“Where is the Christ?”
Matthew 25: 31-46
April 7, 2019
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
In the waters off the coastal city of Venice in Italy, there is an island called Torcello. On that island there is a 9th century Romanesque church called Santa Maria Assunta. The church could easily be overlooked. It does not look like much on the outside. Slightly crumbling surrounded by over grown grasses.
On the day I visited, I was one of only a handful of people. I pushed open the small rounded wooden door and stepped inside. The cool, dimly lit interior was a relief from the hot blaze of the Mediterranean sun. Once my eyes adjusted, they were drawn to the front of the church. In the chancel, I saw a stunning mosaic of shimmering gold upon which was a single image. It was of Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms. The image must have been 15 or 20 feet in height. It was beautiful. I spend many minutes gazing at it before I realized that there was another image at play. In the beam just before the beautiful chancel, there was the crucified Jesus.
I found the interplay between the two images profoundly moving.
I sat there in that small, cool, dimly let space for quite some time and even now can feel the peace that surrounded me there. I felt in the hush of that space, a peace and an assurance that the divine presence, the Christ, holds and redeems all of the promise and all of the pain of what it is to be human. I could have stayed in that space forever.
But soon it was time to leave and so I stood up and turned to go back through the door through which I had entered.
And that is when I saw it.
The entire back wall of that sanctuary, was a fresco of a chilling scene of judgment. The Saved were on the right hand side of Jesus, and on his left — the poor souls who were being cast down into hell. It was an unsettling scene. A scene in sharp contrast to peace and presence that was so palpable in the rest of that space.
Why had those that built such a beautiful space thought it was a good idea to include such an unsettling scene of judgment on the back wall?, I wondered.
On that day many years ago, I was surprised by that scene. But in light of our parable today, I ought not to have been. For in much of our Christian tradition, Judgment is not the last thing one would expect to see, but instead, it is the very thing we expect to see at our last.
We have been told that the final judgement is coming, a ruling where all will be taken into account. In the end, God will sort it out. Justice will be done. And for many, especially for those whose have been oppressed and suffered under the domination of others, this final judgment can be a source of great comfort. It can even be good news.
The trouble, starts however, when we begin to believe, that we can step in and do the work of God. When we can step in and expedite things by starting to sort out the proverbial sheep from the goats. The problem comes when we come to think we can do the work of God by declaring who is in and who is to be cast out. The trouble comes when the promise of final justice, becomes a tool of threat used by those who think they have it all figured out, to wield against those who do not measure up in their books. When we can think we can sort out those who are saved from those who are to be condemned, those seen as less than human, worthy only of our distain. The consequences of such ways of believing leave deep scars in our human life together, the Holocaust, the trauma of slavery in this country and white racial violence from Reconstruction to Jim Crow and Charlottesville to the searing images of refugees in cages on our southern border.
It to this that the parable of Jesus today speaks. For what I hear in this parable is a judgment of our human propensity to judge.
The parable begins with the familiar scene. The King on his throne, all the people gathered around. But it as soon as this King starts to speak, things take an unexpected turn. At the heart of the parable is a bewilderment as what it means to serve Christ. Neither the goats or the sheep seem to comprehend where the Christ has been. Both the sheep and the goats have this cognitive dissonance as they find it hard to believe that the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the prisoner have any place in this kingdom of which the son of Man in his glory speaks, let alone that they could be the very dwelling place of the divine.
And that precisely is where the problem lies.
As Clare said, in the Gospel of Matthew, this parable is Jesus’ final teaching before he becomes the despised one. The one deemed less than. This parable takes on deep power and resonance when we realize he speaks it just before he is to be betrayed and then judged. He speaks these words just before he is to become the one who is hungry and the one who suffers from thirst. Before he becomes the imprisoned one, the stranger, the one thrown out to be crucified.
As Jesus walks into Holy week, the warning that Jesus gives here in word will be born out in his flesh and blood, as the ruling elite, the mob and finally the disciples themselves, cease to see the Christ in Jesus and come to see him, not as sheep seeking their shepherd, but as goats looking down on and judging the one whose hunger, or thirst, or nakedness must surely be the result of his own bad choices. Judging the stranger who does not deserve to be in the land, or a prisoner surely deserving of the death to which he has been condemned.
For centuries, much of the dominate Christian theology has told us that the reason Jesus came into the world is because God had a problem with humanity, a problem that only Jesus could fix. So Jesus’ death was the price it took to restore our relationship with God.
That no longer makes a lot of sense to me. Instead what I have come to understand is that the reason Jesus came into the world is because God sees that we have been long having a profound problem with each other. The very existence of hunger and thirst. The very reality of there being people who are deemed strangers; people who are vulnerable or naked as the text puts it; people who are in prison, is evidence of the problem that we are having with each other. It is no wonder then that it is exactly in these broken places that the Christ will be at work. All of Jesus earthly ministry has been about healing. And if there has been judgment in Jesus ministry it is not towards those that need of healing, but against those who have refused to participate in the healing that is needed.
It is out of love for us all, that Jesus as the fullness of humanity and the fullness of the Christ came to show us a way to live reconciled to ourselves, each other and all creation so that all may be transformed and delivered into newness of life or eternal life, which we celebrate in this soon to be Eastertide, the season of the resurrection.
We tend to understand eternal life as something that if we are lucky we may get to share in at the close of our earthly lives. But originally “Eternal” would have been heard to mean a big, wide life. A big life, the alpha and omega, something Eternal that is right now. Fullness of life is participating in the life of God that is now. The energies that we bring into our day are to be co-mingled with this large energy that is the life of God. That is what salvation looks like. That is what healing looks like. The parable speaks the good news that Jesus the Christ is at work in the broken places in the world and that we are invited to join him there not out of guilt, or out of wanting to try to earn enough God points to get into heaven, but instead because that is where resurrection is happening and where eternal life begins.
For the past four weeks of Lent we have been considering Jesus parables and what the life of discipleship looks like. We spent time considering forgiveness, generosity, hospitality and today humility. We do so to help cultivate a willingness and disposition to ready us, by God’s grace, to be called as partners in Christ’s service.
As we are getting ready to walk into holy week and as we prepare for Easter, I hear ever more acutely the message this parable is proclaiming. Judgment is God’s alone. When we take judgement upon ourselves it takes can take us far from where God is at work and far from the joy of sharing in the resurrection that is now.
Now as a final thought, I wonder the purpose of painting such a scene of judgment on that back wall was it to remind those of us that as we go out into the world, judgement is not the end time but is the time that we find ourselves in. And that judgment will be our ultimate challenge to overcome so that we may dwell in time and in the end of time in the peace that the reconciled Christ can bring.
For I would rather dwell within the peace and an assurance that the divine presence, the Christ, holds and redeems all of the promise and all of the pain of what it is to be human, than within anything that I saw on that back wall, not just at the end of time but in this time as well.