Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
February 6, 2011
And Jesus said to his disciples, “As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus speaks to his disciples on a number of occasions about the final judgment of good and evil. The Bible is replete with passages which speak about putting things to right, and that in the end, God alone will judge His people. All three ancient Creeds of the Church express the same belief that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father: and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead. The Creed of Saint Athanasius goes further and states that after Christ’s second coming, “…all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.” No parables of Jesus are as clear regarding separation and judgment as the parable we heard this morning and two others which follow in St. Matthew’s Gospel – one regarding a net being cast into the sea and the separation of the good fish from the bad; the other from the 25th chapter of Matthew which deals with the separation of the sheep and goats, and the command of Jesus that whatever we have done to the least of our brethren we have done it unto him.
In the summer of 2008 when the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops was gathered, Bishop Gene Robinson was preaching at St. Mary’s Church in Putney, a suburb in West London. He began his sermon speaking about the emotion of fear. He said that many people today were caught in the grip of fear whether it was in regards to finances, violence, hunger, poverty, sickness, and quite simply an overall state of fear engulfed far too many people. About two minutes into his sermon Robinson said, “How discouraging that the Anglican Communion would be tearing itself apart because two men…” At that point, a gentleman stood up from the congregation, pointed his finger in his direction, and said the following, “It’s because of heretics like you sir. Because heretics like you preach the gospel but you depart from it.” Members of the congregation began clapping and many of his comments became inaudible, other than his admonition to go back to America, and repent, repent, repent. Eventually, the congregation began to sing a hymn, the rector stood up and announced the hymn number, and his comments were then drowned out by the organ and singing. Throughout it all, Bp. Robinson said nothing in response, and eventually ushers escorted the man outside. It was unfortunate to see the manner in which an unvested clergyman showed this man to the door, but apparently the service continued uninterrupted. After reading some news reports which have since come to light, it appeared that the rector was anticipating some sort of interruption, and apparently the hymn had been pre-selected just in case something like this happened.
Who is to accept the mantle, and bear the responsibility to call Bp. Robinson and many others for that matter to task for their perversion of the Gospel? Is it someone who stands up during a sermon, and admonishes the preacher to repent, and cease the preaching of heresy? Should it be bodies within our dioceses, within the House of Bishops, or perhaps another ecclesiastical authority within the wider Anglican Communion? Or should the man in the congregation have simply shaken the dust off his feet as a sign against Bp. Robinson and simply stayed away last Sunday morning?
Our Lord’s words from St. Matthew confront us. Jesus tells his servants that while they slept the enemy came in and sowed tares among the good seed. The servants ask the clarifying question of the man who sowed the seed, “Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares?” In the account of creation, when God saw all that he had created, he said that it was very good. The seed that was sown was good seed, but Satan does everything within his power to corrupt and pervert God’s creation and the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. He does so in the world and within the Church. Why? Because he knows that within the Church pride is such a strong emotion that we will do all in our power to circumvent God’s authority, and either attempt to rectify the problem by trying to remove the tares prematurely and thus destroying the wheat in the process, or we will try to do our own reaping and thus judge for ourselves. Clearly, Jesus tells his disciples that they have no reason to fear that this isn’t going to happen, or that they need to hurry the process along. God in his divine time will send his angels to gather the harvest together, at which time, the wheat will be separated from the tares, and order will be restored to His creation.
This means that within our lives and within our church, there is inevitably going to be tares along with the wheat. Knowing human nature as we all do, we are going to be tempted to try and rectify things ourselves. As Bishop J. C. Ryle points out, “this parable teaches us, that good and evil will always be found together in the professing Church, until the end of the world.” He goes on to say, “Do what we will to purify a church, we shall never succeed in obtaining a perfectly pure communion. Tares will be found among the wheat. Hypocrites and deceivers will creep in. And, worst of all, if we are extreme in our efforts to obtain purity, we do more harm than good.” There is an old saying that states that, a church is not a sanctuary of saints, but rather, it is a haven for sinners. The more we begin to think of ourselves as being pure wheat, with no tares, the further we depart from the truth. St. John tells us in his First Epistle, if we say we have no sin we are a liar and the truth is not within us. St. Augustine once said regarding this parable and regarding true Christian charity, “Those who are the tares to-day, may be wheat to-morrow.”
The message of the parable speaks first and foremost about God’s ability to judge right and wrong, and that we can rest assured of that fact. Secondarily it speaks to us directly about the judgment of others, and our sinful pride which says I’m right and you’re wrong. Which of us is not guilty? I certainly am! More times than I would care to admit, I readily assert my rightness over someone else’s wrongness. What I should be asserting is Christ Jesus’ righteousness, and that alone will convict the heart, and bring about change, and eventually the fruit of the Spirit.
Everyone who knows us should see the reflection of Jesus in our lives. A preacher I once heard make the assertion that the worst thing that anyone could say about a Christian is that you don’t really look any different from anyone else. How can we bear name of Christ, if we don’t begin to look like him. We are called to live in society, but we aren’t called to look like it. We should look different because we are different. We have been forgiven and we rest in that assurance.
There is the story of a man who would frequently go into a Church, never say a word, but would keep a constant gaze upon the figure of Christ on the Cross. One day, someone asked him about his prayer life, and his constant practice of coming to the church, and simply gazing upon the image of Jesus above the altar. He gave a remarkable response. He said, “I just come to look at him, and he looks at me.” The more time we spend looking at Jesus, the more we begin to look like him. How much time do we actually spend gazing upon Christ? How often do we take the time to gaze upon Jesus, ponder his gift of salvation for each and every one of us, meditate upon his Holy Word, in order that we can allow his gaze in return to bring about the transformation that he longs for us to have? I believe that the more we do that, the more we begin to start looking like Him. The more we gaze upon him, the more we will cease to look like the tares sown by the enemy, and more like the wheat that the Lord sowed with the good seed.