Sheep, Goats and Grace – oh my!
Readings: Psalm 93; Matthew 25:31-46
After a few weeks of looking at the parables with Revd Dan Spragg from New Zealand, on the last Sunday of the Church year – known by some Christians as Christ the King Sunday – we looked at the last parable of Jesus. The sideways story finale looks at the parable of the sheep and the goats…
So as you’ve heard, I had a blast in the Land of the Long White Cloud. The two months of work were interesting, instructive and intense whilst the two week holiday at the end was pure enjoyment. There were, however, some things I truly missed from back home. Alongside my wonderful, encouraging and – dare I say stunningly beautiful congregation – you’re welcome!…I missed having a decent cup of tea, a pint in a proper pub, and an evening on the couch in front of the tele. Perhaps you think there’s nothing on the box over here but going over there reminded me just how fortunate we are and I’ve already got a list of shows that I have to catch up on…The Bodyguard, Killing Eve and the big one…the new series of Dr Who. With episodes looking at matters of historical significance from Rosa Parks to the partition of India, I’m told that the show has really upped the drama, with Jodie Whittaker shining in the titular role. Well, in the spirit of the timelord from Gallifrey, I thought we could do a quick bit of time travelling ourselves this morning.
It’s…say…1642 and whilst Dutch explorer Abel Tasman is becoming the first European to set eyes on New Zealand,
back over here, you’re making the most out of your existence in amongst the daily grind of poverty, plague and pestilence when,one day, you hear that the Church is changing the rules about heaven’s entrance requirements. You’re a miserable sinner of course – you’ve received that message loud and clear over the years – but now, thanks to an overzealous priest in Germany, your ticket to paradise has a reduced list of terms and conditions.
Previously, whilst right belief and behaviour might have worked in your favour at the pearly gates, you could guarantee your entrance through buying the odd indulgence here, participating in a Church-sponsored crusade there. But now, the Church is saying that it’s faith that gets you into heaven. If you have faith in Christ as the son of God, whatever else you do in life, your name will be on the list and St Peter will let you into the party. For many, it’s a liberating, world-changing and grace-filled outlook…
But just when you think the Church is going soft, along comes a Frenchman – John Calvin,
ferocious theologian and midwife to the Presbyterian Church. In his early days Calvin trained as a lawyer and so goes through the new divine contract with a fine toothcomb.
“If it’s faith that gets you into heaven,” Calvin suggests. “Well faith isn’t something you can choose – it’s a gift that God gives you – so God must give that gift to some people and withhold it from others.” A short hop, skip and a jump later, and Calvin (re)gives the world the doctrine of double predestination. This belief – a bedrock of Presbyterianism for centuries – states that there are two lots of people in life – the elect who go to heaven, ‘the saved’, and the reprobate who are on the road to hell, ‘the damned’. Before you or I or anyone was born, the theory goes, there was some sort of divine lottery or a salvation Sorting Hat which determined which group you belonged to and nothing you did in your life could change that. No indulgence bought or crusade fought; no good work or theological degree would make any difference to your final destination…for, as Calvin put it:
“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”
Now, I don’t know about you but when I first heard about this outlook a few hundred years later, I was appalled. I can distinctly remember my rising unease as this belief was explained to me on the eve of my second baptism. You see, having grown up in a middle-of-the-road United Reformed Church, a mixture of teenage apathy and worldly curiosity took me away from Church, only for me to return a few years later but this time to a younger, livelier, sexier denomination. In my new church, worship was like a rock concert, people seemed on fire for God and the pastor wore jeans. I don’t why this was significant but it just was! ‘These guys must be true Christians’, I thought to myself, ‘not like the stuffy, dull, white-haired brigade at my old church’.
And then, the night before I was buried and raised with Christ for a second time, my heart sank at the hearing of this double predestination thing that my bright, shiny, new Church believed.
“But what about babies or people who haven’t heard about Jesus or good people of different faiths?” I asked.
“If you’ve not been predestined, you can’t have faith and only those who have faith are saved,” came the reply.
“But didn’t Christ die for all?” I persisted.
“He did but we’ve got to respond to his sacrifice.” I was told.
“But how can we respond if faith is a gift that we can’t choose to have?” I continued.
“Phil, you’re looking at it all wrong,” the pastor’s son explained to me. “Imagine that there’s a house on fire and everyone inside is going to die. Well, God’s like the fireman who comes to save some of us from the fire. See?” He asked with the smile of one who was certain that he’d been chosen for salvation.
“I see.” I replied. “Except, in that picture, isn’t God the one who designed the house, invited the inhabitants to move in and then set the house on fire?” Needless to say, I didn’t last long at that church! Instead, I went a-wondering in the ecumenical wilderness for a while. I did a bit of church-hopping – the local Quaker meeting one week, the Catholic Cathedral the next – and at university I elected to do the modules that looked at this question of salvation. And, after all this existential angst, you can imagine my delight when I came upon this morning’s parable and some of the surrounding thought around it.
