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Lent, Holy Week And (Heading For) Easter

Last week, I was asked to give an extended talk to a midweek group on this theme. This is the text I had before me when I gave the talk.

I have a series of questions for you this afternoon. Here are the first two. Can you eat chocolate in Lent? And if so, when?
To answer these vital questions, I bring you to another question: how many days are there in Lent? If you answered ‘forty’, then I invite you to count the number of days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day (for Easter Day is when Lent ends). The answer you will come to is ‘forty-seven’.
So what happened to the so-called forty days of Lent? Well, they are still there if you exclude the Sundays. And that’s the clue to my initial question about eating chocolate in Lent. Sundays were never regarded as fast days. They were still feast days. Hence, if you have given up chocolate for Lent, you can still eat it on Sundays.
I think this illustrates the muddle we get into about Lent. We utterly confuse the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public ministry. The forty days of fasting make us think that it commemorates Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. But the way that time ticks down near the end, with Passion Sunday two weeks before Easter and Palm Sunday a week before, makes us think instead about the end of Jesus’ public ministry. Which is correct?
The answer is that Lent is connected to Easter. In the early Church, baptismal candidates would be baptised on Easter Day, and Lent was their season of preparation. It was similar for those who wanted to be readmitted to the life of the Church after excommunication. Both groups needed a period of reflection and repentance. Eventually, however, the Church came to see that a season of reflection and repentance would be good for everyone. No Christians are exempt from the need to examine themselves before God, and giving over a particular time of the year for everyone seemed to be a good idea. It doesn’t change the fact that this is something we need to do all year round, it’s just that sometimes dedicating a specific time to this underlines it. Similarly, every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection – that’s why we worship on a Sunday and not on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath – but we still give particular stress to the Resurrection itself on Easter Day and in the Easter season that follows.
This, then, is why we give things up for Lent – not to mimic Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness but for another reason. Fasting is the giving up of something good for a season in order to dedicate that time especially to God. If we give up something in Lent, it is for this self-examination in the power of the Holy Spirit. Churches may try to reflect this in the tone of their Lenten worship. Liturgical churches will omit the Gloria in Excelsis during this time, they will have no flowers in the sanctuary and they will avoid hymns that include the word ‘Alleluia’. How this sits with the idea that Sunday is still a feast day, I have never been sure. It also requires a tricky navigation in order to reflect a sense of discipline but not of dreariness. At its best it provides a suitable contrast for what is to come on Easter Day, although when we get to thinking about Good Friday in a few minutes, I shall want to pose some questions about how we regard the darkness of that day.
But let us now move onto Holy Week, which we begin on Palm Sunday. I cannot think of Palm Sunday without remembering a neighbouring Anglican church which always brought a donkey into worship on that day. The reason I cannot forget – and was not allowed to forget while I was there – is that the donkey had a name. He was … Dave the Donkey. You can imagine the comments.
Traditionally, we see the Triumphal Entry as the beginning of the week which led to Jesus’ death, and this has been held in the Church since the fourth century AD. However, there is no certainty in Mark’s Gospel, the first Gospel to be written, that Mark understood Palm Sunday to begin that week. It comes in chapter 11 of his account, but he doesn’t mention the Passover until chapter 14. Nevertheless, it is fitting in that the way Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey ramps up the tension between him, the religious leaders and the power of Rome. In his recent book ‘Simply Jesus’, Tom Wright calls the clashing of these three powers ‘The Perfect Storm’, and that is what we are about to face in Holy Week. We can have all the fun we like, waving palm branches and singing ‘Hosanna’, but the reality is that the conflict is being ramped up, and the subtext of Palm Sunday is that this is going to end badly for someone. Blood will be spilt. It happens that because we know the rest of the story, we know whose blood it will be. But if you were in that crowd when Jesus rode in on the donkey, you probably wouldn’t have seen that, just as his disciples couldn’t understand his repeated prophecies that he would be betrayed, suffer, die – and be raised from the dead.
But let us move on from Palm Sunday, without immediately doing what many Christians do, which is jump over several days. If we’re lucky, we’ll only jump to Maundy Thursday with the Last Supper and the washing of feet. Some will at least jump to Good Friday. Many, though, take leave of absence until Easter Day itself, missing out the unpleasant, gory parts of the story. It’s why in the Lent Course this year we’ve tried to reflect on some of the incidents while Jesus was in Jerusalem during that final week, as the tension increased.
It’s common in more Catholic circles to take a particular journey with Jesus leading up to the Cross, a journey you will have heard of – and perhaps experienced – called The Stations of the Cross. Some churches have icons depicting the story, as did an ecumenical church I served in Chelmsford. Some dramatise it – my first experience of the Stations was to walk around the streets of the City of London, seeing actors perform the story. As a crowd, we walked with the action. In one previous appointment, I joined with the local Anglican and Catholic clergy in each taking a meeting once a week in Holy Week to explore the Way of the Cross.
This, though, comes after Maundy Thursday, with its encircling darkness. You feel the discrepancy between Jesus and his disciples. They aren’t picking up all he has warned them about, so much so they are still arguing about status and greatness and looking forward to a good Passover meal. All the time, Jesus knows what is coming. The betrayal happens, you get those evocative words in John’s Gospel, ‘And it was night’, and the lights go out. We’ll be reflecting that here in our Maundy Thursday service when this year we follow the Tenebrae tradition. Candles will be extinguished, one by one, until finally all is dark.
At least, I keep calling it ‘Maundy Thursday’, but there is an argument for it being Tuesday. There are a couple of days missing from the sequence of the Gospels in Holy Week, and one possibility is this: could all the trials Jesus faced really have taken place in one night? It might also explain the problem with night-time trials, which were illegal.
