Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christ the King

A sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46; “The sheep and the goats”



I usually begin my sermons with a little depreciating humor or by referencing some catchy cultural happening to segue, which doesn’t work so well with today’s Gospel about the sheep and the goats. And I have to say, reading this story I’m always a little torn. Because – on the one hand, I don’t want to ignore what Jesus says, or to pull the whole “what Jesus really meant to say was,” as if Jesus wasn’t being serious. But at the same time, there are two core beliefs I hold when it comes to how God changes lives, and I don’t intend to compromise either. First, I don’t think you can scare people into heaven, or bully someone into a transformed life. Second, I don’t think we’re saved because of anything we do or achieve. We’re not saved because of we feed the poor or because we visit the sick – that’s just not what orthodox Christians believe. And so if today’s Gospel isn’t primarily here to scare us into “doing something” to be saved, then what is it about, and what does that mean for our life?

You see, today’s Gospel is not primarily a call to action. Will a proper understanding of it overflow into action? No doubt. But this wasn’t told to scare us into building a better world. Not only would that contradict the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, but it wouldn’t even make sense within this story. Because, both the sheep and the goats have one thing in common. Neither was aware that they were serving, or not serving, Christ the King. “Lord, when was it that we fed you or visited you. When was that?” In Jesus’ story they didn’t know. And so to hear this Gospel and then decide to do something because we’re scared of being a goat is to miss the point entirely. The sheep are not the ones that know they’re serving Christ, the sheep are the ones that don’t. And so if today’s Gospel isn’t God’s attempt to scare us into being a little less selfish, then what is it about?

Well in the Episcopal Church today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a day the church sets aside to remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is the rightful king of creation and that a day will come when He alone will reign. What today’s Gospel from Matthew is really about is the character of this king.

You see there’s a question that a story like this on a Sunday like this is asking us to consider – what kind of king do we say that Jesus is? And as I reflect on today’s Gospel two incredibly hopeful and surprising details stand out.

1. Jesus is not a king that reigns on some lofty throne high above the mess of this world and the mess of our lives. As today’s Gospel begins, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory … then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” Then – but not now. Because – now, as today’s Gospel points out, Christ the King reigns in the midst of the world’s mess; amongst the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned; amongst the lonely, the friendless and the needy; amongst the divorced, the burnt-out, and the anxious; with the ones he calls “the least.” Jesus reigns right in the midst of the mess.

2. Christ the King calls the least amongst us – the sick, the naked, and the common criminal – members of his family. As Jesus once said to the Pharisees, “those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; for I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Well, today Jesus ups the ante a bit, calling the sick and the sinful not just to repentance but to acknowledge their status as his brothers and sisters.

Now, are you beginning to see how full of grace today’s Gospel actually is? Because – before it says a word about God’s judgment, it speaks volumes about God’s nature. And the message is that no situation is so hopeless, no pain so unbearable, and no sin so horrible that Christ removes himself from it; Hunger, thirst, estrangement, nakedness, prison – it doesn’t matter, Christ reigns in the midst of the mess.

And so have you ever hungered and thirsted for righteousness only to be crushed by sin and injustice? Have your secrets ever left you feeling isolated and alone? Has shame ever left you feeling naked and exposed, or have you ever felt so scared and inadequate that life felt like a prison from which you couldn’t escape? Has life ever made you feel like the absolute least? Because – if so, there’s a message in today’s Gospel for you. Christ the King calls you family, and He reigns in the midst of your mess.

You see that’s what Christ the King Sunday, and today’s Gospel, is really all about – a different kind of king who endures the shame of his own subjects and saves his sheep by dying for them; a King whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is a cross; a King that enters Jerusalem not on a chariot but on a donkey; not with an army but with a handful of fishermen; a King whose power is revealed not in the breaking of bones but in the breaking of bread. This we say is the King of the universe and to know this king is to be transformed.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that what we do doesn’t matter. What we do matters tremendously. Our life matters, our choices matter, the things that we love, the way we spend our money and time, it all matters to God because we matter to God. And even though the sheep in today’s Gospel didn’t know they were serving Christ, it does matter that we as a church get intentional about seeking and serving Christ in all people, and especially the least. But the goal of the Christian life aims at something higher. The point of Christianity is to become transformed people – people who give in such a way that their left hand doesn’t know what their right hand is doing. And I would submit that this transformation begins not with a decision to act but with a decision to pray; that it begins when we resolve with every fiber of our being to submit to the King who freely submitted to the cross to save us.

And in today’s reading from Ephesians, we find that this is exactly what Paul prays for. He writes, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a spirit of wisdom … as you come to know him.” But what Paul says next is utterly shocking: “So that you may know … the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” Now, most people read this and mistakenly assume that Paul prays that we would know that Jesus is our inheritance and be thrilled with how great that all is, but that isn’t at all what Ephesians actually says. It doesn’t say that Jesus is our inheritance. It says that we are Jesus’ inheritance. And that’s what Paul wants us to see – that Christ the King sees us in our hunger and our thirst and our strangeness and our nakedness and our prison, the Christ the King identifies with us, that he reigns in the midst of our mess. Why? Because – we are His inheritance, the apple of His eye, the people He longs to heal, restore and save. And so as we go out into the world this week let us not forget that before we can for Christ the King we have to know that Christ the King lives for us. We are his family.

Now, to the extent that we know that Jesus honors us, we will in turn honor him. But our King isn’t looking for calculated, fear-based, sporadic, conscience appeasing humanitarian acts of service by people who think they’re “okay” on behalf of people who aren’t. No, Jesus is looking for people who know Him as He is!

You see, it is not just we who are Jesus’ inheritance, it is also Christ the King who is ours. “And so come, you that are blessed by the Father in heaven and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Because – today’s Gospel isn’t about people who earn their salvation; it’s about people who love their king so much, who know his character so well, that on the last day discover it.

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