Ezekiel 34. 11-16, 20-34 , Matthew 25. 31-end
Do you recognise who this is? Apparently this little figure has been selling like hot cakes in Germany.
It was 500 years ago this year that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and university professor posted a paper to the church door in Wittenberg. He listed some questions he felt needed to be discussed. What followed was a controversy that split the Christian Church in Western Europe and set off changes that still profoundly affect our life today. The passions were so strong that for the next 150 years or so Europe was plagued by a series of religious wars, not least events like the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot and the Civil war in our country in the 1640s.
Luther wrestled with the question of whether or not he was saved, forgiven of his sins. The conclusion he came to was that it was not by good deeds that he was justified in the sight of God. He was saved by faith or we could use the word trust, in Christ and his death on the cross. Good deeds could never be enough to gain us salvation, however hard we tried. Faith alone was what was needed, in Latin SOLA FIDES. This was the conclusion he came to after his study of the bible, especially the letter of Paul to the Romans.
Luther was emphasising this – that we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We can never be good enough to be forgiven and accepted by God purely by our own efforts. Our justification, or being accepted and forgiven by God is pure gift. This is a very important Christian insight. Luther cut through a lot of accumulated church tradition and an insistence that the church alone could pronounce what is the right interpretation of scripture. And one of Luther’s passions was to enable ordinary people to read the bible in their own language, rather than in Latin. His translation of the New Testament into German and the invention of the printing press had a huge impact and that is why he is such an important figure in German history and culture.
However, the idea of salvation by faith alone is not the whole story. The Christian faith is a supple tradition that brings together different strands. Often opposites and paradoxes, like one that I think Gary often talks of – presence and absence. The Gospel reading today paints a rather different picture and different emphasis. This is sometimes talked of as faith and good works. Are we saved by believing and trusting God’s mercy and forgiveness, or are we saved by living the way of Christ, living a good life. But these are not mutually exclusive. It is more a case of both and rather than either one or the other.
In our Gospel reading we have a picture of Christ coming at the end of time, sitting on his throne of glory and judging the nations. It is a bit like the sorting process at Hogworts in the Harry Potter films, but on a grand and cosmic scale. And the main point at issue is how people have responded to those in need; to the hungry, the thirsty the outsider, the sick, those who cannot afford proper clothes. The question is; did you feed the hungry? Did you visit the sick? Because when we do that we are encountering Christ himself. We are not just reaching out to individual people in need, we are actually responding to Christ himself. We encounter Christ in other people, especially when we are responding to people in need.
Today’s Feast of Christ the King is observed in the C of E on the last day of the church’s year. Next week we begin Advent which is the beginning of a new year for the church.