Proper 29, Year A
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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The reason the church is decked in white, and we’re celebrating the feast of Christ the King today is that this is the last Sunday of the Church year. And it’s the culmination of all the stuff we’ve been reading in the Scriptures over the past several months. To borrow St Paul’s expression in Ephesians, it’s sort of a sacramental gathering up of all things in the fullness of time in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:10). So it’s most appropriate that today represents that fullness of time, that time that hasn’t come yet, when Christ will, as he promises in today’s gospel, separate the sheep from the goats, and gather all things to himself, and integrate the whole creation fully into his eternal kingdom.
A lot of those gospel readings that we’ve read over the summer and fall have included what are known as the kingdom parables, which Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” or “… may be compared to…” this or that story. Then he goes on to describe it in terms of things like a wedding banquet, a mustard seed, or the man who entrusted the management of his wealth to his slaves while he goes away. We read that last one last Sunday. And it, by the way, leads directly into what we read today. It’s through those parables that Jesus teaches what is required of any who want to be a part of his heavenly kingdom.
What may come as a surprise is that he lays down a very small number of criteria for admission into the kingdom– only two, in fact. And what may be even more of a surprise to some is that being good enough is not one of them. The idea of a heavenly reward for good behavior and a hellish one for bad behavior is deeply ingrained in most of us from childhood. “You better be good for goodness sake,” or else Santa will put lumps of coal in your stocking instead of nice presents. And some kids were taught that he wouldn’t give them anything at all if they were bad. And that can lead to the mindset that judges people as either Christian or un-Christian, which is often equated with good or bad, based on their behavior. For example, someone may say, “Pastor So-and-so was caught imbezzling from his church,” or “Fr So-and-so is a convicted pedophile. And that just goes to show that he wasn’t really Christian after all.” Well, no, that doesn’t prove anything of the sort. He still loves Jesus. He still wants very badly to live a holy life. Besides which, he’s still a Christian by virtue of having been baptized into Christ. But he succumbed to an easy temptation. That doesn’t mean he’s not really, or is no longer, a Christian. As C.S. Lewis said, it just means that he’s been a bad Christian. And because he loves Jesus, and trusts in his promises, there’s hope for repentance and forgiveness, just as there is for every one of us, whose sins are just as bad, albeit maybe not as visible, as Pastor or Father So-and-so’s.
Some of you might have read the article our bishop shared on Facebook the other day about the eternal destiny of Charles Manson and the reaction to his death. The author speculates that a lot of people on hearing the news probably said something like, “I hope he rots in hell.” But, the author rightly explains, to have that attitude is to put yourself at odds with God since, as the New Testament writers and the Son of God himself teach, God desires that all people be saved from their sins. (Dan Calabrese, hermancain.com, 11.20.2017). The other problem with thinking that way is that it’s based on the wrong idea that we earn our salvation. “You better be good for goodness sake.” But being good, striving to make ourselves good, is not the ticket that gets us into heaven, because it’s absolutely impossible for any of God’s creatures to make ourselves that good. What’s required instead is the goodness of Jesus that he imparts to us through faith and repentance, because it’s the blood of Jesus that washes away our sin. The kingdom is ours because we’re clothed in his righteousness, not our own.
That’s what was missing in the case of the man in the parable of the wedding banquet that we read some weeks ago (Mt 22:1-14). Remember that none of the invited guests would come to the wedding of the king’s son. So the king sent his servants into the streets to invite everybody they could find, and he even provided the proper clothing for them all to wear. But one guest refused to put it on, which got him tossed out. The garment that he refused to put on is the baptismal garment. And the fabric it’s made of is a life of faith and repentance, which come to us only as gifts from God. To refuse those gifts is to refuse the generosity and hospitality, and even the love, of God. And to refuse to accept those gifts is to refuse to enter the kingdom of heaven. The king ordered that the man be tied up and cast into the outer darkness. “In that place,” Jesus concluded, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” which is exactly what he said at the end of the parable in last week’s gospel too.
And that parable has an even more direct bearing on today’s gospel, because it’s the last one Jesus tells in the sermon that we just finished reading today, coming as it does immediately before today’s reading. I’m not going to get into it too deeply, because I know Fr Boase must have had some great stuff to tell you about it last week– he always does. I just want to hit on the last bit of it. It’s the parable of the man who divvied up his wealth to his servants to look after while he’s gone. He gave each of them what he thought they were capable of handling– five talents to one, two to another, and one to the third. The first two doubled his money, so he promoted them. The third buried the one talent he was given in the ground, and then dug it up to give back to the master on his return.
The kingdom reality that the talents represent is the goodness of God, his love, mercy, and compassion. And every Christian who has spent any amount of time reading their Bible and listening to sermons knows that the goodness of God is no good to us unless we share it. If you bury it in the ground, if you hoard it to yourself and don’t spread it around, it’s not going to grow in you. And it’s not going to gain you an entrance into the heavenly kingdom, because it’s in loving others the way God loves that his image is restored in us, the image that’s been tarnished and disfigured by sin. That’s why it’s impossible to be a faithful Christian in isolation, and why, contrary to what some like to say, you actually do have to go to church to be a good Christian, since that’s where God pours out his grace in greatest abundance.
Those other two servants, the wise ones, invested their master’s wealth. They spread it around so that it brought him a nice return. They took the goodness that God had imparted to them, and shared it with others. And the ones they shared it with responded to God’s goodness as they experienced it through his servants. And that’s our job, folks. That’s the whole work of the Church in a nutshell– sharing the goodness of God with everybody, everywhere.
So after all these parables in which Jesus teaches about what the kingdom of heaven is like, he paints a pretty vivid picture of what it’s going to look like on the day when, as we say in the Creed, “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” Jesus says in today’s gospel, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” That’s the day that the Church sings about in so many of her hymns throughout the Christian year. “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne,” we’re going to sing on the way out the door today, “and hail him as thy matchless King through all eternity.” And next week, on the first day of the new Church year, we’re going to sing,
Yea, amen! Let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own.
Lo! He comes with clouds descending
Before that throne, Jesus says, “will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” My Orthodox Study Bible says that this “is the majestic climax” of Jesus’ final sermon. It’s not just a parable, “but a prophecy of the universal judgment that will indeed come” (Mt 25:31-46nn). In just a few days he’s going to be nailed to the cross, so he’s trying to help his followers look beyond that terrible ordeal, and give them the vision of his ultimate glory as he sits down on his judgment seat, when every person who ever lived, or who is yet to live, will be gathered before him. And this is where he states the criteria for our entry into his eternal kingdom. “When I was hungry,” he will say, “you fed me. When I was thirsty you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.” “Lord, when did we do any of those things for you,” his people will ask. “When you did it to the least, most insignificant person,” he’ll tell them, “you did it to me.” Now I hope this reminds you all of that question in the baptism service: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” (BCP 305). Well, that’s the second of the two admission requirements, folks. The first is repentance at the cross of Jesus; the second is taking the talents that God has entrusted to us, the love that he has poured into every one of us, and pouring it out on every person we encounter as if that person were Jesus himself. To see Christ in everyone is the fulfilment of the second great commandment, the one to love your neighbor as yourself.
Then to the ones who didn’t do any of those things, he’s going to say, “Go away from me, into the eternal fire. For you never welcomed me when I was a stranger to you, or fed me when I was hungry, or gave me a drink, or clothing. And you never ministered to me in my sickness or imprisonment.” And they’ll all say, “When didn’t we do that for you?” And he’ll say, “You never did it for anybody. And in ignoring all my other creatures, you ignored me. In holding on to the talent I entrusted to you, burying it in the ground, hoarding it to yourselves, you’ve demonstrated that you love yourselves far more than anybody else, including your God. So, since you never wanted to bother with any of us before, that’s how it’s going to be for ever.”
The bottom line here is that our place in the kingdom is our choice. Our God is not the one so many of the Church’s critics, and a few within the Church, think we believe in. He’s not sitting up there eagerly waiting to smite as many of us as he can, looking for the least excuse to cast us into the eternal fire that’s been prepared for the devil and his angels. That’s not the God that Jesus Christ has revealed to the world. He wants us to come to him. He wants us to thrive and grow in him. And to help us do that, he surrounds us with all kinds of grace to free us from sin and lead us in the right way, and with more than enough love to share with the world.
If the God who demonstrated his love for all people most profoundly by dying for us on the cross were just itching to send half of us to the eternal fire, he would be a two-faced God, and therefore no greater than any of the gods of the pagans. Those gods are just the products of limited human imagination. But that’s not who the living God is. He’s not something any human could think up. He has revealed himself as the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who desires to save all of us by the light of his truth (1Tim 2:4), and to adopt us as his own dear children by filling us with the life of his crucified and risen Son. And he has given us the ability to choose freely whether we want anything to do with him and his children.
So he hasn’t predetermined who’s in and who’s out. It’s not in his character. The sentence that Jesus will pronounce from his judgment seat on that day is going to be one that each of us will have chosen for ourselves based on what we’ve chosen to do with the gifts God has given us, whether to hoard them or to use them for God’s purposes. And although none of us can be certain of the outcome, it should be our greatest hope, and our fervent prayer, that when the King finally says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you,” there won’t be very many left standing there to hear the other pronouncement, if any at all. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.