The Reign of Christ Sunday A
November 23, 2014
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.
(Ephesians 1: 17-18)
Today is Christ the King Sunday or as it is coming to be known by those in the church who do not spend much time thinking about kings or seeing them as something we give our lives to…”The Reign of Christ” Sunday. This is also the last Sunday in our Church Year. Next Sunday begins Advent. So we should remember to wish each other a Happy New Year as Advent is the start of our new church year—the time that we begin watching and waiting for God coming into the world in Jesus.
The Feast of “Christ the King” is not an ancient tradition. It actually was invented by Pope Pius XI in 1926 as a response to the rising nationalism in Europe following World War I. In those fractured and increasingly violent times, the pope wanted to make the point that the King to whom we give our lives and pledge our allegiance was different from the various kings, supreme rulers, and dictators dominating the landscape. In the encyclical Quas Primas (In the First) the celebration of Christ the King Sunday was meant to emphasize that “While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim his kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights.”
The traditional imagery of this feast centers on the Christ who will return in triumph, the Christ of the Second Coming, the Christ who is more powerful than any earthly ruler.
In our reading this morning from Matthew we hear Jesus’ last teaching as he prepares his followers for his imminent arrest and crucifixion. Indeed the next verse that follows in Matthew 26 says, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’ (Matt. 26:1-2)
The powerful passage we read today in Matthew 25: 31-46 forms the bookend of Jesus’ teachings that begins with the Beatitudes in Chapter 5. In between these two teachings, Jesus has healed and fed, addressed the law, and taught through parables about the kingdom of heaven and about what we are to do as followers of Jesus. Today we hear Jesus while he is still with his disciples, tell of this scene of the Last Judgment. All the nations of the earth are drawn up before the Son of Man, he says, and the Son of Man will separate them from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Placing the souls of the righteous on his right hand, he says to them, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
And when the righteous turn to him and ask him when they ever had the opportunity to do such things for him, he answers them by saying, “As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And then the unrighteous, “I was hungry and you gave me no food,” he says—thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison—and to their trembling question, “Lord when?” he has a shivering response: “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Now both of the groups identified as sheep and goats were surprised by what Jesus says. Both of them are shocked when Jesus praises or condemns their behavior. But what are they surprised by? Neither of the groups denies that they either fed the hungry or cared for the sick or visited those in prison or on the other hand did not feed, care or visit. Their surprise comes in their realization that they did not recognize the Son of Man—or more to the point they did not see the Son of Man in the people they served. “Lord when did we…? And “when didn’t we see you..?”
On this day when we celebrate the Reign of Christ, we are invited to ask ourselves where we see Christ. The Church through the ages has gotten a lot of mileage from the imagery of Christ the King. The beautiful vestments, the soaring edifices, exquisitely carved throne chairs, lavish sacramental objects, and royal pageantry. This powerful symbolism has captured our hearts and our minds sending our spirits spiraling towards heaven.
I myself love this imagery. I love visiting the beautiful cathedrals, being bathed in the sumptuous light emanating from beautiful windows, watching or participating in processionals lined with beautifully dressed choirs and clergy, hearing exquisite music played by the finest musicians. It stirs my heart and lifts me into an exalted state lost in wonder, love and praise.
But everything we know about Jesus reminds us that this image, falls far short of describing the full reign of God. From the baby born to a young mother in a barn far from their home, to a young itinerant preacher who lived in a backwater town in the hills of Judea, to the man who was arrested, brutally tortured and crucified between two criminals—who is this King of Glory?
The nations gathered before the Son of Man in our passage from Matthew, fail to recognize God in the face of the poor, those at the margins of our society, the hungry, and those who are in prison. They are looking for the one who is enthroned in glory, who is all power and all might. Indeed this parable actually begins with the Son of Man in glory on his throne attended by the angels. And yet soon we hear that this Son of Man can be found in the “least of these.” This parable not only calls into question where we typically look for God, but also it upends how we experience Gods’ presence in our lives.
