Ian Leitch
Sunday next before Advent, Year A
Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It is a day set aside to express our faith that God’s Kingdom will come and that all things will end in the triumph of Christ. His reign, both in our lives and in the entire world, will be complete.

But how does each of us know if we will be a part of that kingdom? How do we know if we are a part of that kingdom even now? Our Gospel reading this morning shows us a vision of Christ’s coming in glory seated on his throne with everyone from all the nations gathered before him. Before pronouncing God’s judgement, Jesus divides the people into two groups according to whether they have fed the hungry, provided drink for the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, tended to the sick, and visited the prisoner.

One group is commended – people who have actively reached out to those in need, to those who are at the bottom of the pile, to those who are the most helpless with no one else to care for them. And the other group is condemned. But they are not condemned for doing bad things, or for acting unjustly or cruelly. Rather, they are condemned for the good they did not do. The one group is welcomed into Christ’s everlasting kingdom, and the other is banished to eternal torment.
At first sight, that verdict may seem puzzling – because we all know that our salvation cannot be won by good deeds; it is a gift given solely through the grace of God. A few verses after this morning’s Epistle reading, St Paul explains to the Ephesians, {“By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of good works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)}. Jesus died to win our salvation, by reconciling us with God through the forgiveness of our sins. We Christians do good deeds, not to win Brownie points nor to avoid God’s displeasure, but simply to show our gratitude to Him for His grace and love. As John wrote, {“We love Him, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)}.

The Gospel vision tells us that, if our values are God’s values instead of the world’s values, then Christ is our King. We will love as God loves, and serve as Jesus served. If our values are God’s values, we can’t help but live as Christ taught.

When some people saw the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick or the prisoner, they focussed on the need and sought to meet it. They helped because they could not stop themselves. It was the natural, instinctive reaction of a loving heart. They are astonished when Jesus tells them, {“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)}. They had no idea that they were serving Christ in such actions; they were just doing what seemed right.

Their astonishment is matched by the attitude of those who failed to help, who say, “If we had known it was You, we would gladly have helped; but we thought it was only some common person who was not worth our help”. Maybe they would have helped, if they had considered the recipient worthy of help and had thought that they might be thanked – or even praised for their actions. But help like that is not help at all, it is merely pandering to self-esteem. Such help is not generosity; it is disguised selfishness. As they see it, reaching out to those in need can be a pain – it can take too much time, and nothing of lasting benefit may result. Maybe, they suspect that people at the bottom of the pile are at least partially responsible for whatever situation they’re in. Perhaps they don’t look or act or smell the way they imagine Jesus or his family would. Sometimes, they’ve encountered people that aren’t very nice, and don’t seem to appreciate the good being done for them. And so, they ask themselves, “Why bother?”

The help which wins the approval of God is that which is given for nothing but the sake of helping. Jesus put it very clearly when he taught: {“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? If you only greet your friends, what are you doing more others?” (Matthew 5:46-47)}.
Throughout the Old Testament God is described as merciful, loving, gracious and full of loving kindness. Each of those different characteristics are a translation of the same Hebrew word. Similarly, Jesus is described as full of compassion and self-giving love. It the combination of all these qualities to which all Christians should aspire.

Jesus taught his disciples, {“when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does” (Matthew 6:3)}. Our actions should be discreet, so that they don’t draw the attention of others. At best, acts of kindness are indiscriminate and uncalculating. At worst, they’re controlling and manipulative.
The Gospel vision identifies six urgent needs – of feeding the hungry, providing drink for the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending to the sick and visiting the prisoner – needs that are as prevalent today as they were 2000 years ago. Such a realisation can make the task seem overwhelming. Even the World Food Programme cannot find enough food for a country hit by famine –and in our own country the food-banks struggle to provide enough food for those in need, while people still go hungry. And then there is caring for the sick, and supporting refugees and asylum seekers, before we get around to prison visiting. But the size of these tasks must not mislead us from understanding what Jesus is saying. He is asking whether our lives show the love and kindness towards other people that makes a difference to them.

Day-by-day and week-by-week people in our congregation do take action on exactly those six needs that Jesus highlighted, as well showing loving kindness in many other ways. In addition to giving to the Food Bank, people generously donate food and drink and clothing to Kairos, who distribute it to those in desperate need. Similar donations to Carriers of Hope have welcomed and sustained refugees. Many of those gifts have been received as an answer to prayer by those who had nothing. There are nine care homes in our parish with residents that are elderly and infirm; they greatly welcome visits by church members, and are cheered by them. Some people in our church subscribe to CleanSheet, the CTEC charity this year which supports prisoners and ex-offenders, but more directly one can visit people imprisoned by loneliness in their own homes, and there are very many isolated, lonely people in our parish. Our Good Neighbours Project makes it easy to become such a visitor, and such befriending can change a person’s life. There are so many ways available to us in which loving kindness can be shown to those in urgent need.

But, our Gospel this morning is much more than a vision of the Last Judgment; and it is more than a call to serve. It’s more than a call to be good, and to do the right thing. It is all that, but it’s much more. Because it’s also a call to look for the face of Jesus in everyone that we meet – without exception. Whatever we do, we should be looking for, and expecting to see, the face of Jesus in those that we encounter.

So how do we know if we will be a part of God’s kingdom? One outstanding feature of the Gospel vision is that the righteous hadn’t kept any record of their own good deeds. They acted out of compassion, because they saw the necessity to feed, welcome, tend and visit. The Holy Spirit had entered their hearts, and they acted simply out of self-giving love. On the other hand, the unrighteous made an assessment of the benefits before becoming involved and remembered how many times they had helped others. As their score increased, their self-esteem was boosted. But the help which wins the approval of God, is that which is given for nothing and which keeps no score-card.

Christ the King who comes in glory is the Servant King, and He calls us to follow Him, and to bring our lives as a daily offering of worship in service to Him. We must each ask our self whether our everyday life make a difference to other people? Do we reach out with kindness and friendship to others – not just to our friends, but to people that we really don’t like very much? Whenever we do, we make a difference. And Jesus says that the kind act that we do for others is done for Him. It is an act of love for God. It is true Christian service.

It is God’s will that we should love Him and love one another. So, as we go about our daily lives, let us look for God living in other people – all other people, because He lives in each of us – no matter how hard we try to hide it. Let us look for and find Christ in each person that we meet. Then we will know that in loving and serving them, we are serving God, and that, at the end, we will be welcomed into the joy of our Lord in his eternal kingdom.