FAT SHEEP'S FLANK
preached at ST. LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON November 2017 (texts: Ezekiel XXXIV. 11-16, 20-24; Matthew XXV. 31-46)
Sooner or later we all hit a bit of a problem about what we mean when we talk about God.
We somehow sense that, if there is a divine force behind the world, then that presence or being must be always greater than we can grasp, always a bit beyond our ken.
We want to be able describe and picture God in our mind’s eye but our language and our imagination are just not up to it. This is a built-in, no doubt “God-given”, human limitation.
But we still try. And all we can do is to resort to human imagery (starting with the cariacature of the bearded old man in the sky) and, in order to give the notion of God our best shot, we fall back on words like “king”, “regal” and “sovereign”.
These terms are borrowed of course from the language of the Court or the Palace. They are the vocabulary of earthly monarchy.
I suppose they are a projection of society’s historical attitude to human kings’ absolute power on to the divine being to whom we ascribe the ultimate power of having created the universe. Perhaps a reverse echo of the fact that some human kings have claimed to rule by divine right.
Hardly surprising, then, that we find ourselves resorting to royal metaphors in our attempts to give worship and honour to the figure Christians call God the Father.
Interestingly though, the title of “king” was not officially bestowed on the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, until 1925 when Pope Pius XI decided it would be a good banner under which to rally the forces of the Roman church in the face what he saw as the growing threat of communism.
Unfortunately, as Europe polarised in the 1930s between communism and fascism, we saw the Roman church ending up rather compromised, forced to side with a very earthly tyrant – the petty dictator called Franco - in the Spanish Civil war and then, to many observers, too lukewarm in its condemnation of the Nazi regime in Germany.
In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved the feast of Christ the King from October to the last Sunday of the liturgical year.
The Church of England has followed suit and you can see why. There is a certain logic in having a final celebration – before the whole cycle starts all over again in Advent – of the path of Christ’s full trajectory: incarnation, atoning ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and finally glorious ascension.
But why “king”?
We’re not now talking about the remote, transcendent, invisible, utterly mysterious presence “out there” which we call God the Father and which we struggle for adjectives to describe.
We’re talking about a very visible God who walked and talked on earth for 33 years 2000 years ago.
The only crown He ever wore was an ironic one, a crown of thorns pinned into His scalp as a form of humiliating torture by those who had missed the point of His life on earth completely. They mockingly called Him “the king of the Jews” as if He was just another David.
Christ Himself said His kingdom was not of this world but He also spoke frequently about the Kingdom of Heaven being “very near” or “among” the people He talked to. What sort of kingdom did He mean?
As He made abundantly clear, it had nothing to with baubles or sceptres or ermine robes or courtiers.
This God was born in extreme poverty. This God lived and worked in extreme poverty. This God never seemed to have any money or any material possessions. This God was, as the police would say, of no fixed abode. This God was considered a heretical outcast who kept disreputable company. This God was arrested and executed as a common criminal.
And all for love. Not for majesty and glory. Not to show us how magnificent or splendid the Godhead is but to show us how much we are loved.
This truth stares us in the face from the way He lived and taught. But S.Peter, speaking I dare say for many of us, couldn’t somehow accept it.
“Surely not for you, Lord, Son of the living God, the way of betrayal, disgrace and execution!” Oh no? Peter nearly got his head bitten off. “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
But, you know, we still can’t tear our thoughts away from pedestals, jewels and regalia.
So we solve the paradox by saying: “Oh yes, it was rags and poverty and suffering on behalf of others then, but He did His bit and earned His reward and now there’s a suitably resplendent throne for Him to sit back on and take the weight off His feet and just “preside” at the right hand of the Father, with His enemies as His footstool, radiating for all eternity.
Oh dear. That is a complete travesty of the gospel.
S.Therese of Lisieux vowed she would spend her heaven doing good on earth. Well, her Saviour is spending His heaven suffering on earth.
I tell you solemnly, insofar as you ever do a good turn or fail to do a good turn for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine and yours, you do it, or fail to do it as the case may be, for me.
So where exactly is He? Is He in heaven?
Yes, in the sense that we believe He is bodily risen from the human dead and has somehow ascended from our finite world to be reunited with His Father with whom He has been from all eternity.
Yes. But is He sitting on a throne, in His pomp, surrounded by angels singing incessant anthems and burning cloud after cloud of incense?
Well of course we don’t actually have the faintest idea but I must say it doesn’t sound much like what we do know of Him.
While He is in heaven (wherever that is and whatever it is really like), the important thing (the only thing HE thinks matters) is that He is also on earth, telling us to watch out for Him, to recognise Him not only in the breaking of the bread but in the faces of the most unlikely people.
Not the rich, or the well-connected, or the royal, or Bishops and Archbishops (although we might possibly find Him there too) but especially in the poor and struggling, the sick or despised, like Him, those who could actually do with our help.
And Christ tells us, in the starkest possible terms in today’s famous gospel, how His kingdom works and how our lives will in the end be judged. It won’t be anything to do with grovelling before a monarch. It will be in recognising Him in the faces of those who need our help and doing something about it.
And it’s no good making the excuse of throwing up our hands in despair because there are SO MANY needy people in the world. Notice His exact words: just as you did it to ONE of the least of these. There will always be ONE person whom each of us could do a good turn to, and each one of us KNOWS who that one person is.
There are of course grotesque, obscene and growing inequalities in our world, in God’s world. There are too many fat sheep, like those in the 1st reading from Ezekiel, who push others out of the way with flank and shoulder, who butt all the weak with their horns. They may get their come-uppance. Ezekiel certainly believes they will. But that is not our concern.
Our concern is our own lives, how generously we live our lives and how mercifully our lives may be judged.
Christ has never required that we worship Him as a king. He has always required, and always will do, that we reach out to those brothers and sisters of His, one at a time, whom we can help.
Otherwise, make no mistake, we are lost.