Monday 27 November 2023

Of sheep and goats

Mozaic of the Last Judgement, Ravenna

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church on Sunday 26th November 2023, Christ the King

Am I like a sheep or am I like a goat?

We have just heard Jesus’s vivid and memorable parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46), told privately to his disciples. It prompts me to ask myself this question, as it should each and every one of us, I suggest.

The main message of the parable is clear, isn’t it? God judges each one of us – me and you – according to how we respond to the needs of others. Some will be found to be righteous and go into eternal life. Others will not, and they will go into eternal punishment. Let’s delve into it a bit.

In NT times in the Holy Land, sheep and goats were kept in mixed flocks, as they still are.

But it was sometimes necessary to separate them into their kinds. At shearing time for instance. Or at the approach of hard weather – sheep are hardier than goats and can be left to graze over winter in the uplands, but goats must be brought down and folded in the shelter of the valley. Or to manage grazing – sheep eat only low growing herbs while goats will eat the leaves of bushes so that when forage of one kind is running out the appropriate animals must be moved to other grazing.

This image of separating sheep and goats would have been very familiar to those Jesus was talking to. He uses it as a metaphor for how people can be divided into two kinds. ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory’, says Jesus, ‘… he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left’.

Those that are righteous will be blessed by God and receive everlasting life, and those that are not will be accursed and receive eternal punishment. ‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, and ‘he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”’.

The test for whether a person is righteous or not – to be blessed or accursed - is how he or she responds to the needs of those they encounter. The king tells those who are blessed, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. He tells those who are accursed that they did none of these things.

And when both kinds of people express surprise because they did not recognise him, the king tells them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.

Jesus confronts those who hear him, then and now, with this great truth. To help those in need is to help him, the Son of Man. Not to help them is to deny him help.

And we can all do our bit to help them. Notice that the help Jesus talks about is not in great world-changing things, things that can only be done by those with great wealth and power. It is in little everyday things we are all capable of – feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the ill-clad, caring for the sick, visiting those who are lonely.

We know we are made in the image of God, our loving Father. And it is our duty to help our fellow human beings who are his children too, when they are in trouble, need, sickness or any other adversity. Why? Because, like us, they too are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ the King, the Son of God.

There is also something else we should take away from this reading.

The promise of eternal life for the righteous is not reserved just for those of us who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.

All the nations will be gathered before (the Son of Man), and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.’, says Jesus. That includes not just Christians, but also Muslims and Jews, Sikhs and Hindus, people of other faiths, and people with no faith at all. All of them are subject to the same judgement. Have they tended to the needs of their fellow human beings, ‘the least of those who are members of (God’s) family?’.

Those that have, whatever their faith or lack of it, are blessed. They will inherit eternal life. We must recognise them for what they are, ‘people of good will’, with whom we must work to make this world more like the world God wants it to be. We must never see them as enemies.

And this should be a comfort to those of us with children, family and friends who do not profess our faith, but whom we love and know to be good, and caring people. They are just as likely to be judged worthy of eternal life as we are.

So, what of the question I began with? Am I like a sheep or am I like a goat?

I feel sure that I am a bit of both – we all are, I suggest. Sometimes, helped by the example of Jesus himself, I behave as I ought to behave and do my best to respond to the needs of others. But I know that on other occasions I miss the opportunities I am given to do so, I fail the test, and Jesus weeps.

But I trust in God’s fatherly lovingkindness. I believe that when I repent of my failures, he will forgive me, as Jesus promises. And I pray in the words of today’s Collect of the Word:

Eternal God,
you exalted Jesus Christ to rule over all things,
and have made us instruments of his kingdom:
by your Spirit empower us to love the unloved,
and to minister to all in need,
then at the last bring us to your eternal realm
where we may be welcomed into your everlasting joy
and may worship and adore you for ever:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Tuesday 14 November 2023

A reflection on mortality (Wisdom 2:23-3:9)

Reflection for Morning Worship withn the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 14th November 2023

In this season of remembrance, we remember those who have died – the saints who have gone before us, and our loved ones departed. We also remember those who have suffered and died in cruel wars. This year we see again the hatred and cruelty of war, as generations of our ancestors did before us. We watch in horror the hideous death and destruction in Israel and Gaza, and the continuing ugly, grinding conflict in Ukraine.

But we are also prompted to reflect on our own death, which we know will come to us all.

The reading we have just heard from Wisdom (2:23-3:9) contrasts the world-view of the foolish – those who do not trust in God and his love for us – with the world-view of those of us who do. It is a reading recommended in our BCP for funerals, but I think rarely used.

For the foolish, death is a disaster. The dead are gone. They decompose. Their loves and their lives are meaningless. Their sufferings are worthless afflictions, leading to annihilation. Ultimately there is nothing for the foolish to look forward to.

But for we who trust in the love of God, it is different. We perceive, as Wisdom has it, that ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them’. Even as they suffer, ‘their hope is full of immortality’. Their trials, ‘like gold in the furnace’ will become a blessing. The good they have done in their lives, the love they have shown us, will reverberate after their deaths - ‘in the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble’. We understand the truth that at the end we will abide eternally with God, who will watch over us in his grace and mercy.

When the foolish mock us, saying, ‘How can you believe such ancient tosh in this age of science and technology?’, my answer is this: 

"We live our lives from birth to death in Einstein’s 4-dimensional space-time, on lifelines weaving around and touching each other for good and ill along the way. The God of love in whom I trust exists in a higher dimension. He sees you and me and all his creation as a whole, from start to finish. What pleases or displeases God is the quality of the love that I show to those I encounter in my life as our lifelines interact, and also to his good creation.

"God has made me to be an embodied soul, made in his own image, with a conscience through which I can distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, truth from lies, beauty from ugliness, as he does. I know from experience that while I would like to do right, I often do wrong. The good that I do throughout my life will propagate into the future, and so will the evil.

"But I trust in God’s Fatherly lovingkindness, so perfectly embodied in Jesus Christ. Though I may burn with shame for what I have done wrong, and for my failures to do what is right, this is surely no more than God refining me, like gold in a furnace. I trust in God’s grace and mercy, and my hope is to be found worthy when my time comes. I pray for forgiveness so that I may ‘abide with him in love’."