Christ the King Sunday
Christ the King Sunday is the final Sunday of the church year, making this service a New Year’s Eve party of sorts. Typically, New Year’s Eve invites us to look back at what has happened in the past year. Collectively we could try to sum up what the body of Christ here at Trinity has been up to as we close the doors of this year and begin moving toward the vision of what lies ahead. What decisions and actions do we hold up as shining examples of beauty and hope and love in ministry? What losses do we grieve? Which moments would we like to revisit with gratitude? What mistakes do we want to learn from, but not repeat? What blessing should we offer for the year ahead?
For many people, beginning a new year involves making resolutions about what they will change in the coming year. What habits do we want to take up or put down? We can ponder our resolutions both as individuals and as a group. What personal goals would you like to attain in the weeks and months ahead? What do you dream this congregation will accomplish?
In today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sets forth some goals for the church to live into, as well as some cautions about what to avoid. What Jesus lays out as our path toward living more genuinely in line with God’s dream for the universe is deceptively simple. Feed the hungry; visit the lonely; clothe the naked; welcome the stranger. OK. Sounds pretty straightforward. We don’t need any special equipment or advanced degrees. It doesn’t sound very expensive or risky. So why do we still find ourselves surrounded by hungry, lonely people, deporting strangers, and filling our prisons with ever more and more people?
Because, even when we are on our best behavior, we don’t always see the people who need our attention—literally don’t see them. It isn’t just that people in distress sometimes keep to the shadows, living under bridges, eating other people’s left-overs from mall trash cans, washing up in public restrooms. It’s also that we prefer not to look at or claim responsibility for what our laws are doing to people—splitting up families with unreasonable deportation practices, incarcerating African American men at a disproportionate rate, taxing the poorest at an unsustainable percentage.
It’s no wonder that the “goats” in today’s tale of judgment ask, “When did we see you sick or in prison or hungry?” The surprised goats genuinely don’t know when they saw such things because they preferred to look past such unpleasantness, avoiding news outlets that didn’t confirm their biases. It’s worth noting that the sheep are equally surprised that they apparently stumbled into doing the right thing. Even when they looked at unpleasant situations and offered consolation, they didn’t expect to see Jesus there, so they didn’t see Jesus there.
Maybe as a congregation we could resolve that in the new year we will strive to genuinely look at and see all people as images of Jesus Christ in our midst. I suggest we might begin by looking each other in the eye today as we pass the peace. Let’s deliberately take the time to look and really see the people around us as our siblings. It might be a little awkward, but this basic action also might open up a door in our hearts. When we practice seeing all people as images of Jesus, I suspect it will prompt us to act on their behalf: to advocate more fiercely for them, to defend them from bullies, to support them in grief, to write letters and phone our legislators, to do whatever we can for them when trouble sets in.
Nonetheless, eventually each of us will get lazy or grow weary of doing good. There will be times when we fail to see Jesus in the least of our siblings, causing us to ignore his suffering as we ignore theirs. It may happen because we fear our fortunes declining, our influence fading or some other risk. It will turn us inward, toward protecting what we have, rather than turning outward and making sure others have enough.
None of us want this to be so, but it is our human nature. We cannot sustain our best intentions with our own goodness. Eventually, we forsake one another’s needs and obsess about our own security at the cost of our neighbor’s livelihoods. Jesus, of course, knows this about us, just as he knew it about his disciples to whom he told this parable about looking for God in the least likely places.
It’s not accidental that Matthew places this parable about the final judgment right before he relates Jesus’ arrest, torture, and death. Jesus final teaching to his disciples is to be on the lookout for abusive power and manipulation, to search for true strength and authority in oppressed people, in places where they don’t expect to find much. He cautions his disciples to remember that people with golden crowns and bodyguards are not the only kind of kings.
They forget, just as he probably knew they would. Not long after they hear this story about God’s presence among the downtrodden and vulnerable, when Jesus is at his lowest, Peter denies knowing Jesus; Judas sells him to the highest bidder; Herod and Pilate wash their hands of any injustice occurring on their watch. Far from looking at a bleeding victim on a cross and seeing God there, the disciples run away and lock themselves in a room, away from danger. They don’t want to see, to know, or to be at risk.
And yet, the story of Jesus does not end the way his parable about the sheep and goats ended. Instead of condemning his disciples as “goats” to eternal hellfire for ignoring God in their midst, Jesus overcame all the apathy and violence the world had to throw at him, rose above their inadequacies and fears, and comes right back to his friends. He doesn’t condemn his wayward people for failing to be their best selves. Instead, he cooks them breakfast. He breathes peace on them. He explains the Scriptures and breaks bread with them. He affirms their value and sends them out again to continue the ministry and mission he began with them—sharing the love, forgiveness, and endurance of God’s mercy with all.
Whatever the new church year brings to us separately or together, we know this. As baptized Christians we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are called to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
On this spiritual New Year’s Eve, Disciples of Christ pastor Rev. Dawn Chesser invites us to observe this practice: “Affirm the victories and name the demons, but then let it all go and move on. Hope is coming. New life is just around the corner. God’s grace is the hope of the world. Resurrection is not just a vague possibility. It is God’s promise for us all. Christ is King!”
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider