Kippax Uniting Church
20 November 2005
“Christ the King”
1. Our reading today, Matthew 25: 31-46,[i] the parable of the sheep and goats, is the well known story of the Second Coming, with the vivid image of Christ sitting on his eternal throne at Judgement Day, surrounded by saints and angels, returned to earth from heaven to judge the living and the dead. Today, Christ the King Sunday, is the last week of ordinary time before Advent. I will focus in this sermon on what this story of the sheep and goats tells us about the kingship of Christ, and touch on what the kingship of Christ might mean for leadership in our world today. But first I want to work through some thoughts about what this parable means for faith and works.
2. The puzzling thing to note is that this story seems at first glance to support salvation by works rather than by faith. Jesus says only those who have helped the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and imprisoned shall find eternal life, while those who have failed to help others will face eternal punishment. It looks as though these works of mercy are the key to salvation. When Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me,” he tells us fairly clearly that we can see him in our world today by looking among the poor, the deprived and the oppressed, those who bear the cross of suffering. This emphasis on good works for the poor also appears in the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, that the poor, the meek, the persecuted for righteousness and the merciful are truly blessed by God. Jesus’ identification with the powerless is complete, and is expressed throughout his ministry, for example with his teaching to the rich young man that wealth often prevents us from entering the kingdom of heaven.
Reading the parable of the sheep and goats as
teaching salvation by works could imply that what we believe is less important
than what we do. It almost seems it is irrelevant what you believe,
- as long as you do good for the poor you aare okay. However, that is not what Jesus meant.
4. The works of mercy can appear to save, as when a person on a self-destructive path gets help to get their life together, through kind advice, food and clothes, the sort of charity that Jesus seems to be talking about in the parable. But even in this example, seen often in the work of Uniting Care, we have to ask what is doing the saving - is it the works themselves or the faith that inspires them? Welfare assistance is important, but isolated piecemeal help does not always result in lasting change. Instead, welfare sometimes creates dependency or leaves people with other hidden problems. When charity only provides for material welfare without engaging with the spirit, it cannot really save people.
5. It seems that unless a person wants in their own heart to succeed, unless they have some spark of faith, they find it hard to be hopeful. This is not, however, to say our ultimate faith can be in ourselves, because trusting our own powers is just the problem of salvation by works. Faith has to be in God. Faith in God sets before us the picture of Christ, as the ideal model for how we should relate to others in life. In following the narrow path of salvation, faith keeps our eyes on the goal of union with God, through the example of Jesus. Because Jesus was the Son of God, the mediator between humanity and God, following Jesus provides Christians with a sense of purpose and meaning and direction that we can’t hope to achieve without him. Faith in Christ gives us an understanding of the world focussed on the importance of love and mercy and all good works. For traditional theology, the Last Judgement is central to the strategic framework of the creed,[iii] within which we can see the truth of Christ, understood by faith. Outside the framework of faith, our good works would be like a fish out of water.
6. Secular Australian society often places a higher value on independence and autonomy than on faith. One result of this outlook can be to seek happiness through material possessions. I wonder, how often do material values prove illusory, resulting in isolation and loneliness, and making it difficult for people to relate to others about things of the highest importance? Secular thinking emphasises good works, but it does not place these good works within a spiritual framework of faith. To my thinking, secularity leaves people with an emptiness regarding the ultimate meaning of their values.
7. By contrast, Christians argue that the moral compass provided by faith enables our actions to find a coherent justification. Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Dr Peter Jensen made this point in the first of his Boyer lectures[iv] on ‘The Future of Jesus’, last Sunday afternoon on ABC Radio National, observing how attempts to create a secular ethics tend to include Christian ideas without even knowing it.
8. I want to give an illustration of the danger of relying on works rather than faith by pointing out the weakness of a famous statement by Karl Marx, that ‘the philosophers have interpreted the world but the point is to change it’. In other words, Marx wants more action and less thought. We sometimes see this attitude today in the impatience some people have with the problems of the world, when they are convinced that solutions are simple if only people would take action. The problem with this Marxist approach is that we need understanding – of history, science, economics, law, politics, etc – to predict what the consequences of our actions might be. Marx had an interpretation of how to save the world, not by faith in God but through communist revolution. The impatience with ideas on the part of Marx’s followers, led by Lenin, Stalin and Mao, led to many changes which were not improvements, but rather the reverse. My reading of history suggests that communist ideas of class struggle have led to immense suffering. I sometimes think the faithless vision of communism is like a distorted version of salvation by works, showing how action can be harmful when it is not grounded in truth and faith.
9. Works need to be guided by faith in order to be on the right track. The guiding faith provides the salvation, not the works which result from it. A false faith such as communism produces evil works, but true faith produces good works. And when the faith is true, it makes contact with the grace of God, which is the real saving power in our world, uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ.
