It is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. Next week we begin all over again, tracing the arc of salvation through the Scriptures, but today we honor the fact that, in the end, all that ever was or is or will be belongs to God. It’s worth pointing out, I think, that as church festivals go, this is a young one. It does not date from the Middle Ages, but actually was created in 1925, as a reaction to Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. In reminding people that Christ is the Supreme Ruler of the World, the Italian Church of that time helped believers trust that no matter what kind of earthly powers a particular person amassed or expected, Christ would have the last and best word, always. We still need that assurance today: no matter how many other powers try to claim our attention and allegiance, no matter what else happens in our world, in our nation, in our churches, in our homes, Christ is King of all.
It’s a bit challenging for us to get our heads around this metaphor because, for the most part, we no longer live in a world where kings and queens rule. Some monarchies still exist, of course, but most of them are simply figureheads without a lot of actual authority. In a different vein, there are some extremely powerful individuals–dictators, war lords, and others–who might not have the title of king or queen but who wield total control in their spheres of influence.
But Jesus talks about the kingdom of God a lot, and the image for today is Christ the King, so we have to wrestle with that concept of ultimate power, no matter what we call it. I suspect there are parts of us that don’t like the idea of anyone else–including God–having the final say. We like to think that we control our destinies. But there’s no escaping the fact that the kingdom of God is not a democracy. It may not be a kingdom like any earthly realms we know of, but it is definitely a place where God is in charge. So what do we modern people who have a severe case of distrust for governmental leaders do with this image of Christ as king and ourselves as citizens of that kingdom?
In Jesus’ parable today, depicting what is probably the most famous final judgment scenes of all time, God is the absolute ruler. All the nations are gathered before the throne of God, where God sits surrounded by angels, separating the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. This is the last in a series of parables Jesus has been telling about what the kingdom of God is like.
It’s unlike the past two parables we’ve heard, however, both of which focused on preparing for the kingdom of God. One featured bridesmaids anticipating the Bridegroom arriving, and last week’s was about the master who doled out his fortune to be handled by his servants before leaving town and coming back at an undetermined time. Both of those parables primarily ask the question, “When will the kingdom come?” and invite us to consider what how we are to live while we are waiting.
In today’s parable no one is waiting for the kingdom anymore: it has arrived! Today is different from the other two kingdom parables in other significant ways too. Interestingly, this parable is Jesus final teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. After this story, Matthew’s Gospel moves into the Passion narrative, into the story of Jesus having his last supper with his followers, his arrest, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. I don’t think that the placement of this story about the final judgment is accidental. I think Matthew really wants us to take seriously what it means that the kingdom of God is not coming in the sweet by and by, but has, in fact, arrived, as far as his story is concerned. The kingdom is now and Jesus is the King. The last thing Jesus says before he is taken away to experience hatred and pain and torture and death is that the righteous, that is, those who are in “rightness of relationship” will enter eternal life. Could Matthew be underlining for us what such righteousness looks like, and how it is treated in our world? If so, he is also offering us the ray of hope that eternal life comes at the end of all our struggles.
So if God’s kingdom has already come, and Jesus is the King, why doesn’t he get busy doing kingly things, like bringing some order to the chaos that surrounds us? Why is he hanging on a cross instead of in the capitol, ripping up unjust laws and enacting some good ones? Why isn’t he on Wall Street, throwing around a few tables? If Jesus is lord of all, why is there still corruption and sickness and sadness and death? Isn’t the king supposed to change all the bad stuff into good stuff for us? If Jesus is the ultimate ruler, then why after he tells this story is he executed like a common criminal?
It all stems back to our assumptions about kings and kingly behavior, doesn’t it? We are looking for Jesus in the places where we think he ought to be–much as the three wise men did when they came seeking the new ruler proclaimed by the stars. He wasn’t in King Herod’s castle, was he? He was born in a barn. And he seemed to specialize in being in the UNLIKELY places for the rest of his life. Remember his mom and dad looking everywhere for him when he was an adolescent? When they finally found him in the Temple, what did he tell them about where he would be? He said, “I have to be about my father’s business.” And the headquarters for that seems not to be where we think it should be.
