School assembly was about to begin. We sixth formers were responsible for settling everyone down…. I was the Prefect on duty that day- only it was very noisy and I clearly wasn`t doing a very good job. At which point the much feared Maths Teacher Mr. Cook came in. We all knew him as `Emlyn`. He was a very loud Welshman with a fearsome temper and steel tips on his shoes so that you always knew when he was coming! Predictably, he made his presence felt…. Only nobody was more surprised than me when he didn`t get on and sort things out all by himself. Instead, having gained everyone`s attention (with his characteristic force of personality) he said very clearly, “Listen you lot… when that Prefect speaks, the Headmaster is speaking! Now you listen to him!” I think the passing of a good many years have helped me appreciate what a kind and generous thing he actually did for me that day; he didn`t push me to one side- he encouraged me- in front of the whole school as well!
This, I think was the first time I`d experienced that notion that someone could `represent` someone else but of course, we actually see it quite a lot. I mean, obvious examples are a member of the Royal family `representing` the Queen on a foreign visit; or an Ambassador `representing` our Prime Minister to another government. The point is that in these instances the person concerned is to be treated as if the more important person was actually present. We see similar things happening in Scripture. There`s a curious moment in the story of St. Paul where he`s carrying out his venomous campaign of hatred towards the early Christian Church. You`ll remember that on the Road to Damascus the Risen Lord meets him. And having fallen off his horse and in a state of blindness he hears the Lord say to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Now the significant thing about this is that the Lord doesn’t say- “Saul, why are you persecuting `my Church` or `my people`” or whatever. He says, “Why are you persecuting ME?” And this isn`t the only time the Lord does this. If you look in Matthew Chapter ten (v40) he tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes ME, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”.
What I`m getting at is that the Lord makes a point of identifying very closely indeed with his people. Just like Emlyn I that assembly, he regards us as his representatives -Paul picks up the theme and calls us `Ambassadors for Christ` (2 Corinthians 5.20) – and I want to suggest this morning that if we`re going to find our way into the Gospel passage we`ve just heard … (Matthew 25.31-46) that story about the last judgement and those challenging words about `sheep and goats` ….. then we need to focus on how the Lord does exactly the same thing here. Because twice in this passage he makes a point of identifying with his people doesn`t he? He says “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to ME.” Who are the members of his family? It`s US, his disciples.
Now very often this passage, this teaching about the Lord putting things to rights, what we call the `last judgement` is interpreted as all about doing kind things to poor and needy people and that if we do this then we make ourselves into a sheep rather than a goat and therefore we inherit the kingdom. O the face of it that seems pretty clear. But the first thing to say is that there are plenty of places in Scripture which encourage us in a deep and sacrificial generosity towards the needy but in fairness, this passage isn`t one of them. That`s not the point that`s being made here. No, Jesus is picking up a theme which mattered a great deal to the Jews and it sustained them in difficult times. Basically they believed that the Gentile world would in the end be judged by how they had treated the people of Israel- his representatives. And putting it simply Jesus is saying that actually it`s he himself who will judge the world and this judgement will be on the basis of how it has treated his renewed Israel…. his representatives; the Church.
So, to begin with, we can imagine that this passage was a great encouragement to the first Christians. It told them (and perhaps us) that despite the world`s hatred they would in the end be vindicated. … as HIS people. They were the people in and through whom he was present. And we could reflect for some time, (perhaps with incredulity!) that the Lord could possibly identify so closely with us; we might ask “How could he possibly make US his representatives with all our faults and failings?” but although I`ll return to that in a moment, the primary point is that it`s not really about us- it`s about Christ. Yes, we can talk about the privilege and the responsibility of it all as `Ambassadors for Christ`; we can question how `effective` we are in representing him to the world and how well we live up to our calling and so on but what it really tells us is that what we call `the judgement` is really all about peoples` response to Christ. And this is one of the reasons why this passage is chosen for today.
Today is known as the feast of Christ the King. Nowadays it`s the climax of the Church`s year because next week sees the beginning of Advent. This is a relatively new celebration which was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. He did it because living in an Italy ruled by Benito Mussolini he was concerned that Christians should be reminded that they had a much higher and profound loyalty than the military Dictatorship that was on offer. But again what I`m getting at and what this special day says is that everything points to Christ. So for example, we might say (as many people do) with a certain irritation “I`ll be the judge of that!” But this morning`s Gospel says “No”. It`s Christ; it`s he that will be the judge; it`s HE who is the benchmark for what it is to be a human being… the judge of what is truly moral or not. And this puts a lot of things in perspective. You see the problem is that we always aim too low.
For example, you just have to listen to what`s said about people after they`ve died to see how they think the judgement works: “Oh, everybody liked him… nice guy“, they say. But then you hear Jesus say “Woe to you when all speak well of you”. (Luke 6.26) “Oh, she never had a bad word for anyone” they say. But then you hear Jesus say of the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth”. (Matthew 23.27) Time and again Jesus subverts our assumptions. But then he`s ushering in a new order. The goal of human life is `Christ-like-ness`; and the final summation, the judgement is about how open we are and have been to HIS Spirit and HIS way of being human.
This Gospel passage tells us that we as his people are so to speak caught in the middle of this. AS his people, and as we become more like him, we will experience `the judgement` first hand in the here and now. Of course, it takes humility, a great deal of wisdom to see it but in rejecting you and I it can be Christ people are actually rejecting. In accepting us it can be Christ they are accepting; “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to ME.” That`s why it is the Christ-like life which we seek; we pray for transformation into his likeness so that we might be more worthy ambassadors.
That`s what Paul commends the Ephesians for in this morning`s Epistle: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus” he says. The simplicity of that is quite breath-taking. Because it`s Him that we praise, worship, seek to follow and commend to others. It`s just about him… the way, the truth, the life…. there isn`t any more. No other name, no other way, no other source of hope for the world. We have the privilege of being his representatives; his ambassadors and there will be moments when, in accepting or rejecting US- people will be accepting or rejecting Christ. The wonder, the awe-inspiring truth is that just like Emlyn, Christ doesn`t jump in and push us to one side. He graciously allows others to look at us in order to see him and I wonder how you feel about that?