Feast of Christ the King – Sermon preached by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 22nd November 2020

If God were to make a diet pill, what would it be like? What would it do? That might seem like a peculiar question to pose — and it might well be influenced by having recently watched a certain Doctor Who episode with my daughter — but it actually goes to the heart of this week’s readings from Ezekiel and the Gospel.

There is, after all, a lot about feeding in chapter 34 of Ezekiel. The passage we heard comes from a speech that begins by castigating the leaders of Israel and Judah for looking after themselves rather than the people:

‘Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.’ (34: 2–5)

In the section that was read to us, God speaks of how this situation will be overturned. It’s a picture of abundance and restoration. None other than God will gather up the scattered sheep of Israel. God will feed the flock, providing the sheep with ‘good pasture […] good grazing land [and] rich pasture’, bringing back the lost, healing the injured and strengthening the weak (34:14, 16). In other words, God will do exactly what the ‘shepherds of Israel’ neglected to do:

‘You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.’ (34:4)

We might anticipate some poetic justice here: we might expect God to leave the neglectful shepherds to the wild animals that fed on the scattered sheep. Instead, they are to be fed too. They are depicted as themselves being among the flock, pushing and butting at the weaker sheep (34:21), oppressing the poor and needy. But the whole flock will be fed. So God will not neglect these unruly, domineering sheep as they neglected the people. But there is a sting in the tail, for these, ‘the fat and the strong’, will be fed ‘with justice’ (34:16).

Ezekiel doesn’t specify what it means for them to be fed with justice, but it certainly isn’t comfortable, for God proclaims their destruction (34:16). Certainly, their status and authority are stripped from them and given to another: God not only asserts ‘I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep’ but says ‘I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David’ (34:15, 23). One shepherd rather than many. One shepherd who will care. One shepherd with a divine mandate to feed and lead.

Here, then, is an answer to the question with which we began: God’s diet pill is care and justice — care for the weak and broken and lost; justice for the oppressed and judgment on the oppressor. Care that sustains and builds up; justice and judgment that restore the balance within the community. It is a diet that thins down those who have overstuffed themselves at others’ expense and fattens up those who’ve been left with nothing to eat.

Judgment is a topic we tend to shy away from, but neither Ezekiel nor the Gospel reading let us avoid it. If we don’t find ourselves shuffling uncomfortably in our seats as we hear these texts, I wonder whether we are hearing their full impact. You might or might not be a leader but we are citizens of one of the richest countries in the world and we all have power to reinforce or resist oppression of others through the choices that we make at the ballot box, in our bank balances, in our behaviour.

Matthew’s Gospel brings this home to us vividly. What divides the sheep from the goats here is not their doctrinal statements, the way they worship God or whom they proclaim as Lord. It isn’t even, at the heart of it, their actions in themselves. It is whether they act towards others out of mercy, whether they demonstrate genuine care. The ones who do so are not driven by the fear of judgment but by a genuine desire to feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and care for the prisoner. They use their time and resources to exercise mercy because that’s who they are. The last thing they are is calculating, so they are shocked to find out that, no matter to whom they showed mercy, they showed it Christ — Christ, who is here designated king in a very similar way to the David figure in Ezekiel but is also occupying the divine judgment seat.

There is undeniably something of the sheep and the goat about each of us. And that is perhaps inevitable, because none of us can address all the injustices in the world. But neither does Scripture permit us just to ignore them all and pass by. We might be tempted to take from the Gospel reading the sense that alleviating immediate need is enough. But Ezekiel makes it clear that God is interested in restoring the balance, that is, in structural change.

Structural change is hard, not least because it often demands that we have to give something up, whether wealth, time, status or attitudes. But this is precisely the kind of service that the Lord requires of us. Ezekiel gave us a picture of corrupt shepherds whom God made into sheep; in Matthew, we have an image of the Good Shepherd who makes himself into a sheep, who is found among the sheep. This is the kind of king Christ is; this is the king whom we serve: one who not only gets his hands dirty but becomes one of the dirty, one with the dirty.

Our service to this hidden king must begin with us asking ourselves the difficult questions these texts leave hanging in the air:

  • Whom do our actions and choices oppress?
  • Whom do we silence, push to the edge and exclude?
  • Whose plight do we ignore?
  • Do even our acts of charity end up having any of these effects?
  • Is there something more or something different we should be doing?
  • How can we challenge and even reshape the unjust structures around us?

These are questions we need to keep coming back to as individuals and as a community, letting them sit in judgment on us so that we might experience the restoration that will enable us to take our full part in Christ’s restoration of justice, mercy and healing.

For Reflection:

Reflect on the questions posed at the end of the sermon.