But whether the trials drag over forty-eight hours or are compressed into one night, Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane after one of the most powerful scenes in the Gospels for showing how much he identifies with us. Not only does he identify with our sin at his baptism and on the Cross, we recognise his full humanity in the Garden as he wrestles in prayer with the suffering that is to come.
All that goes, though, and off he is taken to trials that are a mixture of stitch-up and political expediency. Pontius Pilate is in a weak position, politically. Although he has all the power of being the imperial power’s official representative, he had previously offended Jewish sensibilities about the Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a delegation to Rome to complain about him, and now he knew that one further false step could lose him his job. So although at first he resists their requests, ultimately he cannot deny their pressure. The loser, in human terms, is Jesus.
And now off he goes, on the Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa. Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, may have horrified many, but it did not spare any detail as to the true nature of first-century Roman floggings, torture and execution. Many prisoners died just from the flogging. But Jesus carries his cross beam, the visual sign to all who watch that he is a condemned man.
He is on his way. It is his great journey. It reminds us, amongst other things, that we have not ‘arrived’ spiritually. So often we talk about faith as if now we have found Jesus Christ we have arrived. But we haven’t. It’s like that wonderful U2 song ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’, where Bono affirms his belief that Jesus died for his sins but still insists he hasn’t found what he’s looking for. Why? Because he’s still on the journey. He hasn’t come to the fullness of God’s kingdom yet.
And neither has Jesus. The climax will be the Cross. In the eyes of the world, he will be humiliated there. In his own estimation – and his Father’s – he will be enthroned there. When he is ‘lifted up’ he will draw all people to himself.
This is the wonder of the Christian faith. What the world considers shameful we say is glorious. Our Muslim friends have a big issue with the Cross. The Qur’an can be read as denying that Jesus died on the Cross, but that he was snatched away and someone else died there instead. They have a terrible problem with the idea that Jesus would have to endure this. Indeed, if he did die on the Cross it is for them one further strike against the idea of his divinity, because surely God would not be humbled and humiliated like that.
Yet the Christian says yes, that is precisely what happened, and that is the wonder of the Christian faith. Our Lord was even willing to taste the worst humiliation in identification with humanity at its basest in order to bring salvation. Our account of God is not about One who is remote from suffering and evil, it is about One who is deeply involved with blood-stained hands in fight against it.
All of which brings me to two contrasting stories. See what you think of these.
Story number one: I am in a vestry before a Good Friday service. The steward prays for me before the service. The whole tone of his prayer is about how Good Friday is the worst day of the year. He seems to miss the word ‘Good’.
Story number two: I am an enthusiastic young twenty-something Christian, and I am at the annual joint Free Churches Good Friday service in my home town. It is being held at the Baptist church, but my Methodist minister is speaking. He introduces a worship song that was popular at the time. It begins with the lines, ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven.’ The congregation sings it – like a dirge. Michael, my minister, berates the assembled throng for this. “Can’t you understand on Good Friday the joy of being forgiven through the Cross?” he asks.
How do you respond to those two stories? Had the church steward missed the heart of the Gospel? Was my minister belittling the sufferings of Jesus? Somehow we have a difficult tension to hold together on Good Friday – both the sorrow for our sins which took Jesus to the Cross, and yet joy that he was willing to do that for us. Like so much of life, we have to live with tension. It’s like the question of the tone you set for a funeral. Is it to grieve, or is it – as is more and more requested these days – a celebration of the deceased’s life? Grief or celebration? Actually, I think you need both at a funeral.
And the greatest tension – or paradox – is on the way at this point, the tension between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Some major on one, but not on the other, yet we have to hold to both. One of the greatest theologians of the last fifty years, a German called Jürgen Moltmann, says we need to speak both of ‘The Resurrection of the Crucified One’ and ‘The Cross of the Risen One’.
But in terms of our own lives, we are awaiting our own empty tombs. We shall die and await the great resurrection of the dead. We live in that time between Good Friday and Easter Day. We live on that one day we so rarely mark in the Christian calendar, because we are too busy getting ready for Easter morning. We live in Holy Saturday. (Not Easter Saturday, by the way, because Easter only starts when the Resurrection has happened.) Holy Saturday is that time when Jesus is still in the tomb. That is where we spend a lot of our lives. Suffering is real. It takes its toll. Prayer seems unanswered, and God’s great deliverance has still not come. It’s quite appropriate that Holy Saturday this year is when one of our church member’s ashes will be buried in Bisley churchyard. She awaits her great deliverance, her resurrection after her suffering.
And so I won’t move on in this exposition of the season to talk too much about Easter itself. We’ll have plenty of opportunity here on Easter Day and in the succeeding weeks, when we are going to delve deeply into the meaning of the Resurrection. We’re going to close these reflections at Holy Saturday, because it is where many of us exist. Often we are in that cold tomb, with grave clothes wrapped tightly around us.
Pete Greig, the founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement, wrote a wonderful book about his experience of … unanswered prayer. While all the wonderful stories of answered prayer were happening as 24-7 prayer burgeoned around the world, his wife Sammie suffered a brain tumour. Greig puts his reflections on that experience in a book called ‘God On Mute’, and he shapes a spirituality around Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day. He has this to say about Holy Saturday:
No one really talks about Holy Saturday, yet if we stop and think about it, it’s where most of us live our lives. Holy Saturday is the no-man’s land between questions and answers, prayers uttered and miracles to come. It’s where we wait – with a peculiar mixture of faith and despair – whenever God is silent or life doesn’t make sense.
As we turn to explore the silence of God, we are compelled to address the problem of unanswered prayer more literally than we have done so far, examining the times when God simply doesn’t reply to us when we pray. It’s not that He’s saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to our prayers; it’s that He’s not saying anything at all. We pray and pray but God remains silent.
But … Sunday is coming. And we can eat chocolate.
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Richard Bauckham

