“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Today is the last Sunday of the Church's calendar. The end of November seems an odd time to finish a calendar doesn’t it? But next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, which starts the Christian year and we start afresh as we prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world at Christmas.
So, today’s Gospel passage, as it happens, is one of my particular favourites: it’s a sort of check-list for the disciple – and when I say disciple, I don’t just mean the original twelve. This passage talks to disciples down the ages, those who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus, so that means us to.
We call Jesus by many titles, Saviour, Brother, Lord and so on, but today’s emphasis is on Jesus as role model, the one who’s example we try to follow, and let’s face it, because we’re human, we’re pretty poor at getting it right in the way we follow the example of Jesus. I was talking to a friend on one of the wings last week and he described life on his wing as like living in an extended episode of The Jeremy Kyle show. Sound familiar?
When I talk to people on the outside about life here, one of the things I usually say is that the men who regularly come to chapel are aware, perhaps more than anyone else, of their own weaknesses and failings: this is a hard place to be and not to confront the things we’ve done wrong in life; the mistakes we’ve made and the hurt we’ve caused others and also the things we’ve failed to do. From my point of view, you guys are due the ultimate respect because, in coming here week by week, you’ve faced up to that in ways that many on the outside never do. Listen again to what St. Paul says in the first reading: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” Have you thought before that people give thanks to God for you? And for those of you who aren’t good at hearing praise because somehow you don’t think you’re good enough I say, “Tough! Hear this. It’s about you.”
I also tell people on the outside that this is a hard place to be a man of faith: living side by side 24/7 with people, many of whom we may not like, the attention-seekers, the bullies, the plastic gangsters, the scroungers; faced with what often seems like a system lacking kindness and compassion; faced with temptations hard for some of us to fight- the drugs culture, for instance, or the culture of casual violence; faced with the deep despair of others; driven in some cases to depression and dark thoughts of our own and in some cases living in fear of others. Being here strips us down to our very souls, but it can also build us up again once we’ve reached that point of our lowest ebb. You may not see it, but I do as I talk to men on the wings: I see men who are at various stages of becoming new men, different men, men who are developing a potential they thought they’d lost: a potential to be the men they were always intended to be with the help of God. St. Paul says this in one of his letters, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” A new creation: we are new creations. The past is behind us and we can move into a new future and it’s a privilege for me to see that in you.
That’s not to say the process is easy and I’ll tell you a little tale of a couple of past prisoners.
Let’s start with Terry, now back on the outside, and dong well. When I bumped into him one day on his wing, he told me he’d had a very rocky couple of weeks: he’d lost his job in the kitchens for stealing food, and therefore his major source of income; his partner had gone off with someone else: he’d started using drugs again and he’d lost his two front teeth in a fight. His take on things was very interesting. “I’ve hit rock bottom because I took my eyes off the Lord.” His main worry was not all the woes he faced but the fact that, in his own words, he had ceased to be a pillar for the Lord but had become, instead, a pillock for the Lord. He’d reached rock bottom but had stopped looking inwards and started looking outwards.
His troubles had driven him to some extreme behaviour but his main concern was for his compromised example to others as a man who identified himself as a Christian. His concern wasn’t what people thought of him but what people thought of the God he follows because, he feared, people judged God through his discipleship. “Call yourself a Christian?” Of course, that would have been another sort of worry for him – you’d think - but no, “I’ve given it all to the Lord. It’s my only option. I’m back on track and I’m going to use this as part of my testimony of what God can do in your life.” “I’ve given it all to The Lord. It’s my only option.”
Then there was Joe, now moved on to another prison: Joe murdered his wife. I’ve never met anyone as remorseful, and he had attempted suicide so was on a constant watch because he may have tried again: he saw that as his only solution. “However bad life is in prison she’s worse off”, he told me, and he couldn’t get beyond the fact that while he was fed, clothed and warm, she was lying in the cold ground. “There is no punishment good enough for me.”
He asked if I could take him to the chapel at the very time of her funeral and there’s a short service I use for those unable to attend a funeral. Distraught as he was, it was a moving experience for him and it shifted the way he saw things: he wanted to start coming to chapel regularly; he was starting to understand that God has forgiven him and that’s the first step to being able to forgive himself.
For both of them the way out of worry and anxiety and, indeed, self-loathing, has been to turn to God: either to turn back or to begin that journey. Out of the depth of their experiences, their pain, their guilt, the messed up lives – theirs and others - and their bad choices, is a sense that hope comes through faith in God. They’ve started looking outward rather than inwards. Although the details are different, I guess many of you here can identify with those stories because you’re men who come here seeking a new way, a way to be better than the person you were and with a deep desire to change and you’ve had some glimpse of the role of God’s Holy Spirit in enabling that to happen.
What’s that to do with our Gospel passage for today, then? It’s a wonderful picture story set at the end of time and we picture Jesus as judge of all mankind dividing people into two groups. He calls them the sheep and the goats.
He looks at the group he calls the sheep, many of whom seem a bit surprised to find themselves in that group and he calls them “righteous” and “blessed” and he welcomes them into the Kingdom of God.
“What, me?” And Jesus responds with, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
“Did I? Really? When?”
And the reply is, “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.”
This is about discipleship, because when we are followers, whatever we do, we do in Jesus’ name. Have you ever thought about it in those terms? The way we treat others is a mark of our discipleship and it doesn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded. The key, though, is that that behaviour doesn’t come from the motivation of looking for reward or praise: it’s a discipleship that comes from knowing that we do the right thing and yes, like Terry, it may be a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back sort of discipleship because we’re human and despite our best hopes and intentions we still get it wrong from time to time. In the book of Romans, St. Paul explains his experience, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
It should do because it sums up our experience too, but we persevere because as disciples we know that there is no other option.
It’s those little acts of kindness that mark us out as Christians and it fits in perfectly with the Parable of the Good Samaritan: you know that story Jesus told? The one where a stranger happens upon a man who had been beaten and left for dead and, even though he was from an enemy tribe, he helped him anyway? And the moral of that story? Everyone is our neighbour regardless of who they are. Their need is balanced by our ability and willingness to help with no conditions.
We are uniquely positioned here to be that Samaritan, to be numbered as one of the sheep in today’s Gospel.
By giving time to someone in trouble; to be a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on; to stick up for the vulnerable wing-mate; to speak out for someone who’s struggling with the system; to offer kindness, support and friendship to someone we may find difficult because …. because they’re in need and we can help. In John’s Gospel we read, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Not just the ones who are easy to like, but also that bloke who we think’s a bit of a knob. He may be a bit of a knob but he’s still struggling and needs a friendly face and a word of encouragement.
That’s the nature of discipleship and when we help someone else it’s as if we’re helping Jesus himself.
Let’s look at the flip side of the story too: let’s look at the goats. It’s the same pattern here, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
“When, Lord? When didn’t we do these things for you?”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” This second part of the passage makes it clear that’s it’s not only about the things we do as disciples but about the things we fail to do: the opportunities we miss.
Now, let’s be honest this is a high standard we’re being held to and perfection is not realistic. We’re human and we’ll continue to get things wrong. The key here is that we’re aware of what we need to do and we persevere: we press on through failure, dust ourselves off and get on with the job of being a disciple.
One little passage to finish with from the Old Testament book of Micah, “what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
If we stick with that as our motto, we won’t go far wrong.