Where was Jesus usually found when he walked on this earth? He began his life as an outcast in a barn, and quickly became a refugee. As an adult, Jesus spent the vast majority of his time talking and listening to beggars and fishermen, touching people with horrible diseases and social stigmas, eating and drinking with crooks and rejects. He didn’t hobnob with the influential crowd–as far as we know, he never met King Herod, nor dined with the High Priest. He never ran for office. He blessed children and defended people with bad reputations–whether deserved or not. He didn’t have a grand home–he didn’t have a home at all. He was an itinerant preacher, critiquing the religious elite of his time. And everywhere he went he spoke of God’s kingdom.
When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he said that in it, those who were poor were blessed, and those who were weeping would find laughter. In Jesus’ kingdom, the lame could walk, the blind could see, and the guilty were forgiven. In Jesus’ kingdom, people of different religions drank from the same well, and no one was excluded from table fellowship. In Jesus’ kingdom, the king did not wait for his wayward subjects to return home, but instead, he went out seeking any who were lost and alone. In Jesus’ kingdom, the primary rule was the law of love.
So, if Jesus was so accessible to those around him in his life, why, in the parable Jesus tells, does no one seem to remember that they’ve encountered the King before? Isn’t it interesting that neither the righteous nor the unrighteous have any idea where or when they’ve seen King Jesus before the judgment? “When did we see you?” they ask. And the King tells both the sheep and the goats, “I’m exactly where I’ve always been! Even since the beginning I’ve been aligned with the people you consider ‘the least of these.’ If you are looking for me, look where you’ve always seen me to be: among the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, the neglected. Any time you take care your neighbors in need, you are face to face with me.”
In the final analysis, Jesus says, love for God and love for a neighbor in need end up being indistinguishable. It seems that the question that comes from this parable is also “When?” But this time it’s not our wondering, “When will the kingdom of God come?” but God asking us, “When will the nations start living in accord with God’s righteousness which God in Christ both requires and gives?”
Where are we? How do we fit into this parable? Are we sheep or goats? Is there a third option, for people who are sometimes one and sometimes the other? Shoats, maybe? Because I’m guessing that for many of us, there are times we recognize God in our neighbors and serve them, and other times we contribute by action or inaction to their suffering. Sometimes we ignore our neighbors altogether. Often we get wrapped up in blaming the ones who we think are the goats without even noticing the good we are failing to do ourselves. But surely there are times when we have visited someone who was sick or sad. And don’t we, as a Church together, offer our tithes and offerings to care for people who are in prison or hungry or thirsty? Can’t each of us remember at least one moment when we lived into our baptismal calling to be servants to one another? Doesn’t our wanting to be sheep instead of goats count?
Beyond all that, beyond what we have done or neglected to do, don’t we say that those who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ’s righteousness, which covers all in all?
We can’t avoid the fact that we are simultaneously sheep and goats, simul justus et piccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. And so what happens when we hybrids show up at God’s throne on Judgment Day? Do we go to the left or to the right?
Don’t stand there shaking in your boots. Look up. Who’s on that sitting on the throne? Ever seen him before? Don’t you recognize the face of the Good Shepherd looking back at you? Don’t you know that LOVE with every fiber of your being–the Complete and Total Embodiment of Grace, who has always cherished you, always called you by name, always defended and protected you, fed you with his own Kingly body and blood at the cost of his own life? That’s the King!
On this Christ the King Sunday, I invite us to let go of figuring out who we think are the sheep or the goats, on whether we (or anyone else) sit on God’s right or left hand. Instead let’s look straight into the face and heart and hands of our King Jesus–the king who calls each one of us “beloved child,” treasures us more than life itself, and has claimed us as God’s own forever. It is my prayer that as we reflect on such extravagant grace, we will find our lives overflowing with gratitude and joy for such a king. May that gratitude show itself in our eagerly tending to those with whom Jesus identified: the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry, the naked–anyone who is in need. Let us persist daily in trying to become more and more like the King we adore.
~Pastor Susan Schneider