The other day I discovered that my research supervisor of twenty years ago, Richard Bauckham, now has his own website. (No blog, alas!) When I studied under him he was already a respected and renowned scholar, not least for his commentary on Jude and 2 Peter, and his work interpreting Jürgen Moltmann. It was the latter interest, and his work as a theologian rather than a biblical scholar, that made me want to have him as my supervisor. I was relating the doctrines of ecclesiology and eschatology, and Moltmann’s book ‘The Church in the Power of the Spirit‘ was probably the most important text at the time for me, along with Howard Snyder‘s less technical volumes.

Richard went on to become much more well known, not least in the last four years for his book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses‘, which claims to turn many long-prized assumptions of New Testament scholarship methodology on their heads. But what was it like to have him supervise all those years ago?

The simple answer is that it was a wonderful privilege. Richard doesn’t merely have ‘a brain the size of the planet’, he has a humility and gentleness about him. I recall once turning in some work that really wasn’t up to snuff, but the way he let me know that was so gracious that I didn’t go away crushed but felt I had a way forward.

He is also a man whose faith and scholarship are deeply entwined. One consequence of being registered as a Manchester University student then was that you were entitled to attend any lectures you liked outside your own studies. I chose to audit two of Richard’s undergraduate courses. One was on Christology, the other on the Holy Spirit and Eschatology. I used to come away from those lectures knowing I had been both academically stimulated and spiritually fed.

The nature of his supervision and his faith came together in the way he drew together four of his research students, all of us ‘mature students’. We met every couple of weeks to discuss Moltmann’s then latest book, ‘The Way of Jesus Christ‘. Not only did we have an hour of lively conversation, we then went for lunch together in a university refectory. Over lunch and coffee we often discussed important matters of faith. It was there that I first discovered his passionate commitment to green issues as intrinsic to Christian faith. Richard is an evangelical, and while such a commitment is much more common today thanks to organisations like TEAR Fund and A Rocha, it wasn’t then. I knew he was clear about the Bible’s political dimensions – I had read his book ‘The Bible in Politics‘ – but this was a new departure. One of that research group was Celia Deane-Drummond, a former botanist working on her second PhD, studying Moltmann’s ‘God in Creation‘. Celia is now a leading lecturer and writer in the field.

So if you haven’t discovered Richard’s work yet, why not start? Try his website. There are essays, lectures, sermons and poems to read. Then why not treat yourself to one of his books?

Sabbatical, Day 68, Maundy Thursday: Jesus Prays Before He Is Arrested

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You have just watched video number five from Damaris Trust for Holy Week. Nick Pollard talks about Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. He discusses the significance of this, and what the command to the disciples to ‘watch and pray’ might mean for us.

I should add that today is very significant for me, both as 9th April and as Maundy Thursday. For it was on 9th April 1976, which was Maundy Thursday that year too, that I found faith in Christ.

…………

When I was at theological college, we never got to celebrate Easter together. It always fell in the – guess – Easter vacation. So we celebrated it ‘proleptically’ (along with Holy Week and Good Friday). That is, we celebrated it in advance of it happening. And what follows here is something of a proleptic post. Three days ahead of time, I’m typing a few thoughts here about the Resurrection. It’s part of a synchroblog today suggested by Slipstream, the Evangelical Alliance‘s network for ‘younger leaders’. (I ended up in it because I was part of its predecessor, Leaders’ Digest, before anyone gets sarky about my age.)

And the Resurrection is the great proleptic event of all history. Mind you, even the Apostle Paul doesn’t use such a fancy word as ‘proleptic’. Just as Jesus regularly did, he uses an agricultural image. He calls it the ‘firstfruits‘. Ancient Israel celebrated two harvest festivals. One was the great ingathering at the end of the summer, rather like the harvests we still mark in a post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world. The other was in the late Spring, when the ‘firstfruits’ appeared, and is the festival that was happening when Pentecost erupted in Jerusalem. The appearance of the first fruits promised what was to come. 

In that sense, Jesus’ resurrection is ‘proleptic’ for us. It promises our resurrection at the end of time, and with it the new heavens and new earth promised in Revelation 21. As Tom Wright has correctly reminded us, it’s about so much more than ‘going to heaven when we die’. How right he was to say that ‘heaven is not the end of the world’. It’s the foretaste of the new creation. You want hope in what I just called our ‘post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world’? You have it – in the Resurrection. Jesus has the currency the world craves.

And it’s not just for the world: it’s something we need as disciples of Jesus to renew us over and over again. Yesterday, I bumped into a friend. She is on the leadership of a church where a number of people are going through major pastoral crises. “We just need to get to Easter,” she said. I think you could take her comment more than one way. It’s not just about getting to a certain point in time. It’s that getting to Easter puts you at the place of hope.

A second thought on Resurrection: it’s twenty-five years since Michael Green wrote his wonderful book ‘The Empty Cross of Jesus‘. Opposite the contents page he wrote this:

Michelangelo once broke out in indignant protest against his fellow artists who were for ever depicting Christ in his death on the cross. ‘Paint him instead the Lord of life. Paint him with his kingly feet planted on the stone that held him in the tomb.’

But Michelangelo continued to isolate the death of Christ, from the Pietà of his youth in St. Peter’s to the unfinished Pietà in Florence … so did the theologians and the preachers.

The point Green makes in the book is that it’s dangerous to separate the death and resurrection of Christ in our thinking or our emphasis. It’s something Jürgen Moltmann stressed in a different way. In ‘The Crucified God‘, he says we should speak of both ‘The Cross of the Risen One’ and ‘The Resurrection of the Crucified One’.

Why is it important to hold Cross and Resurrection together? Because when we emphasise one at the expense of the other, dangerous distortions creep into our thinking and discipleship. When we overlook the Resurrection, we preach that ‘Jesus died for your sins’ but turn it into legalism: ‘You’d better be grateful and live a good life.’ Atonement has to connect death and resurrection. When we overlook the Cross, we enter tawdry triumphalism and entertain a faith that cannot grapple with suffering, like those who come to worship on Easter Day having avoided Good Friday. Or we are like the church steward who once prayed with me in the vestry before a Good Friday service and referred to the day as a tragedy.

A third and final reflection. (Oh why not, I’m not getting to preach this Easter due to my sabbatical, so here’s my chance!) I want to dig out a favourite story. In my first ministerial appointment, one couple (who had left the Methodist church for the URC anyway!) disdainfully nicknamed me ‘Laugh-a-minute Faulkner’. Why? Because I committed sacrilege in my sermons by usually opening them with a funny story. I know, terrible. Write the disciplinary charge now.

One Easter, the churches in the town decided to hold a united service on Easter Sunday evening. There was to be no sermon, but I got the gig for the five-minute thought for the day. I recounted a story I’d heard from Tony Campolo, in which he told how on the afternoon of Easter Day, Russian Orthodox priests would get together and tell one another their biggest belly-laughs to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection. More soberly, I then cited the poet Patrick Kavanagh who said that the Resurrection is ‘a laugh freed for ever’. I concluded that I had ample theological justification to tell a joke.

Which I proceeded to do.

You can guess which two people didn’t laugh.

You can guess which two people refused to share the Peace with me.

Now I know how to be miserable. Ask Debbie about my Scrooge impersonation around Christmas. But one thing I know about the Resurrection is that it’s the reason for great joy. If I can outdo Larry for happiness at the thought of the Resurrection – it’s what has held me together when I’ve had crises of faith – then something was desperately wrong with this poor couple. In every sense of the word they were sad.

Maybe on Sunday, the truth that ‘Christ is risen, he is risen indeed’ can force a smile onto the stoniest of faces. After all, why be stony on the day the stone was rolled away?

Finally, here is a list of the other blogs confirmed as participating in this synchroblog, as of yesterday afternoon: 

http://mikeaddis.blogspot.com 

http://blogdyfedwynroberts.blogspot.com/ 

http://theurbanpastor.wordpress.com/ 

http://lifefaithetc.blogspot.com 

www.meetalancraig.com 

http://gkcorner.blogspot.com/ 

www.knightswoodcongregational.org.uk/blog/ 

www.markmeynell.wordpress.com 

www.deeperwaters.wordpress.com 

www.bibleandmission.wordpress.com 

www.adrianwarnock.com 

http://andybeingachristian.wordpress.com 

http://thesimplepastor.blogspot.com/

Judgment

Matthew 25:31-46

There is one line from an early school report of mine that I remember: ‘David takes simple things and makes them complicated.’

You may recognise that trait in me even today! And I have to say there is an element of it sneaking into this sermon. The Vision of the Sheep and Goats, as George Beasley-Murray called it (first complication there – it’s not really a parable!) seems to be a piece of teaching by Jesus that is very simple. Do good to the poor and you’ll receive eternal life; ignore the poor and you’ll burn in Hell.

Simple, isn’t it? No.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to find the get-out clause that means we don’t have to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. But there are questions of detail that readers of this vision have asked. And as we explore them, we fill out more of the meaning.

In particular, we need to think about who ‘the nations’ are that are gathered before Jesus, the Son of Man at the judgment. And we also need to think about who ‘the least of these’ are, who may receive acts of mercy. In considering these two groups in the story, I hope we’ll answer some questions that have troubled sensitive Christians about this passage.

The Nations 
Who are ‘the nations’ in the story? Are they everyone in history? Are they people who have never heard the Gospel, given the surprised ‘Lord, when was it we saw you …?’ responses? Do they represent Christians, or possibly the Jewish people? And why does the question matter?

It matters, because it ties into the question of salvation. Are we saved by good works? What is the relationship between good works and salvation by faith in Christ? Does God have a different way of judging those who have never heard of Jesus – would that explain the surprise?

I’m not going to bore you with academic arguments, except to say that this story comes at the end of the fifth and final block of Jesus’ teaching that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. The first block was the Sermon on the Mount, and that set a theme for teaching about discipleship. All the teaching blocks are about discipleship in one way or another. This final block in chapters 24 and 25 focusses on questions about the end of all things. It fittingly climaxes here with a story about the Last Judgment.

So I do not think we can avoid the idea that Jesus is aiming this passage at those who claim to be his disciples. It fleshes out the statement in the Sermon on the Mount that not everyone who calls him ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of his Father. Obedience to the will of God is central and critical to Christian discipleship.

However, that raises the question I mentioned a moment ago. How does that thought sit with the teaching elsewhere in the New Testament that says we are justified in the sight of God not by our good works but by our faith in Jesus Christ? Doesn’t the sheep and goats story suggest that we are justified by good deeds?

To which I would reply that justification simply isn’t the issue here. The issue is one of identity: what does a disciple look like? And Jesus tells us here that a true disciple looks like someone who has compassion for the poor and needy – not just the deserving poor, but even the undeserving poor, because there is no hint that those in prison are in there for anything other than just reasons.

If we want to know whether we are progressing in discipleship, then the first test is not what dramatic spiritual experiences we have had. Nor is it whether we can muster a high score in a test of biblical and theological knowledge. Disciples are known by their actions for the sake of those in need. In his First Letter, John says that we cannot say the love of God lives in us if we see someone in need and fail to act. Such actions are the signs of true faith.

In that sense, it is connected to the question of justification, even though that is not Jesus’ particular concern here. It is rather like what Paul says in Galatians that faith works by love, and what James says in his Letter, when he maintains that those who are justified by faith show they truly are by their compassionate deeds of mercy.

So whether we care for people such as the hungry, thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners is a test of true faith. Has God broken our hearts with the things that break his heart? And are we heartbroken enough to do something about it? This is a simple test of disciples’ obedience.

Nevertheless, we can probably extend this in a certain way to another question that is not Jesus’ primary concern in this passage. The question I have in mind is also one I mentioned earlier: how does God judge those who have never heard the Gospel? Some would argue that unless one actually hears the Gospel and responds, one is destined to damnation. It is a view that those who recognise other aspects of God’s character such as his mercy (as well as his judgment) find problematical.

And I suspect that the ‘Lord, when did we see you …?’ questions do give us a glimpse of how God would regard such people. Is it not the case that in Scripture God judges people according to how they respond to whatever light from him they receive? In Genesis, the priest Melchizedek appears out of nowhere and Abraham makes an offering to him – and God approves. Joshua is pleased to use the help of the Jericho prostitute Rahab. Isaiah 45 calls the pagan king Cyrus God’s anointed.

So might it just be that here in Matthew 25, we get an indirect view of how God will treat those who know that mercy to the poor and the weak is what matters? I can’t be certain, but I think it’s possible.

The Least Of These 
So the judgment of the nations makes us realise that compassion for the needy, whether they are ‘deserving’ or not, is a valid test of discipleship. It may also show a way in which God judges those who have never heard the Gospel.

But what about those described as ‘the least of these’ in the passage – namely, those who are hungry, thirsty, aliens, naked, sick or prisoners? Who are they? Some would argue they stand for anyone who is poor and in need in the world. Other say this expression ‘the least of these’ is similar to other terms Matthew uses in his Gospel to describe oppressed Christians or Christian missionaries facing hardship. There are some similarities of language, but they are not conclusive. In any case, if God only judges people on how they treat the Church, doesn’t that make God’s people into some narrow-minded sect, where it’s only what we receive (and not others) that counts?

So I suspect that the vulnerable people in need in this story, whom Jesus labels ‘the least of these’, stand for anyone in the world who may be suffering these or similar conditions. God does not simply call us to look after our own. Let’s assume, then, that God gives us a brief that covers the whole world in demonstrating his love to those in need.

But does the passage make an even larger claim than that? Some Christians think so. The first time I ever heard Tony Campolo speak, he told a story about a trip he paid to the Dominican Republic, where he witnessed terrible poverty. As he was about to board his plane back to the USA, a mother tried to give him her child. The child would stand a far better chance in terms of health, education and prospects in the States. Campolo felt he couldn’t. But as his plane accelerated down the runway, he could see the mother and child still there. On the basis of this passage, he had an awful realisation: he hadn’t left a child in the Dominican Republic, he had left Jesus there. ‘Just as you did [not do] to the least of these, you did [not do it] to me.’

Similarly, the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has invoked the old Latin phrase ubi Christi, ibi ecclesia: ‘where Christ is, there is the Church’ from this text. He takes it to mean that if whatever we do to the poor we do to Christ, then Christ is present in the poor.

So does this teach that Christ lives in the poor? Does Christ perhaps even live in everyone, rather like the Quaker belief that there is an inner light within all people?

No, I don’t think the passage means that. It is a very heightened metaphorical way of speaking that Jewish people employed. ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ would be of the same order. ‘Just as you did to the least of these, it is as if you did it to me’ might be a paraphrase that brings this out. 

This, I think, would be more consistent with the rest of Scripture, which sees the Spirit of God as being directly involved in the creation of humankind but who only resides within people when they become disciples of Jesus. The idea that the divine is resident in all people is closer to the mystical beliefs of some New Age philosophies than Christianity. If we all have God within, there’s very little need for salvation.

Nevertheless, we still have incredibly strong reasons for serving all who are in need with the love of Christ.  We do not do it simply as robots obeying a command programmed by our Master. We do so, because when he, as the agent of God’s creation, and in partnership with the Holy Spirit, made the human race, he made them ‘in the image of God’. Our lives and relationships are meant to mirror something about God, and God’s love. 

There is no greater dignity anything in all creation has than to be made in God’s image. When the image-bearers of God are made to suffer, that is an attempt to obscure the image of God, and it is an affront to the God who made people with such a high status. Affording dignity, respect and healing to those who are suffering is about making the image of God more visible in creation. 

Conclusion 
So – it’s a clear test of discipleship whether we meet the practical needs of the poor and struggling. It may even be an indicator of how God judges those who have no genuine opportunity to hear the Gospel.  

Not only that, we have an imperative to do so, because all people are made in the image of God, however much it has been damaged by sin. That means our call to love and serve those in need cannot just be a paternalistic ‘doing good’ to those who passively, but gratefully, receive all the good things we have to give. It must also mean that in affirming their special dignity we give power back to those who have become powerless.

We may have had to take some complex diversions to arrive at these conclusions. You may well think that school teacher was right to say I am the sort of person who makes simple things complicated. At the end, however, we do come back to some simple challenges. We may not be able to meet all the needs that a satellite television and broadband Internet world flashes before our eyes. But we can ask ourselves this: what time, money and possessions have I given up in order to practise God’s love for the poor? 

My status as a disciple requires positive evidence in response to this question. So does my commitment to God’s revelation in Scripture. If I want to be a biblical disciple, then, I will know that I have responded to those who are suffering, and I continue to care for the suffering.

Can I answer yes?

Defending

God must be relieved! Read ‘Legal case against God dismissed‘. The plaintiff – a state senator for thirty-eight years! – claimed that since God is omniscient, he knows of the case against him. The judge dismissed the case, because there was no address at which God could be served with the papers. That’s a question of (a) not being able to deliver papers to Heaven; or (b) recognising that although God is omnipresent, he’s hard to pin down!

They forget the problem of how God would defend himself in such a case. Who would be his appointed representatives? How would that work in the USA, with its clear separation of Church and State? In the UK, the Church of England would be at the front of the queue – if they were brave enough! Would any representatives be self-appointed, as some in the religious world are? 

Even that begs the question of whether God would want to defend himself. He felt no need to do so in the story of Job. Or, indeed, whether he already has defended himself.

Which brings me to the old story ‘The Long Silence’, which I first found in Bob Moffett’s book ‘Crowdmakers‘ from 1985. I could quote some theodicy arguments from theologians such as Moltmann, but try this instead:

At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame but with belligerence.

‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror, beatings, torture, death.’

In another group a black boy lowered his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn: ‘Lynched for no other crime than being black!’

In another crowd was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. ‘Why should I suffer?’ she murmured. ‘It wasn’t my fault.’

Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the eveil and suffering he had permitted in this world. ‘How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred! What did God know of all that we had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life,’ they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he or she had suffered most. A Jew, a black, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic an a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified t be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man.

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges. Be tried by a prejudiced judge. Let him be tortured.

At last let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a whole host of witnesses to verify it. As each leader announced his portion of the sentence loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.

When the last had finished pronouncing sentence there was a long silence.

No one uttered another word. No one moved.

For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.