Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
We are drawing towards the end of Advent, with Christmas just a few days away. Some of us will greet that with a sense of relief. This is a season where we inevitably focus on judgement and the last things, neither of which have much traction on our culture. By contrast nearly every other religious culture sees these questions as deeply important. If there is a God, they argue, ensuring we are in a right relationship with him would be the most important subject we could address. We describe the Gospel as good news and its not hard to see how it would be received as such. If you believe that salvation is ultimately about weighing your good deeds against your bad ones and whichever tips the scales wins, a discovery that it’s all a gift, that Christ has done all that’s required for our forgiveness and even our worst sins can be forgiven is quite welcome. Similarly, if as a pagan in Jesus’ time you believed that salvation was through placating capricious deities through ritual sacrifices, it would be good news to discover these deities either don’t exist at all, or that Christ is infinitely more powerful. To a modern secular person who believes there is no overarching purpose; that we are purely the result of aeons of chance acting on DNA, and this life is all there is, it might be good news to hear that someone was once raised from the dead, has come back to tell us what life is really about, and can be trusted to get us there. This gospel is far more than God loves you or questions about will I go to heaven when I die. It paints a picture of a different way of living that resonates with the deepest needs of our soul. It can only be received as a gift, and we are even enabled by that grace to respond to the message we hear it.
But an inevitable question then comes, what about those who haven’t heard? This is addressed in a section of the Bible that has perhaps been more misinterpreted and mis-applied than any other. It’s the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: 31-46. Its most often used as an illustration of why Christians should be socially active on behalf of the hungry, poor, sick, destitute and imprisoned, and heaven help you (literally) if you aren’t. To understand it, we need to understand who is being judged and on what basis. At the beginning of the parable it’s made clear that the people being judged here are the nations of the world, not the Church, at that time when Christ’s true nature is revealed unequivocally at the end of time – hence its often read in Advent. A second issue is that Jesus doesn’t use the phrases translated as either these brothers and sisters of mine, or the least of these, for anything other than those who are already his followers. These are the ones depicted in the parable as poor and destitute. For the first 350 years of the Christian movement, this would have made perfect sense, because that’s what it was like to be a Christian then: sick, wandering after being driven from home and therefore a stranger or refugee, or even imprisoned for allegiance to Jesus. So, given that this is found in a section of Matthew’s account that looks at various aspects of God’s judgement, it most likely that Jesus is talking about how people will be judged who haven’t heard about him, on the basis of how they have responded to the revelation they have received. That revelation is most likely to have come through the poor, scattered christian community, seeking to be faithful to Jesus in a hostile world. This is much more coherent with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere on Christian community being the best way of commending the truth of the Gospel to those who haven’t understood it yet.
There are many other passages, and indeed the whole thrust of Old and New Testament, emphasising our responsibility to strive for justice and care for the poor. The Old Testament prophets talked of little else. But we don’t need this passage in Matthew to help us, natty though the quotes are, when its actually talking about something else altogether.
I’m personally glad the ancient Church Fathers made Advent shorter than Lent. Sometimes the talk of judgement can feel relentless. The framework of life it describes is truly bounded by the end of time and some sort of reckoning. Of course, much is hyperbole and metaphor so the precise detail is hard to tie down, but it is something to take seriously. But it does focus the mind on what extraordinary good news the Gospel of Jesus is. If that is the context then we are bound to welcome the gracious gift of Christ in his first coming even more joyfully. The Gospel is shown to be Jesus – his life, death and resurrection. He is the one who brings healing, forgiveness, purpose, incorporation into community, love and joy.
I came across an acronym for JESUS in preparation for a sermon the other day. Joy eternally shows us salvation. As we move from Advent into Christmas I say, amen to that.