Friday, 21 November 2014

The sheep and the goats

Matthew 25:31-50

This is one of those stories that has shaped our national life and consciousness.

It could be argued that this story that Jesus tells is THE story that created the values which motivated those who set up our welfare state. Why should there be no person who is hungry, thirsty or naked in our society? Why should no person die of sickness without us doing what we can to bring healing or comfort? Why should we not welcome the stranger? Why should we ensure that there is some compassion in our prisons?

It is not universal. In many societies there has been no reform of prisons; strangers are dangerous and you have nothing to do with them; the sick will die and if you want to stay healthy you avoid them; the hungry, thirsty and naked are hungry, thirsty and naked because they deserve to be hungry, thirsty and naked.

We live in a society which has been shaped by this book; our values have been shaped by this book – and we reject this book at our peril.

So what is this story saying?

Is it telling us that if we want to go to heaven we should be more loving?
That is what you expect the church to say - to tell you to be a nicer person.

But actually it does not say anything of the kind.

1. There will be a judgement

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.’ (Matthew 25:31-33)

The idea of judgement is a bit of a joke to people who feel secure with our material possessions and our relatively comfortable life. And we have our myths about death: we will die and go off to be with granny. There is no basis whatsoever for that belief, apart from wishful thinking. I have far more time and respect for atheists or humanists who say that you die and that is it.

But because of Jesus and because of his resurrection, I cannot accept that death is the end.
Jesus is the one person who has been there and who has come back.
And so when he speaks of death, we need to listen. He has an authority.

And he tells us that there will be a judgement, a sentencing and a separation. He is the Son of Man (it is a reference to Daniel 7). He is the King who sits on his throne. And he will separate the sheep and the goats. The righteous to life, to that which has been prepared for them ‘since the creation of the world’, and others to death, that eternal punishment.

It is the consistent teaching of Jesus and the New Testament. We live once, we die and we face judgement

2. The basis of the judgement is on how we respond to Jesus.

On first reading, it appears that the judgement is based on what we do, our actions. It appears that the judgement is based on how much we have shown love and practical compassion to others.

If that is true, there is a problem!

There is a big danger when you say that our eternal destiny is determined by how loving we are. It can lead to deep anxiety: have I been loving enough – when was the last time I gave a hungry person a meal, or visited someone in prison? Or it leads to exhaustion: I must do more. Or it leads to legalism: you’ve got to provide so many meals, so many clothes, visit so many people. One thinks of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, with their lists of what you could and could not do. Or one thinks of the 5 pillars of Islam: if you do them then your credit rating with God improves significantly. Or it leads to pride and judgementalism: I do such and such. I am such a loving, kind person – I must be a sheep – unlike those wicked people over there.

But the good news of the New Testament is that we are told that judgement is not based on how loving we are, because we are not loving enough. Instead it is based on how we have responded to Jesus, to his love for us, to his gift of forgiveness, to his promises and to the power that he would give us to enable us to change.

So what is going on here?

The nations, all peoples, are judged by how they respond to Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are in need.

Come with me: it is a little bit complicated! When Jesus speaks about his brothers and sisters he is not speaking of everyone. He is speaking of a specific group of people. He is speaking of those who have welcomed him, come to him and put their trust in him.

Matthew 12:46ff. Jesus asks ‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers and sisters?’ He points to his disciples. ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’.

So the judgement, the separation between sheep and goats, is not dependent on whether people, ‘all the nations’, showed love in general, but on whether they show love specifically to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Because when they show love to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, they are responding to Jesus.

This story is a commentary on Matthew 10:40ff, ‘Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me  ... and if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded’.

Now please do not get me wrong. We need to show love to all people.

Jesus tells the story of a man who is a beaten up and left for dead on the side of the street. A priest ignores him, a religious official ignores him, but a moslem goes over and cares for him. And Jesus says, ‘You have got to be like that moslem. You need to show that sort of love to whoever you meet’.

But this particular story is not about showing love to all people.

This particular story is saying that because Jesus identifies himself so much with his people, the nations will be judged by how they have responded to the people of Jesus.

Remember to whom Jesus is speaking. This story comes at the end of a long section in which Jesus has been having a private discussion with his disciples. It begins in Matthew 24.3

And Jesus is speaking to those who would go hungry, and thirsty and be strangers and have nothing, who would suffer imprisonment and sickness because they followed him. They would become the outcasts of society. They would be rejected and ridiculed and persecuted.

One thinks of the believers now in the Syrian refugee camps, forced to flee their homes from militants because they are Christians. They are exactly the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick and imprisoned who Jesus has in mind.

And what Jesus is saying is that the world, people, will be judged on how they treat you.

Do they mock you? Do they patronise you? Do they treat you as a joke? Look at how popular culture treats women who choose to give up everything for Christ in order to live in community and become nuns.

Or do they show you love? Do they feed you, give you a glass of water, welcome you, provide for you, care for you and support you. Because when they show love to you because you bear the name of Jesus, they are showing love to Jesus.

A society will be judged by how it deals with the weakest and most vulnerable of society. Peoples will be judged by how we treat our outcasts. And in the C1st, Christians were the outcasts.

That is why there is surprise in this passage.

People who would not have expected to receive mercy from God, but who showed love and compassion to the people of Jesus, discover they have an astonishing reward. Why? Because in showing love to a follower of Jesus, they were actually welcoming Jesus himself.

And people who thought that they lived good lives, and that God owed them a place in heaven, but who ridiculed or neglected other Christians, especially those who find themselves on the bottom of the heap – discover that they are excluded. Why? Because in rejecting those followers of Jesus, they were rejecting Jesus himself.

And Jesus is saying to these first Christians. Don’t worry. I am with you. You are going to be hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked. You are going to get sick and be imprisoned. You are going to be at the bottom of the pit. But I know. I am about to be crucified, but I will rise again. And I will be so close to you that what people do to you is what they do to me. Their eternal destiny will rest on how they treat you.

So what is this passage saying to us, who are followers of Jesus but who are not hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick or imprisoned?

1. We need to re-examine our Christian faith.
The expectation of the New Testament is that because of our faith, Christians will be at the bottom of the heap. Paul says in Timothy that those who wish to live a godly life will be persecuted.

And there is a verse which constantly stands over against me, as it did for many believers in the first few centuries, when Jesus says to the rich young man, ‘sell all you have and give to the poor and come follow me’.

Jesus identified himself with us in his becoming human and in his death on the cross. He identifies with us when we are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick and imprisoned. Am I really prepared to identify with him in, as Paul said, ‘participating in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’ (Phil 3.10)?

That is the challenge

2. We can take comfort from his presence
Jesus identifies himself with his people, with us. He is our brother. But he is more than that. He is so close to us, closer than our breathing. Communion is that picture of how, by faith, he comes deep within us, into us. And that is particularly true when we are in those places of desperation.

3. We can ask God to change us, to make us more like Jesus
I return to where I began.

We give thanks for our Christian heritage. We live in a society which has, for many years, chosen to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and provide relief for the prisoner.

They are what God wants done for his people. They are good things, and they are things that should be done for all.

But we can’t just leave it to the State. We need to allow God to work in us, to change us, to give us a new vision of others, so that we see them with his eyes. We need to pray that he will change us so that we learn to provide for, welcome, care for and visit not only those who are our brothers and sisters, but for all people.

I was reading about Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, who died in 1200. A monk writes of a visit that he paid together with the Bishop to a hospital. He writes of how the bishop kissed the diseased men and then adds, ‘Have pity, sweet Jesus, on the unhappy soul of the narrator! I cannot conceal, would that it were concealed from your vengeance, how much I shuddered not merely to touch but even to behold those swollen and livid, diseased and deformed faces with the eyes either distorted or hollowed out and the lips eaten away! To an eye darkened by arrogance the pearl of God did not gleam in the mire. But your servant Hugh, whose eyes you had completely blinded to external superficiality, saw clearly their internal splendour, and therefore those seemed to him the more beautiful who outwardly were the most horribly diseased.’

So we pray that he will work in you and me, so that we look at people with the eyes of Jesus, and love them with his love.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Glorious Dead - a talk for remembrance Sunday

You may have noticed that the cenotaph has moved since last year. It now rests beside the Regimental Chapel. It was quite a job. The builders said that it was like working with lego. It came apart in 70 different pieces. 

On the cenotaph is an inscription. There are three words that echo words inscribed on the cenotaph in London, 'The Glorious Dead'. 

I've done a bit of digging on the internet. The first time that I find the phrase in English literature is in a poem dated 1699. It speaks of the death of the Earl of Abingdon, but hints at a reference in Homer's Odyssey where Menelaus speaks of the calamitous fate that has befallen his friends as they fought for his cause overseas. 

The passage that is referred to (and I use here Alexander Pope's translation of 1725).

'Still in soft intervals of pleading woe
regardful of the friendly dues I owe
I, to the glorious dead, for ever dear
Indulge the tribute of a grateful tear'

Today, with the benefits of hindsight, we might wonder at Lloyd George's choice of 'the glorious dead' for the cenotaph in London.

Yes, the reference to Homer speaks of people who died in a far off land and links grief and glory. There is a bit of survivors guilt in Menelaus' speech. We survived and they died. And so to make sense of their death we glorify them. It is what we owe them, the least we can do for them. 

But there was very little that was glorious about the Great War. 

At first there was. People signed up because they wished to serve their country, and for glory. They were going to be the generation who defeated the Hun, and fought the war to end all wars.

And yes, there was victory. But victory for what? Belgium was liberated, but the whole thing had to be replayed in less than 21 years time. And at what cost? 18 million dead across Europe. 1 million British soldiers killed. A further 1.6 million wounded. Virtually every family was touched.

The war was not glorious. The course of the war was a mess. It is easy to blame the generals, but they didn't know what to do, and they were being pressurised to do something, anything to break the impasse, by the voices at home. And so they did the same old thing - bombarding, tunnelling and then sending men over the top. And each time the result was the same. In the end we did win, but that was not because of military victory, but because Germany crumbled from the centre outwards. 

