Where is all this going? All this organized activity, all this material and cultural production, all these institutions of education, government agencies, commercial enterprises, courts of law, military, medical, and religious organizations, in short everything that we call “the modern world” or “civilized society”—what is it all for? Suppose we say that its purpose is to establish a just, peaceful, and prosperous world order. Who gets to decide what is justice, what is peace, and prosperity? How can we tell whether we are getting closer to them or further away? And if it happens, as U.S. public opinion polls show, that a majority of our citizens believe that we are “on the wrong track”, what are the standards to guide us, how do we find the bearings for charting a better course?
It is a measure of the superficiality of most of what passes for politics in the world today that these questions are at the margins of the debate, if they enter it at all. But as Christians we have no choice but to ask them. When we acclaim, as in the collect prayer that began this liturgy, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, we are giving him a political title. We are saying that there are answers to these questions about the ultimate end of human society, and the means to get there. We are saying that those answers are found in him.
The story that Matthew’s gospel gives us today tells us that entrance into Christ’s kingdom requires answers so radically different from the conventional wisdom, so unlike any that had ever been given before, that it represents a parting of the ways. Those for whom these answers are true, who make them central to their identity and action and sense of purpose, are going to be as different from everyone else as sheep are from goats.
We tend to think of standing before the throne of judgment as an individual act. But the Gospel is quite clear—The Son of Man will come to judge the nations. All of this is consistent with the idea of election found in the Hebrew scriptures—God chooses a holy nation. His covenant of salvation is with the entire people and he gives them the law to set them apart from the nations around them. Their greatness is not to be measured by the conventional standards of military conquests, or the pomp and splendor of their rulers, by magnificence of their palaces, fortresses, and cathedrals, or the cultural refinements of their elites. Their nation will be judged by its faithfulness to the God of creation and their scrupulous observance of the law.
But the Son of Man in the gospel goes further—he judges with no partiality at all. Israel is not mentioned in this passage, either with prejudice or approval. His standard of judgment has no more to do with religious purity or pious belief than with valor in battle or ethnic superiority. The Kingdom of which he is the Lord is not the successor of any existing political entity or cultural system, but is the inheritance of what was already present and active at the creation of the world. It is rooted in the wisdom through which God made all things and pronounced them good, and fashioned men and women in the image of God.
The Son of Man comes to judge the nations and his standard of judgment will be his own incarnation. He is that same man of flesh and blood, who was poor, who was without honor in his own home town, who ministered to the sick and the sinful and the demon-possessed, and who identified himself with them to the point of being condemned as a criminal dying on a cross.
On Wednesday a dozen or so of us from St. John’s went to breakfast at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall. We came at the invitation of the Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS, a local agency that provides food, shelter, and supportive services for homeless children and adults. The understood purpose of the gathering was to raise money, but my experience was that there was a spiritual purpose t0 it as well. John Records, COTS’ Executive Director, began the morning’s program by describing the daunting challenges of these time—a 40% increase in homelessness in Sonoma County in the last three years, Federal and State funding that is disappearing, possibly never to return, a waiting list for beds at the COTS shelter that stretches into the months.
But he also spoke of something that I think we all felt as we looked around us at the 600 other people crowded into that room, and that was hope. He spoke of a dark time in his own life, a time when he was close to giving up, and of the people whose love and caring helped him to find purpose in his life again. He spoke of the joy and the meaning he has found in becoming one of those people for others, one who offers hope. A few minutes later one of the COTS members came out, a man who became homeless after an auto accident that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and he told similar kind of story. He spoke of his achievements of the last year, how he is now renting his own apartment and attending community college, and how he now serves as a mentor for newer members of the COTS program.
But the most extraordinary thing he said was that if he could go back and live his life over, and never have the accident that cost him the use of his legs and put him out on the street, he would not do it. He said that he wouldn’t change anything. His testimony was to a greater hope than “rehabilitation”, a hope that goes beyond becoming once again a “fully-functioning member of society.” It is a hope that I think all of us share, even if don’t think about it much, even if we are well and securely housed, gainfully employed, and meet the standard definition of “able-bodied.”
It is the hope that in the wisdom of God suffering is not a curse to be lifted but can be a strange kind of gift. Our wounds are also the openings through which compassion comes to us from others, and through which our compassion goes out to them. The places where we are broken are also the places where the barriers break that separate us from other people. The whole blessing of our humanity, which includes sorrow and anguish and death, is to hold out the hope of living in a world where we actually trust each other. It is to look for the triumph of a new kind of power that does not victimize the vulnerable, or ostracize the sick, or punish the erring. It is the hope for a new and redeemed humanity and for life in a just and holy nation.
God’s promise is to establish that kingdom, where He himself will be our shepherd. She has prepared it from the foundation of the world. It is present among us now, as the gift of Christ’s own flesh and blood. Not for us who are pious. Not for us who say “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like other men” and “there but for the grace of God go I” but for us who say, “I thirst” and “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Not for us proud who confide in our own strength, but for us who are poor, who are meek, who mourn, who are merciful, who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Jesus’ last words from the cross echo his first teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. And they remain the words on which the world’s salvation turns. Are we to go with the goats down into the maelstrom of never ending violence, cruelty, competition, exploitation of the earth and the poor? Or are we to go with the sheep, to feed on the pasture of God’s compassion, on God’s coming to be among us as one who suffers, as one who serves, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords?