Sermons from St Faith's

Fr Mark Waters: Christ the King, 2005

The readings today present us with two of the central images of God that we will know in our lives.

Firstly that of shepherd.

The idea of God shepherding his people as we heard from the book of Ezekiel earlier on. The most well known words for this image come from Psalm 23 - ‘The Lord’s my shepherd, I will not want’ – recited at countless funerals, and at many, many other times.. One of the strongest and best loved images in the bible. Turned into many paintings, and church banners and hymns.

It’s a pastoral image, drawn from the Hebrew people’s occupation as herders of sheep. A natural image of a God who cares passionately. A God who is forever gathering his people to himself. A God who will not rest until the one lost sheep is returned to the other ninety nine. And a metaphor for Jesus - ‘I am the good shepherd’ we hear; him saying in John’s gospel. I love my sheep and my sheep love me. A role and responsibility which Jesus passed on to Peter, just before his passion and death. Peter, feed my lambs. Look after my sheep. Feed my sheep. The symbol first of the bishop of Rome, the pope, and then of every bishop in every diocese always carrying their crook. The chief pastor.

The shepherd image is about belonging. In order for anyone of us to believe, and to develop in our faith, we need a sense that we belong. This is the starting gate of faith. It’s just the same in our human family. Children do not thrive unless they know that they belong. A human life that sets out from the security of a loving home is the life which stands most chance of happiness and fulfilment.

It’s the same in our life of faith. Unless at some level we have that strong sense, however identified, that we are loved beyond measure, then our journey of faith is going to be a more troubled one. And the image of the shepherd is without doubt the most used image in the bible of a God who cares about us and gives us that sense of identity and belonging.

Belonging means knowing where you come from. Its about having an identity. Being secure in who you are. For Christians it is knowing that our ultimate home is with God in Christ – that great Shepherd of the sheep.

The second image of God that we were given in the readings today is a harder one for us to hear, and to deal with. Jesus tells the story of a king who divides the sheep from the goats based upon their treatment of the least in society. This image is of a God who is a judge. It tells us that someday, somehow, we will have to face the consequences of our actions. And it suggests that this confrontation with our reality as seen and understood by God will be a surprise. The verdict of the king who separated the sheep from the goats was as much of a surprise to those who were praised for their behaviour as those who were condemned. The message for us all is that we will not expect the outcome – we will be surprised.

I want to suggest this morning that every one of us is on a spiritual journey which starts with the idea of God as shepherd, and then invites us to head for the much tougher idea of a relationship with God which is about changing us, transforming us. This is the spiritual life. Inching along the spiritual path from a sense of basic security with God to the uncharted territory of understanding the consequences of our behaviour and attitudes and particularly our treatment of other people. From childlike trust and faith towards taking responsibility for all that we do.

Not surprisingly most of us get stuck on this journey of faith. Mostly in our lives we don’t move beyond the idea of faith as a question of belonging.

A sense of belonging is a nice place to be in. We can peer over the wall at the people outside and think ourselves as the chosen ones. We can wrap our selves in the blanket of church and believe that we have arrived.

And most churches in their ministry and mission don’t move beyond church as a place to belong.

So strong is this need to belong that the church has turned the idea of belonging into a fine art. Usually by making various badges of identification.
Some Evangelicals do it with some of their particular understandings of the life of faith. ‘Are you saved?’ is one of the excluding questions. Or, ‘have you been born again?’ The implication being of course that the questioner is always in the favoured position, already securely belongs, that they have arrived and the people they are engaging with have not..

In our particular tradition, the Anglo-catholic one we have got more than our fair share of badges of identification We probably have more excluding factors than anyone else. I can remember how at theological college unless you had 39 buttons on your cassock you were considered quite beyond the pail. Or unless you had a particular view of the eucharist you hadn’t arrived. Our tradition in some ways can be very open and welcoming, but it can also be very forbidding, and very exclusive.

Can you imagine Jesus in the synagogue complaining that a rabbi had only two tassles on his phylactery? Or that only certain people could certain things in the synagogue. It’s exactly what Jesus castigates the Pharisees for. But that is exactly how we often behave.

When we act like that it is probably because we are insecure unsure - of our selves, and of God’s love for us.

And as the church gets more and more marginalized in our society, not surprisingly church folk get even more insecure. Just look at what is happening in the Anglican  communion at the moment. All the divides! People maintaining that their way of seeing God is the only way! How ridiculous!

And, not surprisingly, here at St Faith’s and St Mary’s we are not very much different. The classic phrase of course is ‘we’ve always done it like that’. Or, said very proudly, I’ve been going to this church for fifty years, or for however many years. To which the answer should be, so what? The real question is – not how long you have belonged, but to ask how has that churchgoing changed you, and helped you change the world in which you live?

When we get stuck on the details of the liturgy, or the way in which the church should order its life through only particular people being able to do certain things, or the regular round of the same events in our annual calendar organised by the same group of people, it’s a pretty strong sign  that we’ve not got very far on that journey that the readings invite us to this morning. 

The idea of a church with a transformational culture, based on the idea and reality of discipleship, will not spend much time thinking about itself. The gospel this morning reminds us so powerfully that the real journey with God is not concerned with church, that instead we are invited to forget about ourselves and focus on others.

Notice in the gospel story that those who are condemned to the eternal fire by not responding to those who are hungry, or strangers, or naked, or sick or in prison haven’t even noticed that those people exist! While those who are invited to inherit the kingdom haven’t noticed because caring for those people has become a way of life for them, what it means to be living out ther life of faith.

Of course, there are going to be times for all of us when we need to come back to have that sense of belonging confirmed, when things are difficult in our lives, when we are in crisis. Then we’re going to need our faith and our church as a comfort blanket once more. And that’s OK, that’s fine – but only if we are also – at other times – making our selves take that extra half-step into that unknown territory of transformation. Moving beyond the church with our faith on a path of discipleship with a living Lord.

This eucharist should be for us the most comforting thing that happens to us in our week. But, at the same time, it should also be the most disturbing. If both are true then perhaps we are able to say that we have got some sort of right balance in our life of faith, and that we have truly set out on that journey from belonging towards transformation.

Are you comforted by this eucharist this morning? I genuinely hope you are. But are you discomfited and disturbed as well? That’s harder, and for you alone to ask yourself. I hope this is a pastoral place for you, a place of belonging, a place where you know yourself loved to bits by a God who gives his life to us that we might live.

But are you discomforted and disturbed by this eucharist too? Because I also hope that this is a prophetic place for you, in which the prodding of the Spirit stirs up in you a desire for a different sort of life and a different sort of world. That’s much harder, and a question for you alone to answer.

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