Of Sheep and Goats: the Festival of Christ the King

Dr Jean Guy, our Reader, gave a moving sermon regarding Christian acts and Christ’s example this morning. An abridged version follows:

Here we sit [in church]: goats on the left and sheep on the right; or should it be sheep on the left and goats on the right, and what about the choir? Perhaps sheep and goats are all mixed up here. Or is the truth that by the criteria of today’s gospel reading, we are all goats. We all fall short of these simple criteria of helping our fellow human beings. We are judged and found wanting. There is a link with the gospel readings that we have heard in October and November, the stories about the coming of God’s kingdom.

These stories bring out the fact that there will be a judgement of our true selves and of our behaviour. Not everyone will pass the test that God will set, and we don’t know when that test will be, nor what questions will be set. We are told that it will have something to do with how we treat the people around us, especially those who are worse off than ourselves.

Judgement is a frightening thing. If you aren’t frightened, you should be. I am. But there is hope.

As I walked home on Thursday evening last week I saw my inspiration for today’s sermon – a rainbow, the biblical symbol of hope. Where is judgement without hope? I can be pretty sure that for you, like me, today’s gospel struck home. We fall short of the requirement of Jesus’ friends. We don’t visit prisoners, we don’t take care of the sick or visit them unless they are family or friends, we are not very good at welcoming strangers who might need our help and we fail to feed the hungry millions of our world. We might find ourselves at God’s left hand, as goats rather than sheep, condemned to eternal punishment if today’s gospel is true.

But, accepting this gospel reading, I am going to fall on God’s mercy and find hope. Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, talks about the hope to which Jesus has called us. God has passed his great power on to Jesus Christ and he is now “head over all things”. Jesus is the managing director and head of Human Resources, and a lot more than that. This is what we heard and read this morning. The whole passage is Paul’s prayer for his Ephesian friends and followers.

We know that hope, with faith and love, is one of the three fundamentals of our Christian character. Without that hope we would be in a sorry state. Elsewhere is his epistles Paul points out that hope implies that fulfilment of God’s promise has not been achieved. Hope is for something in the future.

In the Spanish language, hope is esperanza. The word for waiting is espera. We may have to wait before we find out what God’s plan is for us. Meanwhile we are asked to behave as if we belonged to Jesus and to live the sort of life that he would have lived if he were here in Lavenham today. That’s a big ask, as they say. It’s a good thing we’ve been given time to sort ourselves out. But we don’t know how much time. We may discover that our current human life will come to an end in a few weeks or months. We may Mosaic of the Last Judgementbe given a whole long lifetime. We certainly don’t know whether illness or accident will cut us off suddenly, and we could be caught unprepared.

There is one little way in which we might consider our role in relation to today’s gospel, and there is one big way. Paul uses the phrase ‘love towards all the saints’, which must surely have meant acts of charity, not necessarily financial. Let’s look out for ways in which we might help our fellow villagers.

The one big way is open to everybody, well or sick, old or young, male or female. It is not an alternative to the little way. We need the spirit of wisdom and revelation that Paul talks about, which will direct us towards a deeper knowledge and understanding of Jesus himself. When we know Jesus better, we shall realise there is a big gap between what he expects of us and what we are.

Then we need is to open ourselves to the generosity of God’s forgiveness. We can confess our shortcomings to the duvet, or we can use the gift that was given to our Rector or another priest, to help us examine our conscience and confess out loud but in privacy. This is not a privilege confined to our Roman brethren!

So we have seen that God will judge, but we have hope in the promise of Jesus Christ. May God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit bless and preserve us all and keep us truly safe. Amen


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