 

Easter 5 (Christian Aid Sunday) – sermon preached online by Andy Philip, Chaplain – 10th May 2020

(1 Peter 2.2-10; Psalm 31; John 14.1-14)

Like so many households right now, the Philip family are a bit scunnered with being stuck at home, for all that we grasp the urgent need to keep following the rules. As the country approaches its eighth week of lockdown with little prospect of any easing, we are all growing a bit more fractious with each other. Even the dog seems fed up: every time I go downstairs, he stares all the more hopefully at me than he would under normal circumstances, his eyes begging for a walk. And we feel like this despite the fact that we have a good-sized garden and so, unlike many others, are able to get outside without having to leave our home.
In the midst of this frustration, the talk of ‘dwelling places’ and ‘spiritual houses’ in today’s Gospel and Epistle might well not be the most welcome of imagery. Confined to barracks as we are, we might prefer to lie down in last week’s green pastures, thank you very much. Conversely, we might feel the readings connecting with where we’re at, especially when we read and hear them alongside the imagery of refuge and fortress in Psalm 31. Regardless of how we react, it’s worth spending a bit of time reflecting on how these images speak to us in our current circumstances.
This week’s passage from the Gospel of John comes from what Bible scholars refer to as the ‘farewell discourse’ — that is, Jesus’ last words to the disciples before he goes to the Cross. The farewell discourse is a familiar form in ancient literature. In it, an important person, who knows that their death is approaching, gathers their family or followers and tells them the things they particularly want them to remember when they are no longer with them. The point to bear in mind about this is that, by putting these words of Jesus into this pattern, the writer of the Gospel is highlighting them as especially significant, calling us to pay close attention.
It’s also significant that we, like the first audience for the Gospel, hear and read these words in the light of Easter, so they are more than your average farewell discourse. Although Rabbi Jesus is no longer here, the risen Christ is very much with us and these are also his living words to the community of the faithful — that is, to us.

They are, of course, deeply familiar words:
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’
In these verses, Jesus reassures the disciples that he will be with them, and they with him, beyond death: ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.’ For each of us, our ultimate end is to dwell with God. There is a sense of something large and expansive here. It’s not being jammed in pokey wee flat with no green space or even tripping over one another in a decent-sized house. No, I think we’re meant to picture something like those Greco-Roman villas with courtyards and fountains. Something airy and fresh and cool in the midday heat.
These words of comfort and reassurance are given to people whose understanding of the world and whose place in it is about to be pulled violently out from under them and then just as abruptly rebuilt. That — or the first bit at least — is something we can all relate to, given the sudden changes that have restructured our way of life.
However, Jesus’ words are not only aimed at bringing comfort; they also invite, encourage, even challenge us to believe or, as some other translations (e.g., NIV) render it, to trust in Jesus. And he is to be trusted because he is ‘in the Father’ and the Father is in him (v 11). That is, he is one with God. He is so identified with God that to trust him is to trust God. Thus, as the full revelation of God — the truth — he is the one who brings renewal — the life — which makes him the way to where he is himself going: to the Father, our ultimate dwelling place (vv 6, 2).
This dwelling, however, is not solely about the afterlife. In the resurrection, Jesus has already come and taken us, our humanity, to be with the Father. Further on in this chapter, in verse 23, we hear that:
‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’
For us, scattered to our homes as we have been by the pandemic, there is something significant to hold on to here. It is not per se the fellowship or worship of the Cathedral that brings us to God. These are only vehicles, tools, signposts, more or less rough or detailed maps to bring us to Jesus, the Way. Therefore, the fact that we are unable to meet or worship together in the way we did before lockdown does not mean that we are any less able to come to God for God has already come to us.
As well as dwelling with God, we are the dwelling-place of God. We are the ‘living stones’ that are being ‘built into a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2:5) along with Jesus, the living stone chosen by God (v 4).
Our call to make a home in God is, however, not a call to be quarantined with Jesus from the infection of the sinful world. The spiritual house is more of a mission base, a launch pad, than a sanatorium or hideaway. Action is demanded of us. As a ‘holy priesthood’ we are to ‘offer spiritual sacrifices’ and ‘proclaim’ God’s acts (1 Peter 2:5, 9), not to keep silent and hidden away. This is a matter of lifestyle. Jesus tells us in the Gospel to ‘do the works that I do’ (John 14:12) — that is, to bring the mercy, healing, freedom, justice and love of God to the world.
There is, of course, much that we can’t do in lockdown. But we can always find ways to love our neighbour. We can simply follow the rules and stay at home as much as possible. That’s one way. We can also help those around us if we are able, perhaps by volunteering to help with local responses. We can combat the feeling of isolation by keeping in touch digitally or on the phone.
In this Christian Aid week, we are also invited consciously to think about how we love our global neighbours, many of whom do not have houses where it is possible to self-isolate or access to the running water necessary to keep their hands free of the virus. We cannot do what we would normally do this week to raise money, but we can still donate to Christian Aid online. We can also still campaign — write to our Government about issues of global justice, environmental justice and trade justice. We can, we do, we must also heed Jesus’ call to pray, confident that an end to injustice and suffering is God’s heart for the world. If we can bring that about, even from our front rooms — especially from our front rooms — it will indeed be a greater work than those Jesus performed (John 14:12).