Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Feast of Christ the King (22nd November 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the Church Year before we begin the approach through Advent to Christmas. On this day we celebrate the Kingship of Christ and rededicate ourselves in service to Christ His Majesty our King. There are indeed various images found in the Bible to express our relationship with Christ. One is King and subject, another is master and servant, and yet another is shepherd and sheep. The image of the shepherd appears in today’s Old Testament reading and in the psalm, where the writer says who God is, and who we are. “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” We may also think of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The image in Ezekiel of the divine shepherd collecting sheep from around the world and bringing them home to their own land has understandably been interpreted literally by the State of Israel, which sees itself as the divinely-ordained homeland for all Jews. There is even a large mosaic illustrating this very passage from Ezekiel decorating the arrivals hall in Ben Gurion International Airport. Christians, on the other hand, in applying the passage to themselves will view the text as metaphor.

The passage from Ezekiel describes movingly how God as a shepherd looks for his lost and scattered sheep. The Lord will seek out the sheep wherever they have been scattered and bring them to good pastures. We are the sheep for whom the shepherd searches. This should be a great encouragement to us. It makes a great deal of difference, when you are lost at sea or in the mountains or in an earthquake (or indeed in despair or depression) to know that someone is searching for you. We know that Jesus the Christ the Good Shepherd is roaming the world looking for his lost sheep. When we have been found by God, however, we are not to spend our time munching the grass of the good pastures to which we have been brought and doing nothing else, we in turn are to join the divine search party, as we are reminded in today’s Gospel reading. This makes it plain that we are to find Christ in others, and that we are to serve him by helping them.

Today’s Gospel opens with the coming in glory of the Son of Man. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus had warned his followers of dark times ahead but had assured them that their suffering would be interrupted by the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. Today’s Gospel describes what happens when the Son of Man, whom we take to be Jesus himself, comes in his glory. He gathers all the nations before him and then separates individuals one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. This image would have been familiar to Jesus’ original listeners, as then as now mixed flocks of sheep and goats were a familiar sight in Palestine. Jesus welcomes into his kingdom the sheep, those who have demonstrated their faithfulness to God by performing acts of loving-kindness, with no idea that they were actually ministering to Christ. He then rejects the goats, those who have failed to care for those in need. They too had no idea that they were encountering Christ, but to both groups Jesus says “what you did to the least of my brothers you did to me.”

How are we to meet Christ? We may rightly long to meet Christ in heaven and spend eternity with him, but today’s Gospel reminds us that on earth we encounter Christ only and always in the needs of those around us. So we need to see Christ in our neighbour. This is well illustrated by Leo Tolstoy’s famous story Papa Panov’s Special Christmas.  Tolstoy describes how one Christmas Eve an elderly shoemaker read the Christmas story in his family Bible and then fell asleep. He had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him and said that he would visit him next day, but would not tell him who he was.

Next day, Christmas Day, Papa Panov gets up early and is eager to meet Jesus. When will he come? He gives coffee to the street sweeper, welcomes a young girl with a baby to whom he gives warm milk and a pair of tiny shoes he had intended to give the baby Jesus, and hot soup and bread to passing beggars. Yet Papa Panov is disappointed. He has not seen Jesus. The dream was only a dream. That night he sees again all those whom he has helped that day, the road sweeper, the girl and child, and the beggars, and as they pass before him they all whisper, “Didn’t you see me, Papa Panov?” “Who are you?’ asked the bewildered shoemaker. Then he heard the voice from his dream of the previous night, the voice of Jesus. “I was hungry and you fed me. I came to you today in everyone you helped and welcomed.” Then Papa Panov’s heart was filled with peace and happiness. “So he did come after all,” he said with satisfaction. 

The same point is made by the story told of St Martin. That his feast day is 11th November means that he is often overlooked in our concentration on the ceremonies of Armistice Day. Martin was a young Roman soldier who was on patrol one wintry day in Amiens in present-day France when he encountered a beggar in rags. Martin promptly cut his long military cloak in half and gave one part to the beggar before continuing his patrol. That night he had a dream in which he saw Jesus wearing the half of the cloak that he had given to the beggar. Jesus then said, as in today’s Gospel, “What you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.” Martin went on to become a leading bishop in the church. After his death his cloak, or presumably half of it, became a relic and was housed in a special building. This was called a cappella (or chapel) from the Latin word “cappa” for the cloak, and the clergy who looked after the chapel and its relic were called “capellani”. So the English words Chaplain and Chaplaincy go back directly to Martin and his cloak, and there is a link between our very name and the Gospel passage which reminds us where in this world we will find Christ.