Judgement and the grace of baptism

We read in our scriptures on Sunday about Christ the King coming in judgement and power and decisiveness. Next week we enter Advent with Christ the baby, coming in frailty and poverty and insecurity as we begin again the story of our Saviour and Shepherd King.

We will part with Matthew's gospel (lectionary year A) to move to Mark and lectionary B as the Anglican Communion follows its cycle through the gospels – a year for Matthew, for Mark, for Luke with John threaded throughout the three.

It makes sense to us this progression from Jesus child to King and champion, from weakness to majesty, from hay bales to holy crown. From A to B to C. We apply a linear measure to our own lives, contained as we are within time.

Perhaps what Christ comes to tell us is that he is beyond linear – he is all encompassing, he is Alpha and Omega, first and last but these things simultaneously – might and weakness, Almighty God and simple shepherd, God/man, over us, yet within us.

As adults we will know weakness and dependency amongst the triumphs and accomplishments. Perhaps what we are challenged to do is find Christ in all these ambiguities: he is there when we are weak and he is there when we are strong, sometimes guiding shepherd and sometimes mighty King. He comes to us with a wooden staff and also a royal sceptre, he is there to declare us princes and princesses but also sheep and goats. I wonder what surprises us most – to discover that ours is a divine inheritance as children of a Royal Shepherd? Or to discover that there are times when we are sheep and goats to a reigning Shepherd King?

Though secure by faith as children of God, we both yield towards and strain against his leading and are for much of our Christian lives somewhere between dependency and independence.  Christ comes to us unabashed about the risk he takes on us. He expects that in our journey to Christian maturity, there will be times when we will reject him. We will fail to see him stare at us in the face of someone strange to us, and he will watch us walk on by towards the distraction pressing us on. Thank God quite literally for the grace in him, that he continues to reach out to us, just as any parent knows that in fact when all is said and done they'll always welcome back the child who has outgrown their parenting.

That the Church of England offers baptism to those who cannot decide faith yet for themselves speaks of the almighty grace of a God who is always for us despite our nebulous grasp of him – it is always about God's work and only thereafter about our own. As promises are spoken in such liturgies, we must all acknowledge our weakness, it is only by the Spirit that they can be declared by us at all. The promises that are really made are God's, who reaches out to us and particularly to welcome the little ones into his Kingdom, to adventure with him and become a character in his salvation story.

What Jesus comes to say to us is that there is something wild in all of us – something rather goat-like in our natures that will mean he'll have to chase us. Our acceptance of his choosing we play out in water and light at baptism. That wilder aspect of our natures disappears beneath the waters and we welcome in the Christ-light of the reigning shepherd King so that by his grace we can become more sheep-like and responsive to our master, who leads us by still waters to the homeland he's prepared for us.

The scriptures tell us it is God who will relentlessly pursue us. He takes us by surprise and is wanting to prepare in us, hearts attuned to him in all those unexpected places. Two amongst my own community prayed for Barry in a pub not very far from us just last night as they hoped that this boxer/soldier would encounter the living Christ in us. Both goats and sheep are surprised to learn that they have missed Christ and encountered Christ.: this Jesus whose face in strangers is something he holds out to us. When friend and neighbour want to stop us, there the King will show his face to us and we decide in just a moment if we'll grace him with our time.

It is time that seems to constrain us and so if we could just think a little more about eternity, we might choose the better path and see it's Jesus hanging out in the least and lost and last of us.

The strangeness of this King is ultimately good for us – that his story doesn't present him in a formula that makes sense – that he's really rather ambiguous and described in paradox and parable means we can never be too sure that this faith thing depends too much on us. God defines our God for us and our life in him is obvious only by our actions and the ways we choose to love. How we live speaks out our faith. We will find that more often than not we are the only Bible other people ever read. Ghandi professed that what ultimately stopped him from submitting wholly to our Shepherd King was the witness of those Christians whose lives did not profess him. We can promise then, in those moments when we witness many promises, to be more expectant that Christ will meet us in the unexpected places so that we do not say when time does close, 'but my Lord I didn't see you, I didn't know that that was you who was calling out my name.'

Jesus meets us where we look for him and where we look for him, we'll follow, we need a shepherd in this world of ours so we learn to spot the other sheep and when we come across a goat or two, there's still time to lead them over, so they take on the family resemblance and learn a new dependence. In such dependence there is freedom to become all we were meant to be and it is with this in mind we gather as family under God.

Our challenge is to foster a community of equals where with the little ones we are all of us children on a journey, knowing times of strength and leading and those too of weakness and dependence – we have an opportunity to model the character of Christ the Shepherd King.

Thanks be to God -- who cares so much about the needs of everyone of us. Thanks be to God for the One who comes in justice and mercy and asks us to do likewise; for the One who both judges and is upon the cross judged for us; for the One who meets us in the needs of neighbours, friends and even enemies, for the One who works in us and through us in ways surprising and unexpected. Yes, thanks be to God for promises he makes to everyone of us. Amen.  

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