Saturday, 6 March 2010

3rd Sunday of Lent: A case of mistaken identity

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Warnings from Israel’s History

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Matthew 25:31-46
The Judgement of the Nations

‘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.’

Both of my grandmothers were very lucky ladies. They both lived long and happy lives and both kept their marbles right through to the end. Having said that, they also both had their moments. My father’s mother, or Nana as I called her, was gradually let down by her eyesight. Every Sunday morning it was our practice after church to go and see her for coffee after church, and so it was that whilst having one of our family natters, the doorbell rang.

Nana got up, as sprightly as she had always been, being from Norfolk country stock, and went to answer. From the hallway we heard an exclamation, “Oh Nen, what a lovely surprise to see you”, followed by an uncertain moment’s silence, and then a very embarrassed series of apologies. What had happened was that an elderly Jehovah’s witness had knocked on the door.

It was rather unfortunate for the poor lady that she also bore far more than a passing resemblance to another member of the Norfolk matriarchy, Nen, my Nana’s sister, and my poor Nana had thought that her little sister had travelled all the way from Norfolk on a surprise visit, but it was a case of mistaken identity. The Jehovah’s witness looked like Aunty Nen, but it was a case of mistaken identity...

...And mistaken identity seems to be the theme in our readings today since both are about people who look like the real thing, and yet somehow aren’t. When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter you get the feeling that he is trying very hard to pull a church together that has become very wayward. We don’t know what letter from the Corinthians he was replying to; that’s gone in the mists of time, so we have to try and reconstruct why he was writing from what he said.

A close reading of the text of the whole letter suggests that a division has arisen, not so much within the church but between the church and St. Paul. It seems quite likely that they were becoming influenced by a particular kind of wisdom teaching and had begun to think of themselves as very spiritual, with that spirituality not depending on their actions.

Unlike most of the teachers of wisdom who perhaps prided themselves on their eloquence, St. Paul had made clear that he knew he wasn’t a very good speaker and couldn’t match the ability of some of these wisdom teachers. However, St. Paul was not concerned too much about that. Instead he wanted them to know how convinced he was that how one lived one’s life was of far greater importance than how wise one was or even how seemingly spiritual one was.

This is probably what’s behind that greatest chapter ever written on love, 1 Corinthians 13, since that chapter falls right in the middle of some very important teaching about spiritual gifts. Basically St. Paul tells them all about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and then says, ‘But I will show you the more excellent way...’ and tells them all about love, ie that it doesn’t matter how wise you are, or how many spiritual gifts you might have, if it’s not backed up by practical loving and living, it’s worthless.

And that kind of idea seems to be central to the segment of the letter we read today. St Paul talks about Israel in the wilderness. He explains how they were all there together with Moses and how Christ was with them and they drew on him in their journey. They were very spiritual, yet because they didn’t live lives that were good in a practical sense, God was displeased with them.

In other words he was saying, ‘Listen you Corinthians, you can look just like the real thing. You can be very spiritual; you can even speak in tongues, and you can be very wise. But unless that means you live differently, you may look like the real thing, but you’re not. You are mistaken about your identity.’

Mistaken identity is also the theme in the Gospel reading where we find Jesus talking about the final judgement. In this apocalyptic image, and remember that apocalyptic images are designed to use our imagination to get an idea of the almost indescribable, Jesus describes the division of all the people who have ever lived, just as a shepherd divides his sheep from his goats.

As is so often the case we will only understand this passage with a little context. You see in this country dividing sheep from goats is easy. I can’t imagine anyone in this congregation who, when faced with a sheep and a goat, couldn’t tell the difference between them. However, if I put a middle eastern sheep and goat from that era in front of you, unless you were a shepherd you would really struggle.

Why? Because their sheep and goats looked very similar. To the non-shepherd it would be very easy to mistake one for the other. But although they look very similar, the behaviour of sheep and goats is very different. Goats are pretty destructive. They go anywhere they want and they eat absolutely everything. Sheep know the sound of the voice of their shepherd and will follow, and they are not destructive.

They looked the same, but their behaviour is different and that is what is so vital in this passage. The sheep have started to help other people because of their beliefs. They are not centered on their own needs but on the needs of others and how they can meet those needs. And perhaps the most beautiful thing about this is that they just got on and did it - it had become so much a part of their selves that they made no big deal of it. ‘Lord, when did we do these things for you?’

But when you get to the goats you find something else. Even though they called Jesus, ‘Lord’, their way of living was all for themselves and they did nothing for those in need. They used their gifts to their own ends to meet their own needs. There was no love for others. They could have been just like the Corinthian church; doing all the right spiritual things, and praying correctly and thinking they were growing in wisdom, but there was no practical loving; no giving of their gifts for the needs of others.

So can I finish by adding two big words - orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy worries about whether we believe all the right stuff absolutely correctly and orthodoxy has the ability to be very destructive. Just about every split in the church comes down to someone using power to say to someone else, ‘You don’t believe the right things.’ Yes, getting our doctrine right is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Orthopraxy, however, is all about right practice and right living, and it should flow from orthodoxy. We believe and therefore we give and we give of the gifts and talents we have. The sheep were sheep because what they believed led them to act to help others. The goats were goats because what they believed did not lead them to help others, even though they called Jesus Lord.

It is very important that we note that the goats also called Jesus ‘Lord’. These people would have called themselves believers; they knew who Jesus was, but they were not the real thing because their belief had not made any difference to how they lived, or didn’t live, for others. Being a Christian must mean we give of ourselves for others. If we don’t, then we’re not the real thing.

This is indeed a difficult message for us to take in, but I would be shirking my responsibilities of I didn’t bring it to us. In this Lent we are thinking about how we use the gifts that we have and these two passages should make us think long and hard about that. The message is that unless what we believe causes us to act, then it doesn’t matter how much like a sheep we look, we’re not a sheep.

It is doubly hard for us because we a re a well-off community, even if we don’t perhaps always feel it, but the temptation of riches is that we use them for ourselves and don’t see the needs that others have. It is not for nothing that Jesus declares that it is easier for a camel to go through the literal eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven.

We may think we give a lot, but, and I will come back to this later in Lent, the mark of a generous person is not how much they give, but how much they have left after they have given. And I am not necessarily talking here about money, and note this, neither is Jesus. Jesus is talking about taking the time to go and see others, to meet the needs of those beyond our immediate circle.

It seems to be that if our beliefs are real, then they generate within us an ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others - to feel empathy for them, and so to want to help. Now in this year’s annual report I have made mention of just how much some people give, and of how we should all be grateful to them. In this passage we see that giving of ourselves is not just good, it is an essential part of being a Christian.

And it is also important to note that there are times when we have to allow ourselves to receive. Selfless givers are hopeless at receiving, which is perhaps why sometimes we don’t look out for the needs of the givers, and why some of the givers really need to have some relief by others picking up the slack.

And so the question we have to face is, how much of our gifts and talents and time do we keep for ourselves, and how much do our beliefs stir us to give of them and of ourselves to the needs of others? Helping others, rather than wisdom or spiritual gifts or good doctrine, is the mark of a true believer. Amen.

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