Where do we see Jesus? It is not hard to imagine our God in a glorious sunset or a stunning fall array of colorful hillsides. God can be experienced readily in the smile of a child or in the warmth of the hand of our beloved. But the kingdom of heaven shows up where we least expect it. The presence of Jesus is hidden in places where we may not be looking.
Every morning I receive a poem from a website called “Unfolding Light” written by Steve Garnaas-Holmes. This week he wrote:
Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me.—Matthew 25.40
This is not a simile.
The poor are not an allegory.
God is the poor.
God is not observing them, but in them,
the lonely and the rejected.
God takes the lowest place.
God is the powerless one,
the misunderstood one,
the crucified one.
Under the bridge,
in the nursing home,
this is the throne of the Sovereign,
the Ruler of the universe:
Until you see the glory of the divine
in the street gang,
the power of the heavens in the lifer,
you do not believe.
Don’t go elsewhere to worship in ease.
Bow down, and serve, and know.
Jesus shows up in places and in people that are easy to overlook, the one who asks for spare change in the parking lot, the demanding one who always wants something different in the food pantry, the boss who does not acknowledge our work, our relatives around the Thanksgiving table who have required a year of prayer to break bread with them once again. But in this passage we hear that the One who comes in glory identifies with those who are hidden, those who are rejected, those who are difficult. The paradox of Jesus is that we are required as followers to see and respond to those that society, and even the church, have deemed accursed.
In Jesus we are asked to open our eyes, to unveil our hearts, to act with compassion toward all, including ourselves because Christ is in all and all are of Christ. This is an echo of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 where we hear that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, and who are pure in heart are blessed.
And God who is the Creator of all that is, the one who has come into the world seeking us out, the one who sustains us with a Holy Presence calls us out from the cathedrals, the churches, the throne rooms into the world to love and serve all. God gathers us. God invites us here on Sunday mornings, on Tuesday nights, on Thursdays at noon, so that we may learn how to love and serve God and our neighbors. God is our host at a Christ centered feast where we are made able to see and live in the world as it truly is. Seeing that God is our all in all. God’s presence does not stop at the door to the church. God’s presence does not end at the conclusion of our prayers. God’s presence does not cling only to what we deem to be holy. God knows that everywhere there is holy ground—that all lives, all places are sacred because Christ is there. And as we hear in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians all this is a gift from God “who gives (us) a spirit of wisdom and revelation”, so that the eyes of our heart may be enlightened and we may know the hope to which we have been called. (Eph. 1: 17-18)
What a joy it is to gather together to worship our great God. How satisfying it is to study and share what God is saying to us through the scriptures. It will be glorious to share the time of Advent as we wait and watch expectantly for the coming of Christ into the world as a small baby. — And, together we have the opportunity to seek to love and serve Christ in the young people in our community, to seek and serve Christ in the person who cannot leave their home for food or companionship and longs for a visit. What joy it will be to welcome immigrant women and their children into our church office so that they can share their stories and their needs; so that they know that they are loved and they are not alone.
This is the work of our discipleship. This is our call as followers of Christ. This teaching about sheep and goats rather than being a time of judgment is a call to obedience that is not a prescription or law but a call to giving ourselves joyfully in mercy without counting. It can take us to an unexpected place. It takes us to the cross. It takes us to the cross in human lives, to the cross of life in family, community, society, nation, and world. It takes us to the place of God who suffers in and with us.
Who is this king of glory? Who is this king of kings? Who is this Lord of Lords?
He is the one who came into the world, who lives with God, who will never abandon us.
When we inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world, it is not a place—it is welcoming Christ into our lives now, accepting his claim on our lives where we care for others in accordance with God’s rule. And when we do this we see that the One who cares about the needs of all;
the One who always rules in mercy;
the One who meets us in our needs and the needs of our neighbor,
and the One who works in us and through us in surprising and unexpected ways,
is the One who in his fullness fills all in all.
Thanks be to God who working in us is always doing more than we could ask or imagine.