Fr David's Sermon
20th November 2005
Imagine being inside a church 500 years ago - not this one it's a mere baby - but say St. James or St. Mary's. What would have struck you would not have been the altar but the Rood Screen across the Chancel Arch. On top stood the rood, Christ on the Cross-, flanked by Our Lady and St. John. Above the arch was painted a doom - Christ as King and judge, separating the sheep and the goats, sending the sheep to heaven and the goats to hell. Some dooms have survived, most were destroyed at the Reformation to be replaced by the lesser if more immediate judgement implied by the Royal Coat of Arms.
When we remember that the naves of mediaeval churches were used as markets, meeting places, for social gatherings and church ales as well as for worship then we can sense the full significance of the Doom. Christ sat in judgement over all human activity and he sat at the meeting place of this life and eternity. You passed three times a year into the Chancel, the holy place where Christ himself was present in the sacrifice of the mass. (A sobering thought is that our ancestors might have had a doom festival rather than a crib festival!)
Today's gospel story of the sheep and the goats lies behind the mediaeval images of the doom. Today the last Sunday of the Church's year is the Feast of Christ the King. Jesus the crucified one is lifted up ascended, in glory and he sits in judgement over the nations. It is the judgement of love. How we respond to that love determines whether we are included or excluded. We either burn with the fire of love or are burnt by it. It is the same flame; for some it is heaven for others it is hell. The feast of Christ the King turns up the burners as we approach the season of Advent with its traditional concern with the four last things, death, judgement, heaven and hell.
Such traditional imagery no longer speaks to us at it once did. It runs the risk of making God seem like a cruel tyrant outdoing the unspeakable enormities of C20th man. But you'll perceive in what I've said the clues as to how we should approach both the feast and the gospel. There has to be choice, there has to be judgement because universalism however attractive denies the possibility of free will.
Jesus' teaching is very direct. It is comforting and challenging at the same time. For the blessed Jesus' teaching is an invitation to inherit the kingdom, for the accursed hell fire for all eternity. Stark contrasts, strong language but I suspect like much of Jesus' teaching designed to make us think and more importantly to respond.
The key of course is how we have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner - the traditional corporeal works of mercy. If we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner then it is then Christ who we serve. If we fail to do those things then it is Christ we fail to serve.
Such acts can be difficult in our society because of its impersonal and global nature. Our welfare state with its dependency culture can lead us to think that the state will care and that we need do nothing. Or we can give to big charities in the abstract and yet not connect at a human level with those in real need. We can join a big pressure group using all those simplistic slogans and yet fail to love real people. There is a need to be selective, a need for discernment and balance.
Our membership of the Church presents us with opportunities to show our Christian care at several levels. We care for one another at times of need, we may be involved at a practical level in local hospitals, shelters and charities, we can support charities working overseas and thus embrace the big picture, we can work for change and we can pray. In so doing we serve Christ our King and he serves us.
Rather than beating ourselves with a rather unattractive, protestant, guilt-inducing big stick, we can name what we are doing and discover Christ's blessing in our lives and hear his call as to how he wishes us to continue to serve him.
The Feast of Christ the King is recent in Christian history. It comes to us from the Roman Catholic Church. In our Book of Common Prayer Book today is Sir up Sunday as the Collect used as our Post communion reminds us. The collect with its references to stirring and fruit reminded the faithful to make their Christmas puddings.
The Feast of Christ the King with its most challenging Gospel, echoed in mediaeval dooms is a feast to stir us up in our Christian lives. Our prayer is that we may plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works and thus be plenteously rewarded by Christ the Servant King.
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