The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s067g14  Sunday 34  Christ the King  23/11/2014

‘he will separate people one from another’  Matthew 25.32

It is almost axiomatic that religion separates people from each other.   I have noted before that ‘there are reported to be approximately 41,000 Christian denominations .. many of which cannot be verified.’  (1)   There are, I suppose similar divisions amongst other religions and faiths, so the number of different ‘orthodox’ perspectives on ‘God’ is legion.   And I suspect that most people within the church are not much different from myself: my personal faith bears only a passing resemblance to my Anglican upbringing.   For all of us, except perhaps the most trenchant, faith is evolving not static.   Witness my sermons on the internet.   There are few times when I don’t think I have learned something new as I have prepared another sermon.   Long may it continue. :-)

As early as 1996 I noted that there is not just one standard of judgement in Matthew chapter 25, but three. (2)  The first I think of as the judgement for christians - that they have friends - the oil in their lamps.   The second I think of as the judgement for Jews - that they have been part of the world rather than separate from it.   And today the third, the judgement for others - those who do not know the King - those who have not heard the good news or are not of the ancient people of God.   The standard for them is that they have been charitable to others.    Instead of persecuting others as Saul did, they visited and comforted others.

This shows me that there is a desire to include all in the kingdom, not to arbitrarily exclude others.   And I note that really every standard of judgement is about our relationship with those around us, not about our belief in God, the name we use for the divine, the doctrines or scriptures we use to think about God, the day on which we worship or the style of worship.

Indeed today’s parable is about the king dismissing any suggestion that those who have a personal relationship with him will be preferred.   “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (v45)

So we suddenly realise that actually God is on about bringing people together, not about separating one from another.  

A complicating factor is the doctrine of predestination, that nothing happens in this world without God willing it.   So the oft quoted words of Isaiah at his commissioning: ‘he said, "Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’   Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”’ (3)  Isaiah, like St Paul in Romans, wrestled with the problem that knowledge of God sometimes made people persecute others rather than succouring others.  Paul knew this only too well, for it was from this sort of religion that the Lord saved him on that road to Damascus.   Saul was not just indifferent to the suffering of others as the ones condemned in this parable are - his religion made him an active persecutor of others who did not deserve it.   As a result of his conversion, Paul’s faith became inclusive and affirming; as he says: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?   It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.   And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.’ (4)  And it is in this light I see the importance of the risen Jesus’ thrice repeated command to Peter to ‘feed my sheep’ (5); words completely ignored by the church down the centuries by defining who may not receive the Holy Communion - using the Communion to separate people rather than bringing people together.

So with Isaiah and Paul we too have to wrestle with the fact that religion, christianity no less than others (indeed the 41,000 denominations is testament to the fact that we are past masters of it) separates people.   Holy Scripture can and is used to condemn people.   If we are one of the minor denominations - we are condemning at least 99.9976% of the world’s population of 7.125 billion (6) so condemning 7.1248 billion people!   Just who is out of step?   Indeed the 41,000 denominations testifies to the fact of how regularly people who claim to know God intimately and follow the Bible assiduously fail to see God as affirming and inclusive.   It seems the gate is narrow (7) and it is the multitude of people whose religion is exclusive and condemnatory that fail to find life.   The gate to leave the exclusive and condemnatory church and enter the world is indeed narrow, but we all must find it.   Many, of course, are not even looking.  Indeed Saul wasn’t either on that road to Damascus, and he himself counted it a real miracle that he found that door.

Not that it particularly matters, but I do actually count myself as a bible-believing Christian.   I do believe that no one comes to the Father but by the incarnation, affirmation and inclusion that Jesus models and calls us to follow. (8)   I do believe that the bible both tells us and demonstrates to us, time and again, the dangers of religious delusion and selfishness.   I do believe the call to repent (9) is directed towards those whose religion excludes, marginalises, alienates and condemns others which John the Baptist observes. (10)

I do not care how people worship or even if they don’t.   What is important to God is that we are friends with all, that we are part of the world and that we are charitable towards all.   Or to put it the other way around God doesn’t want the divine name to be used to be unfriendly toward, or dismissive of others, to set up a parallel sacred society apart from the secular, and to be uncharitable towards everyone else.

So what makes us definitively ‘christian’ is how affirming and inclusive we are of others, not the form of worship or the name of God we use.   What makes the church definitively ‘christian’ is how it affirms God’s love for others, whoever they may be.

We were reading the prophet Daniel the other morning when he was brought before Belshazzar, frightened by the words written on the wall by the fingers of the human hand: ‘O king, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar kingship, greatness, glory, and majesty.   And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him.   He killed those he wanted to kill, kept alive those he wanted to keep alive, honoured those he wanted to honour, and degraded those he wanted to degrade.   But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he acted proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory was stripped from him.’  (11)   It seems that the God of Daniel acts precisely the same as the kings, only on a global scale.   Is such a god worth worshipping; is such a god even capable of love?

For when we worship an arbitrary, capricious, exclusive and condemnatory god, we are actually worshipping a demon, and it will be we and the world who are the worse off.

But the people in each of these three parables choose their way of life, none of these parables proclaims predestination.   The wise virgins choose to have friends, those who receive the talents choose to trade with them or not, those who are charitable choose to be so.   We are also to choose what we do in life, and this requires guidance and thought among equals not the obedience of slaves.

If we use predestination to excuse an arbitrary, capricious, exclusive and condemnatory god, incapable of love - more fool us!

3.  Isaiah 6.9,10
4.  Romans 14.4
5.  John 21.15
7.  Matthew 7.13,14
8.  John 14.6
9.  Mark 1.15
10.  Matthew 3.7
11.  Daniel 5:18-20