Sermon for the baptism of Thomas, preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
We have arrived at the climax of the liturgical year. From the expectancy of Advent which looked for the coming of the promised Saviour, through the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, royal David’s city, to whom the magi’s gift of gold foretold kingship, via the crowd’s shouts of hosanna to the Son of David and the indictment hammered over Jesus’ head on the cross, we have arrived at the feast of Christ the King. Here the incarnation, the epiphany, the life and the death all find their fulfilment: Christ is seated on his throne of glory; to him belong all might, majesty, glory and dominion.
But he won’t stay there, conveniently garbed in royal apparel and clutching his sceptre. Today’s Gospel reading will not let us off with the reassuring picture of Christ in glory, for it makes clear that just as Christ is seated in glory in the heavenly places, so he is also still Emmanuel, God with us, in the world. And he is here seeking us, asking us to love him, asking us to serve him.
And if I’m not careful, I find this makes me anxious. On the day of judgement, I want to be found among the sheep. And today’s Gospel reading tells me that I will be judged according to how I have treated Christ. And so I want to know if I’ve done enough; if I’ve made the right decisions. When I come to stand before Christ, will I be sent to the right or to the left? I only sometimes give money to the individual homeless people who ask me for it, but I regularly give to Shelter. Is that enough? Will the fact that I’ve done quite a lot of visiting of the sick compensate for the fact that I’ve done little prison visiting? Do the coffees I sometimes make for those who sleep in the pews here edge me more towards the sheep when I know that there are plenty of other times I feel glad for the scarf that hides my collar as I fail to meet the gaze of the huddled human in the shop door? When the day of judgement comes, will I have accrued enough points in the sheep column to keep me separate from the goats?
Matthew is interested in provoking a response in his readers, as with all his parables: how is our faith lived out? What does it mean for our daily living if we acclaim Jesus as Lord and King? But happily this parable of the sheep and the goats is not about trying to induce anxiety among disciples about how much or how little they’ve served Jesus. Notice that both the sheep and the goats are surprised at the judgement of Jesus. ‘Lord, when was it we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?’ say the sheep. Or ‘when was it that we saw you a stranger or naked or in prison and did not take care of you?’ ask the goats. The sheep and the goats do not realise that they have been serving, or not serving, Christ. The sheep have not been assiduously visiting and doing good works in order to gain their eternal reward. And the goats have not been doing evil deeds. But they have failed to enter into the new pattern of relationships opened up to all those who follow Christ.
And that makes sense, doesn’t it? When I went to visit Thomas in hospital, at no point did I think, ‘if I do this, I might stand a better chance of getting into heaven.’ I can give you a good theological rationale for why I went, to do with representational ministry and the incarnation, and the new set of relationships given to all those who are made one in Christ, and the call for our discipleship to be made visible in how we love one another. But it boils down to this: I went because God loves Kirstie and Philip and Thomas, and I love them, and they needed the Church’s prayer and the comfort of the Sacrament, which it was my privilege to minister.
The parable of the sheep and the goats is not a prescriptive set of rules about how we must live in order to be counted among the righteous. To do that would be to see salvation as something we merit and can earn, rather than the free gift of God in Christ. It is, I’m afraid, no use going home today with a checklist of people you must serve and be kind to in order to win your salvation. What it is is an invitation to a different way of life; a life made possible when we realise that Christ our King is not safely removed from the world to his throne of glory, but also still present in it, summoning us and inviting us to a deeper, more expansive love. In this way of life, we do not necessarily love and serve others because we recognise Christ in them already. Rather, it is in loving and serving them that we learn to see Christ more truly. And we learn to see each other more truly, too, as made in God’s image and for his glory.
So we do not love and serve others because they are the means of us getting to heaven. We love and serve them because God in Christ loves and serves them; because Christ always was to be found among those whose faces didn’t fit, whose reputations were questionable, whom respectable society had no time for. The difference between the sheep and the goats is not in the painstaking acquisition of enough good works to ensure salvation, but in the entering into the new way of being in the world made possible for followers of Jesus. The sheep have lived as those who belong to Christ, whose lives are patterned after his. They are not consciously serving Christ – not until Jesus reveals his presence to them – but they are seeing humanity differently; ministering after the example of their servant King.
Thomas, you become the newest citizen of Christ’s kingdom today. Here your truest identity is given to you. You are already the beloved son of Kirstie and Philip, and longed-for gift from God to them. Today you are claimed as Christ’s own, God’s beloved child. Today you are incorporated into the life and worship of Christ our King. And what you are given today is not given for you to keep to yourself. The gift of grace poured upon you in baptism is yours to share. You are to give it away – which paradoxically will make it increase – and you are to give it away especially to those who feel they don’t belong, that they have little value, that they have been forgotten. Thomas, your baptism tells you that you are loved immoderately by God. It also opens your eyes to seeing others as equally beloved. Live out this truth, this grace, and you will find that not only will you be welcomed into Christ’s kingdom, but that you will have helped others to discover that they belong there, too.