10. Christianity teaches salvation by grace through faith. Christian faith believes in the one real and true God who is beyond our images and understanding, but whose gracious love is revealed in the life and teachings of Christ. By faithful study of Christ’s example we are able to make contact with the God of truth, giving us a rock of conscience and ethics, grounded in faith.
11. I would like to draw an analogy between this debate around faith and works and different approaches to economic development. In economics there is a debate between the ‘top-down’ viewpoint that development comes mainly from good policy – such things as sound government budgeting, rule of law and openness to trade – and the ‘bottom-up’ view that development is mainly about local communities and personal initiative. Of course both are necessary, but the point I would like to make is that community development is impossible when government policy is wrong. When there is no sensible enabling environment, when systems and regulations are not oriented to enable people to achieve their potential, all the effort in the world will achieve nothing. Just as conversion to true faith can unlock people’s pent up capacity, so small changes to high level policy can result in enormous economic dynamism. When changes at the top flow through, the effects are far-reaching, but error at the top, whether through corruption, ideology or ignorance, can stymie any good works. The best social and economic policies are like faith in God; if government can find good policy they can enable people to achieve a lot more than under bad policy, just as true faith in God provides the framework for good works to achieve results.
At the outset I noted that today is the festival
of Christ the King, the last ordinary Sunday before Advent. I would like now to
discuss what the parable of the sheep and goats means for the kingship of
Christ in the
In Christian faith, Christ is king, for the
reason that the physical man Jesus of Nazareth is one and the same person as
the eternal Christ, connecting our world to God. Christ, the Son of God, in the
words of the hymn ‘great David’s greater Son’,[v] established
an ultimate unique messianic connection between humanity and God, and is
therefore deserving of glory and praise and power and honour. The
14. Jesus put the excluded at the centre, not in a Marxist inversion of social power, but to fix the existing order so it can deliver for those at the margins. In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the sheep and goats immediately follows the parable of the talents, where Jesus says ‘to those who have will be given’, calling on the talented to use their skills for the benefit of all. At some levels there seems to be a paradoxical tension between these two parables, but I suggest they fit together when we realise that the approach of the talents, based on faithful merit, is the best way to really deliver for the excluded and marginalised.
Monarchy has historically always depended on
faith. In the Christian framework, the
good king is the one who can make good decisions quickly by integrating the centre
of power with an understanding of the needs of society, a linkage of the top
and bottom which acts upon the basic ethic of Christ, that he is found among
the least. Our Minister here at
16. There is, however, a paradox at the messianic heart of the way of Christ. The messianic path of Christ is about those who have power representing those who have no power. It is rather like the Chinese Taoist idea that those with most power do nothing.[vi] Jesus identified completely with those at the margins who are excluded from normal society. In Philippians 2,[vii] Paul tells us "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (v. 4). Christ, the best of all humans, did not put himself first, but considered the needs of others. So Paul tells us "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (vv. 5-7). Scholars call this passage "the Philippian hymn," because Paul seems to be adopting words that Christians were already singing—words of praise for Jesus Christ.
17. Paul is using these words to remind his readers of the example they are to follow: someone who was divine, having the greatest of honour, yet who did not cling to his rights and privileges, but made himself nothing in order that God should be known as all in all (1 Cor 15:28). Jesus "did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage." He willingly set his rights aside, in humility becoming human, serving our needs. "And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross." (v. 8) His humility, his desire to serve, was complete. He endured the most painful and most shameful form of death, just to serve humanity and God. The result was that God resurrected him and in Paul’s words "exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2: 9-11).
18. When we follow Jesus, God gets the glory. Jesus is in the highest place, worthy of worship, worthy of the name "Lord." Because he was humble, he is now exalted. Humility is the praiseworthy way. We are to work not in order to get into salvation but to imitate Christ. As Paul said, "God works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (v. 13).
The exalted kingly status of Christ is further explained
Last Friday, 11 November, I attended the funeral
of the famous
Glossies cascade from my letter-box, a mind-numbing coloured cornucopia, each dazzling gift a bargain.
first ever Christmas gift was found wrapped in straw and non-disposable
stamped with a star, but posted beyond the stars,
marked ‘No Commercial Value’, signed, with a cross, ‘From heaven to earth, with love’.
vale, Michael Thwaites (1915-2005)
Kippax Uniting Church
Hymns: AHB 67, 418, 138
[i] Matt 25:31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. 41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. 46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
[iii] eg in the Apostles Creed –http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/apostles_creed.html: “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
[vi] Taoism: http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/daoism.htm comments “Wu wei is a difficult notion to translate. Yet, it is generally agreed that the traditional rendering of it as "nonaction" or "no action" is incorrect. Those who wu wei do act. Daoism is not a philosophy of "doing nothing." Wu wei means something like "act naturally," "effortless action," or "nonwillful action." The point is that there is no need for human tampering with the flow of reality. Wu wei should be our way of life, because the dao always benefits, it does not harm (ch. 81) The way of heaven (dao of tian) is always on the side of good (ch. 79) and virtue (de) comes forth from the dao alone (ch. 21).”