“Don’t think you’ve got it all sorted,” Jesus tells his audience, “for when the Son of Man comes in glory, all the nations will gather before him and will be separated. The King will then welcome those who fed the hungry, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner and the rest, for they whatever they did for those in need, they did for me. But those who withheld such help to their neighbours will be sent to the other place and will receive eternal punishment.”
‘Thank goodness’, I thought when I read and re-read this passage. ‘It’s not about buying the right things or believing the right things but doing the right things that will get us into heaven, get us closer to God’! This way of thinking put the focus on actually loving our neighbour; it solved the predestination problem; it opened up space for inter religious dialogue. I had finally found a Christianity I could get on board with. I had found the Matthew 25 Christians, the nice Christians, the true Christians…if you like.
And we do like – to divide people into these two groups, that is. The right and the wrong; the elect and the reprobate; the true Christians and anyone else who doesn’t think, act, behave just like me!
Tragically, of course, ‘twas ever thus. Just five minutes after the Church came into being, there were divisions about whether gentiles were allowed in the club and it’s been that way ever since. As a global Church, we’ve just keep dividing and dividing and dividing, finding security in the smaller and smaller group who mirror our own thinking about God and make us feel safe and superior. Over in Christchurch, I heard about various recent splits within the Presbyterian Church whilst the allowance of blessing same sex relationships caused several Anglican churches to separate from the rest of the Communion while I was there. I sadly reassured my Kiwi friends that it was a similar situation in Wales, telling them how many churches you could find on this one road and sharing the all too true joke about the Welshman who was marooned on a desert island. Remember that one? [click] When the boat came to rescue him, they discovered that he had built two churches on the island. “Why are there two churches when you were alone on the island?” The captain asked him. “Well,” the Welshman replied incredulously, “That’s the church I go to, and that’s the church I don’t!”
The fact is that if we go on seeking out the true Christians, the perfect Church or the right path to salvation, we’re going to be searching an awfully long time, missing out on the treasures God’s got in store for us while we’re at it. This is what I think Jesus is telling his gang in today’s parable, the finale to all the others.
“Have you still not got it?” He asks us with a sigh…or perhaps a laugh. “Have you not been listening? It’s about grace. That’s all this has ever been about. Creation, Israel, me…my stories about lost sons, lost sheep, lost coins being found…it’s all been about God’s reckless, radical grace.” And then, knowing what we’re like – fully aware that we’d even try to tie up grace, turn it into a neat little formula and save it for the ‘true Christians’ – Jesus throws it up into the air again, adds some sheep, goats, fire and flair into proceedings and passes it back to us with a mischievous smile.
Being reminded that we’re supposed to live out our faith in acts of love and generosity is no bad thing of course but if we use such a reminder to work out our own salvation, we once again make it all about us. We paint ourselves as the ones who must feed the hungry, visit the sick or welcome the stranger – as if we’re never the ones being fed, visited or welcomed! – whilst also turning salvation into a checklist, seeing each need as another step on the stairway to heaven…two shifts in a soup kitchen, four prisoners visited, three nudists clothed…and we’re in! Thanks God but we’ve got it covered!
No. Instead of looking up at that stairway, Jesus here reminds us to look around us; to get stuck in with the here and now; to glimpse his face in the hungry and the hurting; the last and the least; the Presbyterian, the Methodist, the Muslim and even the man or woman in the mirror! That’s the good news of the gospel. Grace is a gift and God is to be found not in doctrine and division, not in searching for true Christians or theorizing about heaven and hell, but within the messiness and magnificence of our daily living…for God is not over us or against us but with us – Emmanuel.
So after all this, what about election, eternity and double predestination? ‘Stop looking up and start looking around you’, Jesus says. But if you must have some double predestination with your breakfast, my vote goes with Karl Barth’s more grace-soaked understanding of it – that as God is with us, we’re all damned with Christ on the cross and we’ve all been chosen to be saved with Christ too.
‘But what does ‘saved’ even mean?’ you might well persist. ‘Where do the saved, the sheep, end up?’
‘Stop looking up and start looking around you’, Jesus says again with exasperation…and love. This week, as we come to the end of another church year, might that be our new year’s resolution? To look for God’s presence, listen out for God’s melody, to seek out and share God’s good news in our pubs and on our sofas, over a pint or a decent cuppa, in the places and with the people we daily live. Amen.
- What do you think is more important… right belief or right action? Why?
- How might we show more humility and patience with those inside or outside this community who think differently to us?
- Where might you search for or show God’s love in this coming week?
Not simply on the rugby pitch but on our streets and in our homes.
Not just on a Sunday but every day.
Not only alongside church-goers but with all our sisters and brothers,
May God bless us, surprise us, sustain us – our strength, our shield. Amen.