Considering sheep and goats

November 23, 2008
Christ the King Sunday, Year A
Matthew 25:31-46

In the name of God. Amen.

We live in an amazing time. The world today can seem smaller and more accessible than it ever has in history. Through the miracles of rapid transit and instant communication anyone can quite literally see the world. We can travel distances once not even dreamed. We can build and sustain relationships with people so far from us geographically and culturally, that just a few generations ago, we probably would not have even known that they existed.

I was amazed to learn on election night that moments after our President-elect was announced, there was dancing in the streets in villages in Kenya. It was amazing to me not just that the world had become so small that they would dance at news from a world away, but that the world had become so small that I could see it.

A few years ago I traveled to Ghana in West Africa. I was there to study African indigenous religious roots of African American spirituality. While that was certainly valuable learning, I think the most important lessons that I learned on that trip were lessons about my own understandings of the Body of Christ.

While we were traveling, we had several local guides who helped us to bridge the cultural differences. One such person was a young man named Ebenezer. Ebenezer and I began spending time with one another, I think, largely because he wanted to spend time with some of the young women on the trip who were my friends and with whom I spent most of my time. But over the course of those weeks Ebenezer and I developed a friendship. We had deep conversations about our own cultural experiences and how they had informed our relationships with God and with the church. During some of the more difficult moments of my time there, Ebenezer provided a gentle, pastoral presence that helped me to have the strength to continue through the remaining days.

One of the deeply life-giving moments of that experience happened on an evening near the end of the trip. Our class was gathered in our hotel and reflecting on our experiences. We had seen the centuries-old buildings that were once hubs of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We had visited the temples of indigenous religions and watched the people performing their ceremonies. We had talked with workers in sweatshops. Beggars had swarmed us on the streets. We had seen more abject poverty than most of us had ever imagined possible.

As we talked about the effect that all of this was having on us, my professor said something that I will never forget. She said, “You’ll find after you go home that ‘Africa’ is a little closer than it used to be. When you hear about poverty, or AIDS, or orphans, or political unrest, it won’t ever be ‘those Africans’ anymore. It will be Ebenezer, our brother.”

Suddenly, all of those “causes” and “news reports” that had previously been placeholders for invisible individuals were no longer “causes” or “news reports” for me; they were real people with real stories, who experienced real love and real pain. They were not just ideas; they were Ebenezer, my brother.

It was in that moment, I think, that I first really understood the Body of Christ – the unity of humanity that Christ came to show us and to call us into. It was in that moment that I began to know more clearly the Christian mission in the world: to be the Body of Christ in the world; to reconcile the people of God with God; and to be agents of that reconciliation by being agents of reconciliation between broken people, and thus helping to heal the brokenness of this world.

It’s a huge task – and one that can only be accomplished with God’s help.

So that’s why I was so discouraged to read the Gospel lesson appointed for today. When I first read this text, I could not see the call to reconciliation that so significantly shapes my understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

It’s the parable of the sheep and the goats. In it, we hear that we – the people of God’s own creating – will be separated like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And just as a shepherd places greater value on the sheep of his care than the goats, so, too, will God place greater value on the lives and contributions of some over others.

For many people, this can be a tempting image of God. For some people, this system of “meeting a demand to earn a reward” might seem attractive. They might think, “Christianity isn’t so hard: just follow these simple steps and get your all-expense paid ticket to heaven.” But part of the problem with that system is that it can lead to a kind of self-righteousness. It’s very easy for people to begin to think that they’ve followed all the rules, so they must be somehow better than others. They begin to think of themselves as sheep, or worse, they may even be so bold as to think of others as goats, thus saving the one who created us all the effort of sorting.

But the real trouble for me is that the sorting even happens. I believe so deeply that God’s desire for humanity is that we be united, that it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around an image of God as the one who would separate us.

I’ll admit – it’s not my favorite image of God.

But is that really what’s happening in this text? Is it God separating us?

I do believe that we are called to be the Body of Christ for the world, but what does that mean? What does it mean to be agents of reconciliation between God and humanity by being agents of reconciliation in the occasions of brokenness in this world?

Jesus said, “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.”

That is the path to reconciliation. That is the work of the Body of Christ.

When we face those who hunger and thirst, when we encounter the stranger, when we come across those who are naked or sick or imprisoned – if, then, we fight their invisibility and begin to see beyond the “cause” or the “task”, we can begin to see in them Christ, our brother. In that moment of reconciliation the world gets a little smaller, and seeing Christ is always a life-giving experience.

It may not always be joyful – at least not in the immediate sense. In fact, it will often seem quite painful. Out of their fear of that pain, many people choose not to see the Christ around them. Many choose not to acknowledge those who hunger and thirst. Many choose to turn away from the strangers they encounter and to ignore the nakedness and sickness and imprisonment that surround them on every side. They choose to give up the live-giving Christ-encounters that are available to them. In the absence of those occasions of reconciliation their worlds must seem sparse and lonely.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is not about God dividing us according to our worth. It is about God recognizing that we are divided, and helping to show us the path to unity.

In this amazing age in which we live – an age of rapid transit and instant communication – we have never-before-known opportunities for encountering the living Christ in the world. Though our opportunities for travel and interaction are easier than they have ever been, our vocation of finding Christ in the world is no less intense. We may be able to travel ten thousand miles to do it, but the journey of finding Christ is always the same: no more and no less than opening oneself to the humanity of the neighbor.

God is calling us into the life-giving task of seeing Christ in the world and being Christ in the world. We needn’t be alone.



Anonymous said…
You're so eloquent. When I talk about that trip I just say it was a Drew required cross cultural trip to Ghana. But next time I am going to use yours "I was there to study African indigenous religious roots of African American spirituality."

I am so proud of you I could simply burst. Thank you, Jon, for a beautiful image of the Body of Christ.

The "secret woid" verification for this post was "Valks".

Yes, ve valks with the Risen Lord.
Jennifer: it was just the stated purpose of the class... I didn't make it up, I swear!

And Elizabeth: you're just too awesome for words. It's good that I didn't know how amazing you are before I started working with you. I would have been too intimidated to get anything done! Thanks for your support...