And death certainly is not glorious. And certainly not death on the front line. I have been reading Forgotten Voices from the Great War. It is a collection of the reminiscences of the men and women who were actually there: who served in the trenches, in the staff teams, as soldiers, stretcher bearers, medics, land and munition workers.  

So Private Richards, from the Royal Engineers, recalls, 'But then all of a sudden there was a violent explosion, and I was blown back about twelve yards. When I finally got up all I could see was smoke, and I could hear the cries and screams of the survivors. As I crawled towards them I could see what remained of the section that had been making these bombs. Some had been cut in two, some in three parts, legs and arms were strewn all over the place and there was that acrid smell of explosion. Well, all my romantic ideals of war completely vanished with that episode. The following day when I was given the job of going round with sandbags, collecting the pieces, we had to rescue some bits from telegraph wires where they’d been blown at great velocity, and we buried them in the common grave.' 

Siegfried Sassoon writes in one of his poems (Suicide in the Trenches), 

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye 
Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know 
The hell where youth and laughter go. 

The glorious dead?

But perhaps the phrase is not completely out of place.

The war was not glorious. Their death was not glorious. But for us they are the glorious dead. We honour those who served and serve, and especially those who - in the middle of the hell, the mud, the fear, the wicked thoughtlessness (one man died in a dreadful way because he took a large gulp of rum only to discover it was strong disinfectant that had been placed in the bottles by someone who had stolen the rum), the evil, the bravado, the incompetence, the confusion, the ingenuity and the heroism - made the final sacrifice because their country called for it.

And we honour them, we give them glory for that. We honour them for their sacrifice

That is why, when there was a debate at the end of the war about how to honour the men who had fallen, they did not commission statues of men in heroic poses (you can see that elsewhere from other conflicts - look at the monument to the fallen of the Boer war in the Buttermarket), they did not build triumphal arches or columns. They did not focus on the victory but the sacrifice. And so the debate was whether the memorials in our villages and towns should be like altars or like crosses - both symbols of sacrifice. They did not choose the altar, because the altar could be seen to speak of unwilling sacrifice. Instead they chose the cross, which speaks of willing sacrifice. 

The cross points us to the supreme sacrifice of all time. The sacrifice of one person for all people. The sacrifice of one who did not simply die an excruciating death, but who chose to take onto himself all our hell - the hell that we create and the hell that is in us - and to go to hell, so that we can be forgiven, and be saved from hell and from death. That is why when you walk into this church you walk in under the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. Because he died, he paid the price, we can come into the presence of God.

And because he made the ultimate sacrifice, he has been given the ultimate glory. Because he humbled himself and was obedient to death on a cross, God has raised him from the dead and given him the name that is above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God the Father. 

Our cenotaph is not a cross or an altar. It resembles a sarcophagus. Again there are echoes of the national memorial in London - for which a classical design was chosen because it was to be a place for people of any or of no faith. 

And I trust that our cenotaph here will continue to stand as a fitting tribute to those from the Suffolks and, for that matter, to all who gave their lives in the great war and in subsequent wars, irrespective of their faith, and that it recognises the glory in their sacrifice. 

But is that all we can say of 'the glorious dead', that they were glorious for us.

As a Christian I see something very significant about the name 'cenotaph'. It means, literally, 'empty tomb'. And we know now that it is empty. There is nothing inside. 

And for me this cenotaph, this 'empty tomb', points me to another empty tomb.

Jesus speaks in our reading (John 12:20-28) of how a seed needs to die in order to bring life. He is speaking of his own death. But he is also pointing forward to his resurrection. Three days after he gave his life on the cross, he rose from the dead. His tomb was empty. He appeared to his followers. And before he left them, he told them that even though they would not be able to physically see him, he would still be with them.

This was the hope which inspired countless men in the trenches. One soldier wrote to SGM which handed out pocket bibles to all the soldiers: 'When your small Testaments were distributed to us on the Common at Southampton I, among others, accepted one in a more derisive than a complimentary manner. I little dreamed that I should use it and find in it great consolation in lonely hours. I have learned to realise the great personality of the Saviour. When at night I have been on duty alone with Him by my side, and the Germans but thirty yards away, I realised that I needed more than my own courage to stand the strain. When the shells of the enemy have burst periodically at my feet I have marvelled at the fact of still being alive'.

But the reading speaks more than just of the presence of our risen Jesus. He says, 'whoever follows me, whoever is willing to live and die for me, will rise to eternal life'.

I cannot say that all who gave their life in the great war have eternal life. To say that would be to say that by giving your life in war you atone for your sins and enter glory. That has been said in the past and it has led to dreadful abuse by both the church and state. You hear it being spoken by Jihadists today. 

But what I can say is that, because of the sacrifice, death and resurrection of Jesus, and because of the cenotaph ('empty tomb') of Jesus, any man, any woman or any child who calls out to him, who cries to him for mercy, who asks him to be their Lord - whether as a result of a deep conviction that this is true, or because of spiritual revelation, or in a moment of despair, abandonment, recognition that I am out of my depth, danger or even as I face death - will receive his forgiveness, know his presence and will be taken through death to glory.

That is why we can - in another deeper and objective sense - speak truly of the glorious dead.