Today’s sermon, preached at Barrhead URC.
Why are you here? Today? Why did you choose to come here this morning? When you come here, what do you find? Why do you come back every week? To meet your friends? To sing songs, to listen to people me, to hear the Bible read?
Your role in this whole Sunday thing is really very passive. I decided the hymns, the prayers, the readings and the content of the sermon. Your job seems to be to sit there and listen and to sing what I tell you to.
I suppose I hope that something you will hear or sing might cause you to think about your faith, your God, your place in the world, and if it does then that’s a good thing. But if that is all that happens, if we have a nice time and are maybe stirred a little in our souls then we have completely missed the point.
Our Gospel reading today (Matthew 25: 31-46) is most definitely the point. It is the reason for our being here, although it’s sometimes hard to see the connection. Jesus tells the people listening to feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned.Those are interesting words for the compilers of the lectionary to give us this week, the week before Advent begins. This is Christ the King Sunday, the day when we celebrate Christ’s reign. You would think that the readings would be ones where someone calls Jesus a king, lord or some other statement of how great Jesus is. But to do that would completely miss the point of the kind of king Jesus was.
So why use the term ‘king’ at all?
To understand we have to get all the way back to that first church. In his book ‘Velvet Elvis’, Rob Bell explains ‘The world was ruled by the Roman Empire, and the Roman Empire was ruled by emperors called caesers. The caesers claimed that they were sent by the gods to renew creation. Caeser Augustus believed that he was the son of a god, he was god incarnate on earth, the prince of peace who had come to restore all creation. He inaugurated a twelve-day celebration called Advent to celebrate his birth. Sound familiar? His priests offered sacrifices and incence to rid the people of their guilt. One of his popular slogans was ‘There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved that that of Caesar’. Another phrase they used was ‘Caesar is Lord’. Throughout the Roman Empire, the caesars called on people to worship them as the divine saviours of humankind, and a city that acknowledged Caesar as Lord was called and ekklesia.’
Imagine a group of people who followed an obscure Rabbi suddenly going around saying not that caesar is lord but that Jesus is Lord. Imagine them claiming the term ekklesia for their groups, a term which, translated into English, means ‘church’. What was this group of people in a remote corner of the Roman Empire up to?
They were doing something profound. They were claiming that Caesar was not the son of a god, but that Jesus was the son of the one true God. They were saying that the state with its riches and brutal control was not the answer, but that there was a different way to live. They were revolutionaries. They were subverting the whole of society with its status symbols of wealth and power, its division between slave and free, Roman and not.
Part of my difficulty with what the church seems to have become is that it seems less than revolutionary. We seem to have lost that vision of a different way. We have fallen into the traps that all institutions do. We need to raise money to maintain the institution rather than to feed the hungry. We spend our time in meetings about roofs and boilers rather than clothing the naked. We spend our time here with each other rather than visiting the sick and those in prison.
We seem to have settled for something… less. We have settled for a church that has its own music, its own bookshops and even its own jewlery. All that isn’t about offering a new way, it’s about creating an alternative to living in the real world.
Later in his book Rob Bell makes a statement that jumped out at me. It’s this: ‘If the Good News isn’t Good News for everyone then it isn’t good news for anyone’. ‘If the Good News isn’t Good News for everyone then it isn’t good news for anyone’
That doesn’t sound much like the claims todays church makes about our personal relationship with Jesus. That’s because Jesus doesn’t call us to a personal relationship with him. He calls us to a communal relationship with each other, with the world and with God.
Let me explain. If I become a follower of Christ then that should be good news not just for me, but also for all those around me. But if I stay in my house and read my Bible and pray and enjoy my personal relationship with Jesus then that isn’t Good News to anyone but me.
If I’m living out the teachings of Christ then I should be a better person, a better neighbour. I should be kinder, more caring, more thoughtful and more considerate. That should be good news for my Muslim neighbour, my atheist neighbour and any other kind of neighbour I have.
Is that the kind of neighbours we are? Do the people who live around us rejoice because we follow Jesus?
It seems to me that we are called to good relationships. That’s hard for me to say. I’ve had my fair share of bad relationships. I’ve been hurt and I’ve hurt others. I could spend my life feeling that pain or I can lay it down and try harder to build better relationships with the world around me.
Next week sees the start of Advent. The Christmas decorations are up in the shops and the tills are ringing. People I know have finished their Christmas shopping.
Why am I talking about Christmas shopping and relationships? Well, we all know what the wrong present can do for a relationship! We all know the presure to find that perfect gift.
I was listening to an interview with an American minister called Greg Holder the other day. Greg is one of the instigators of a movement called Advent Conspiracy. If you have access to the internet you should have a look. Advent Conspiracy is a movement which challenges us to see Christmas through different eyes. They aren’t suggesting we stop buying presents or sending cards but they are suggesting we think about what we spend and why.
There challenge is simple: give presence not presents. They have a great example for dads. Dads are really hard to buy for. We all struggle with dads but sons find dads the hardest to buy for. Greg’s suggestion? Buy your dad a pound of really good coffee beans. Nice present, especially is your dad likes ground coffee. But there is a catch. He can only drink the coffee with you. And while you are drinking coffee together he has to tell you about himself. Who he is. His hopes and dreams. His story.
I’ve lost count of the number of times ministers I know have visited families before a funeral and the family knows nothing about their father.
How about vouchers for your children or grandchildren? One voucher gets them one uninterupted hour of time with you for whatever they want to do.
Those kinds of gifts sound like the kind of things that would make our relationships with each other better because our presence is much more valuable that any present.
Greg’s final idea, give your church’s Christmas offering away. And tell everyone you are doing it before you pass the plate round. His church gives their Christmas offering to projects that dig wells. I was thirsty and you you gave me something to drink.
And what about the eternal punishment Jesus talks about? A life spent in greed, fear, loneliness and hatred. For those first believers eternity started now. Here. Today. The punishment was a life lived without relationship to God, the earth and to our fellow human beings. That’s why prison is a punishment. It takes away relationships. That’s why being ill is so hard. When we are ill we are often lonely and isolated.
And what about this eternal life? Well, it starts today too. A life in the world, being the people God created in his image. Making friends, looking after those who are lonely and hungry and poor. Sending time with people, knowing them, listening to them, sharing with them and loving them. Those are the things that bring life.
That sounds like Good News to me, the kind that is Good News for everyone.