We are coming to the Last Sunday After Pentecost. Many liturgical churches also celebrate this as The Feast of Christ the King. In our continuing efforts to make our language more gender inclusive, the term Reign of Christ is gaining acceptance as the designation for this Sunday. I really prefer Reign of Christ because the emphasis is on what Christ is doing throughout the cosmos and throughout eternity – reigning!
Matthew 25:31-46, is often referred to as The Parable of the Last Judgment. It speaks of the accountability of all people when the reigning Christ sits upon his throne.
I recall an encounter I had with a radically evangelical fundamentalist during my college years. He and I were about the same age. He was a member of Campus Crusade for Christ and had chosen me as the target of his mission. We talked about our differing theological views and never found much common ground. It turned out to be a debate, not a conversation. At the end of our debate, he referred to this passage of scripture and said as he parted, “I hope you’ll see the light and end up in heaven with me after the great judgment.”
He wanted the Reign of Christ to be all about the Last Judgment. Ever since then, I've been very curious about how and when we are accountable to Christ. So, naturally, when this text pops us, that's where my thoughts go.
If you’ll read the passage carefully, you’ll see that the basis of our accountability is not on having the right doctrine. When we stand before Christ it is always about how we express the faith we profess - how we are ministering to Christ through our service to the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, the prisoners, the marginalized and vulnerable people we encounter in our journey of faith. Faith in Christ is a challenge to expand our comfort zones and reach out beyond them to such as these in ways that our faith and our good works are in alignment.
A hungry man was walking down the street in a village of medieval Turkey. He had only a piece of bread in his hand. He came to a restaurant where some meatballs were being grilled. The cooking meat was so near and the smell so delicious the man held his piece of bread over the meat to capture some of the smell. As he started to eat the bread, the angry restaurant owner seized him and took him away to see a judge.
The owner protested, “This man was stealing the smell of my meat without asking permission. I want you to make him pay me for it.” The judge thought for a moment, then held up his purse in front of the owner and shook it.“What are you doing that for?” asked the restaurant owner? The judge replied, “I am paying you. The sound of money is fair payment for the smell of food.”
The challenge when we are dealing with the kind of people described by Jesus in this passage is to make sure that what we are sharing with them is real. We must make sure that our care is expressed in ways that are tangible and life changing.
Each Sunday, we say we believe “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” One might say that Matthew 25:31-46 is a scriptural basis for that belief. It seems clear to me that the Judgment is not about arguing our case or preparing to be judged. Neither the sheep nor the goats had much of an argument or seemed prepared. It is about how we live day by day and it is about being accountable for our discipleship all along the way and not just at the end. The reigning Christ is already on the throne. We are judged not by the precision of our dogma or our membership in a particular church but by what we do for others. We are judged not by what we know but what we have shared.
What I wish I’d had the experience and presence of mind to say to my fundamentalist friend at the end of our conversation long ago is this: Both the sheep and goats will be judged not by their creeds but by their deeds.
I’ll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church