11/26/17 – ‘Sheepishly’ Following Christ

‘SHEEPISHLY’ FOLLOWING CHRIST

November 26, 2017
Christ the King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew.25:31-46
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

Today we hear a prophet deliver some good news, for a change. Ezekiel announced to the Israelites, conquered and exiled in Babylon, that God was working to restore the Jewish people to a place of honor in God’s kingdom.

The God that had judged and punished them for their sins would seek them out, like a shepherd searches for his lost sheep. Ezekiel told Israel that they could see signs of God’s reign wherever people seek out and save the strayed and the lost, wherever they use their power to bind up the wounds of injustice, to feed the hungry and give strength to the weak. Hmm… Sounds like something Jesus said, doesn’t it? Ezekiel revealed that, unlike the human pretensions of power that are too often motivated by greed and power lust, God’s power exists to seek out and save, redeem and restore. So, whenever and wherever that is taking place, there we see God’s power at work.

The Apostle Paul takes up a similar theme focusing on the church. He praised the Ephesian congregation for acting as a community in their faith in God and their love for one another. But, then Paul went on to remind them —  and us — that being the church is about more than just feeling good about ourselves. He reminds us that we have a divine calling. Paul tells us we are not simply to be people of hope; rather, we are to become instruments of hope so that others may know it as well. That hope is the awesome power of God working in and among us as we are faithful to Christ’s calling. It is the power united with love, which Jesus modeled.

Our gospel text for today has two well-known verses. Ironically, we have, side by side, the verse that has inspired both the best and the worst in Christianity. First, we have the separation of the sheep and the goats as a metaphor for the judgment of the saved and the condemnation of those who resist salvation. Christians have used the sheep and goats metaphor to excuse their condemnation, rather than forgiveness, of people they deem to be sinners. Or, even to unjustly pass judgment on the innocent, whose only sin is being different from their self-righteous accusers.

After the sheep and goats metaphor, Jesus explained the difference between the sheep and the goats with the famous words that define the true righteousness of the sheep “25:35 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,  25:36 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.’” The problem has been the separation of the two verses. Christians have jumped at the chance to judge who are the sheep and who are the goats. But, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned has never been as popular a pursuit as playing God’s deputy and corralling the goats for slaughter.  The judgment part is so much easier and appealing. But, there are two problems with using the sheep and goats verse to decide who’s in and who’s out.

One problem with this interpretation of Jesus’ words is that it is the people who are so absolutely certain of their “sheepness” that are the ones who do most of the judging. The passage is very clear that it is Jesus who is to be the judge of who’s a sheep and who’s a goat; and, he will not be doing any judging until his second coming; and, even then he will be our Advocate.  Secondly, Jesus gave the criteria for judging and it doesn’t have anything to do with theology or doctrine, nationality, race, or ethnicity. It doesn’t have anything to do gender, sexual orientation, wealth or occupation. He says he will judge all the nations. It is those in power that bear the most responsibility — “To those who have been given much, much is expected.”  If those that would be earthly kings seize the power; if small elite groups manipulate the system and gain power; or if people elect them and are thereby complicit in their using their power unjustly, then these are the ones accountable for their selfish deeds.

Who does Jesus say are the sheep that will inherit the kingdom of God? The sheep are those who have the power to act like kings but choose to act like shepherds. We have the opportunity to be shepherds; but, paradoxically, we must be sheep to the Shepherd King to use our power for all the sheep of God’s Kingdom. As with sheep, it is so easy to stray from the green pastures of our Lord, following our appetites for greener pastures. The sheep in God’s kingdom are the ones who give aid and comfort to those deemed the least valuable to society. Sure narrows the gate, doesn’t it?

Human society has always had difficulty with welcoming the stranger. In our society, if the stranger needs things like food, clothing, and shelter the welcome has gotten downright chilly. The question Jesus asks of his disciples is like the one God asked of Israel through Ezekiel.

Lately, Christianity in America has taken on a rather goat-ish image among non-Christians and lapsed Christians — those who claim to be Christians but do not participate in worship, fellowship, or mission in the name of Christ. What people see are self-righteous Christians who actively and publicly object to feeding the hungry; giving safe water to the thirsty; welcoming those who have a different skin tone, ethnic background, religion or sexual orientation or identity; allowing the sick to be healed if they can’t afford healthcare; protecting those that are as vulnerable in society as one who is naked in the cold; or reforming the justice system so it is just and giving prisoners a reasonable chance to take care of themselves once they are freed. One of the preachers and theological writers I read frequently is Methodist Bishop and former Duke Seminary professor, Will Willimon. Speaking at a college lecture series, Willimon said this about putting our allegiance to Christ first:

“Following Jesus Christ, we as Christians don’t do politics the way the world does politics,” Willimon said. “Politics for Christians is a struggle to respond to the world as God has responded to the world in Jesus Christ. To respond to threats to our well-being the way God responded. To take as our neighbor, not those who have a certain passport, but those who Jesus Christ has loved. A struggle to keep our borders as large, expansive, as permeable, as the kingdom of God.”  (annual T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University.)

In Jesus’ time feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoner was a more hands-on matter than it is for us. Although, Jesus did also direct his remarks to the leaders of the Roman Empire, whose values were in opposition to God’s. Today when we do these things Jesus pronounced “righteous,” we are demonstrating righteousness with our checkbooks and our votes.

Where do we see the power of God at work in the world today? You won’t often see it in our newspaper headlines. You won’t often hear it out of the mouths of our elected leaders, CEO’s or media celebrities. But you will see it anywhere, anytime someone is living with Jesus Christ as the Lord and King of their lives, seeking to fill people in need with God’s healing love: their hunger or thirst, their naked vulnerability, homelessness, illness or imprisonment, regardless of its nature and source.

When we come to Christ’s table we are reminded of Christ’s open-table policy. Who are we not inviting to ours? After we are fed at Christ’s table we are sent out to feed those whose tables are bare. That is how we show our loyalty and allegiance to Christ our King.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God!

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois