Marks of the Kingdom…

There is a theme that runs throughout Scripture  –
one that invokes pastures green and still waters.
That theme comes to us in a number of comforting, carefully crafted images –
most memorably in the 23rd Psalm.

There is another theme – there are many more than two, of course –
but this theme calls to mind power, judgement, and sovereign authority –
and this morning these two treasured and much-loved ideas collide.

The meeting is not gentle.  Some very different ideas are coming in to conversation here.
Heads may roll – at the very least, there will be confusion and crossed purposes.
For the King has come — revealed in impossible glory –
and there are some accounts to be settled.

The previous parables should have prepared us for the hard lessons this parable seems to bring
but how do you prepare yourself for the kind of kingdom this seems to be?
The differences we have long lived with as inconsequential
are now used as a measuring stick.
I’m not talking about appearances, here – or the cultural value of animals
Sheep, when it comes right down to it, are no better or worse than goats.
The warning in this parable is that  the outward, obvious things no longer matter.

What does matter, it seems  are the differences in our choices – our actions –
things that we long ago decided are personal,
and thus, for the most part,
inconsequential to how we order ourselves.

We can accommodate the differences in how we approach charity
– in how we treat our fellow human beings.
We quite often agree to disagree on what to do with (or about)
the homeless, the poor, the criminal, the outcast
– even within the church –
and we’ve learned to live quite comfortably with our ‘difference of opinion’.

In this parable – and I’m convinced that it is a parable, not a prophecy –
the differences that define/divide us
are those choices which we have called ‘personal’
our ethics – our compassion (or lack of) –
and these  become the measuring stick
that would declare  us ‘fit’ for the coming kingdom…or not.
Having long considered the comfort of this shepherd whose sheep we are,
we are left to ask, “When did we see you – or ignore you?”
“When did we visit – or neglect you?”
“When did we feed you – forget you?”

This kingdom – and this King – have an edge to them that we find most unpleasant –
because it is a kingdom of unseen things…
The marks of this King and this kingdom are not always the most obvious:
these are not sacrificial animals “without blemish” as is so often the case.
The sorted and selected flock are ordinary in every respect except one –
those on the right have practices compassion – those on the left have not.

Granted, compassion can leave a mark – good deeds don’t always go unnoticed –
but the mark is left on the one who receives, not the one who gives.
The sort of behaviour that the judge declares worthy of praise is self-effacing,
not self-preserving.
“When ever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”, the royal judge declares;
You acted, without thought – but not thoughtlessly –
your actions were not calculated to win you praise – but offered for common good.
Whether you knew it or not – whether purposefully, or not –
you acted in accordance with those great commandments of love (God and neighbour as self)
and that is the sure sign of Kingdom life.

We remain full of curiosity, where this kingdom is concerned, because it sounds, uncomfortably,

as though we are to treat everyone we meet
as though they were Christ
– to treat every miserable, complaining, cantankerous soul
as though they were the King of Creation – and, in fact,
that seems to be the logical conclusion.

And while that may seem unlikely (as well as impossible)
we ought to consider that it means others are similarly obliged
to treat us with the same consideration.
And what, pray, would THAT kingdom look like?

Our acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord – of Christ as King –
is supposed to bring us to a radical new vantage point.
We honour the one who put God at the centre
of all his teaching, healing, living (and dying)
in order that all the world might be restored to its proper order
-that same kingdom which, Jesus said, was ‘very near’
– even to those who challenged him.

THAT kingdom is one in which every subject reflects the ruler
– where the God-image in each of us is recognized as a cause for joy –
where our choices are easier – not because everyone is the same,
but because we are willing to see Christ in one another
– to put God in the midst of our misery –
and live with the result of that challenging choice.

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