
What to Put Above the Church Door
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 25: 31 – 46
Christ the King Sunday
November 26, 2017

CtK

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

          Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”– Matthew 25: 31 – 46, New Revised Standard Version

It was about 20 years ago, that I finally got to see one of the places I’d wanted to see for a long time: Chartres Cathedral, in Chartres, France.

My desire to see it went back to the early ‘80’s, when I was studying at the University of Chicago Divinity School. One day at the weekly luncheon retired professor Joseph Sittler was speaking, who by that time in his life had become blind. There was a time for questions and my professor, Martin E. Marty, who had studied with Joe Sittler, asked: “Joe, if you could have your sight back for one day, what would you most like to see?” Professor Sittler thought for a moment, and said: “I would like to see Chartres Cathedral again, which stands for just about everything I believe in.”

It took me about a decade, but I finally got there. I was traveling alone, and took the hour train ride from Paris to Chartres, arriving late in the day. So late on that January day, that as I walked through the medieval city streets trying to find the cathedral, it got dark. If you have ever walked medieval streets, you will know there is no order whatever, and it is easy to walk in circles and get lost, which I did. On top of that, a fog set in, so thick you hardly see a hundred feet ahead.

Just when I began to wonder if I was ever going to find the cathedral – which had to be close – I entered what appeared to be a plaza with light, and wondered if it might be the cathedral. As I walked across the plaza in the fog, slowly, out of the fog and darkness, the illuminated façade of the cathedral emerged. It might as well have been a spaceship, it was so stunning to see. I opened the door and went in, and somewhere inside a choir was singing; I was like stepping back in time 800 years, when Chartres was built. It was an experience I will never forget.

I have now been back to Chartres several times since (and hope to go back again). If you have been there (or for that matter to almost any European Cathedral, you will know what is almost always carved above the portal of every cathedral: a massive tympanium of the Last Judgment. At the top and center is Christ, surrounded by his mother Mary and Peter and the other eleven apostles; not far away are the prophets of ancient Israel. And down below – way below – are the people, being sorted in judgment. As you come and go to church, the Last Judgment gives you more to think about than, say, when the next round of bingo is.

Cathedral relief

It is such a sobering image of the Last Judgment that Jesus gives us about today, in words if not in stone, on this last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday. It is also the final parable we read this year from Matthew’s Gospel, before turning to Mark’s Gospel, next Sunday. And wow! – does Jesus give us something to think about! And not just us, but all who would follow him, in any sense of the word.

Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment has so shaped Christian history and theology that it’s almost impossible to hear it without hearing Mozart’s Requiem playing in the background, or imagining that we are standing before the Last Judgment on the portal of a Cathedral, or – best of all – in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, beholding Michelangelo’s spectacular rendering of the Last Judgment. And yet, despite it’s importance, how is it that so many contemporary Christians seem to be unaware of this parable, and its profound moral and spiritual lessons?

As with all Jesus’ parables, this one is not meant to be taken literally, as a detailed description of what is to come, but as an open-ended stories to make us think, not about what we shall encounter in a future life, but how we should live, right here and right now.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” the story begins, using a term from apocalypic literature that Jesus often used of himself. “All the nations” will be gathered before him. In Jesus’ time, this term was used specifically of the Gentile nations, just as “the least of these my family” was used specifically of the followers of Jesus. In the decades after Jesus, when Christians were a persecuted minority, this parable must have been a comfort to them as they suffered hardship, knowing that Christ was with them, and that a criterion of judgment in the last day was how indeed how Gentile nations such as Rome treated them, especially in their time of need.

Now we might ask, what does this parable say about how modern nations and leaders treat those who are “the least of these,” whether it is persecuted Christians in Egypt or Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar, or, even how our own nation and leaders treats those in need, whether following natural disasters (Puerto Rico) or those in need of healthcare? What does it say about those who call themselves Christian, and yet come up with a tax bill like the one now before Congress, which primarily benefits the wealthy and hurts almost everyone else? Have these people never heard this parable, about how nations and people are judged not by how we treat the wealthy among us, but those who are the “least of these,” in need of life’s basic necessities, healthcare among them.

Having heard this story, who could forget what happens next? Standing in judgment, the King, the Son of Man separates nations and people like a shepherd sorts sheep and goats? The sheep are on his right side, his good side, to whom he says: “Come, you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

And to the goats are on his left side, his bad side, he says: ‘You accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Both sides, sheep and goats say: “What?” “Lord, when did we see you?” Which sets up the two most startling surprises of the story: (1) Those who did it or didn’t do it, didn’t know when they did it. And (2) the second surprise, which is that when they did or didn’t do it, it was as to the King himself.  “I tell you, when you did it to the least of these – those who were hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison – you did it to me.” Or, to the goats, “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

From this, we draw two moral and spiritual lessons: (1) to look for Christ in every person, and (2) therefore to treat every person, as though they were Christ himself.

We know this is not easy. It is easier to see Christ in the rich and beautiful, or family and friends, in people we know and love. It is much harder to see Christ in those who annoy us and disturb us and repel us, those from whom we often avert our eyes.

When I used to work in a homeless shelter at my last church, it was on any early morning shift, when the guests were asleep. When they woke up, we collected their bedding, served them breakfast, and cleaned up. Since most of them lived on the streets, when they were sleeping, as you might imagine, they smelled and snored and were not the most attractive crowd. When they woke up, evidently not all of them had read Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” so – as with all people – some were easy and some not so easy to get along with. But according to Jesus’ story, Jesus slept among them too, wandering with them the streets and roads of the world. And so it is with all those in need – including us in our times of need; Christ is among us.

I’m sure in Jesus’ story, that those who discovered their omission surely said, “Lord, if only we’d have known it was you, we would have acted differently! We would have thrown a party, baked a cake. We would have treated you like the King you are! If only we’d known!

Which is just what Christ doesn’t want. Christ doesn’t want us to treat him differently than we treat everybody else; he wants us to treat everybody else, as we would treat him. And so he has come to us disguised as those who are hungry, thirsty, as strangers, poorly dressed, sick or imprisoned. He indentifies with these so closely that the way we treat them, becomes the way we treat him. What he is watching for is to see whether or not we will see the need before us, and respond with compassion. Which means that what we need every day as Christ’s followers, is eyes to see, hearts to feel compassion, and hands and feet and sometimes pocketbooks to respond.

So maybe it isn’t a bad idea to have the Last Judgment portrayed on the doors of those cathedrals. In fact, maybe we need to do it, too. Just as they did it to communicate the Gospel to those who were illiterate, maybe we need to do it for those who are Biblically illiterate, especially in regard to the most important stories of the Gospel, such as this one.

It would also serve to remind us that the point of all our church going – through the seasons of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, through Lent and Easter and all those ordinary Sundays after Pentecost, culminating in Christ the King Sunday today, is to remind us that one day we will stand before Christ to answer for the lives God has given us, and the criterion of judgement will not be what we professed, but what we actually did, especially in response to our brothers and sisters who were in need. Lord, when did we see you?

But those scenes of Last Judgment? There’s one thing they got wrong: Jesus the Christ? He is not sitting up there, top and center, on a rainbow. He’s down at the bottom, the very bottom, among the people, among us. Don’t try to identify him, because you almost certainly won’t recognize him. Just go about your life, day-by-day until the end comes, and treat everyone as you would treat him. There you will find him. Amen.

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