Christ the King Sunday - Last Day of the Christian Year

Click here to read Matthew 25:31-46.

This is the last Sunday of the Christian year, the final Sabbath in the cycle of the Christian story. Next Sunday we will return to the beginning, to the scriptures of expectation and longing for the birth of Jesus. Nearly every week, our congregation follows the lectionary texts chosen to guide us through the scriptures. We are yoked with millions of Christians throughout the world as we move together through the anticipation of Advent, the astounding celebration of Christmas, the horror of Calvary, the Glory of Easter, and the empowering rush of Pentecost. The past few months we have been in Ordinary time—time in between the feasts and festivals of the church, time set aside to really listen to the teachings of Jesus, time to be in the presence of the great Gardener as he plants seeds for the Kingdom of God in our hearts and in the world. Today is the culmination of this Ordinary time and of the whole Christian year. To usher us from one cycle to the next, today the Church celebrates Christ the King.

Our scripture today is a vision of judgment day. The Son of Man comes in glory, surrounded by a throng of angels. Imagining this vision gives one chills. There he is: Christ, our King, sitting on an ornate throne in exquisite heavenly glory. He is a perfect vision of power and righteousness. He is a textbook king. The nations are gathered at his feet. Maybe some of those gathered recognize this King’s glory, and are humbled and nervous. Just like Aslan the Lion in the Narnia books, he isn’t safe, but he is good.

And then the judgment begins. The people are separated—separated as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are ushered to the right, the goats to the left. The sharp distinction between these two groups is not necessarily what we might have expected it to be. The sheep are not commended for their acceptance of the right doctrines. The goats are not condemned for belonging to the wrong church. The matter at hand is simple, painfully simple. The King welcomes the sheep, pronouncing them heirs to God’s Kingdom. The Message translates it starkly: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Can you imagine the confusion of these righteous men and women? Can you hear the murmur that rises up from their bewilderment—whenever did we see this mighty and holy King hungry? What is he talking about? He is royalty—whenever could he have been jailed?

And it becomes clear as the diamonds on this King’s throne that we are not dealing with a textbook king after all. This is a king who has been to hell and back. This is a king who has shared the pain of humanity, and borne the weight of all suffering on his back. This King has been injured in war. This king has been deprived of food. This king has suffered in ways that are unimaginable, and the sheep of this world were there to tend his wounds.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate a King who became human. And the mark of true faith in this King is how we treat the least of our fellow humans.

The beauty of the sheep is that they didn’t even realize that they were serving Christ by serving the broken. The sheep in this story are astounded that the guest in their midst was actually Jesus. They met the needs of their sisters and brothers in need because of their fidelity to the gospel. They loved their brothers and sisters as Christ had commanded them to do.

The King in this story, restored to glory, proclaims that the sheep have inherited the kingdom. They didn’t earn the kingdom. This is not a matter of earning salvation by doing good works. We are redeemed by God’s grace, but we are not saved to be bumps on a log, concerned only for ourselves and our families. We are redeemed to be a blessing, called out to be the Body of Christ, following the way of Jesus joyfully. It matters to our Gardener King that we bear gospel fruit. The sheep in this story did just that: they cultivated the seeds of the Kingdom of God that Jesus planted in their souls, and the result was an abundant shower of God’s love and mercy. They allowed the love of Christ to be multiplied in their lives, and they lived to share that love generously.

Mark Twain wrote, “It is not those parts of the Bible that I do not understand that bother me. It is the parts of the Bible that I do understand that bother me the most.” I think this is one of those scriptures we all understand so well we’d just rather ignore it than let it bother us with conviction. Can you imagine if our love for Christ could only amount to our love for the person we love the least? This is a scripture that paints a clear picture of what it means to bear the cross of Christ. There is no real mystery here. To follow Christ and to be heirs of his Holy Kingdom is to give ourselves over to the service of our hungry, poor, homeless, and imprisoned sisters and brothers.

Jim Wallis, a prophetic preacher and the founder of Call to Renewal, an evangelical anti-poverty campaign, tells a story about his seminary days in Chicago. He and his fellow students were alarmed by the trend in many American churches to ignore the plight of the poor—and to ignore the consistent emphasis our Holy Scriptures place on the poor and oppressed. Many American churches celebrate a sort of prosperity gospel, in which Christians are told they will be rewarded for their faith with financial and social security. This distortion of the gospel is due in part to the tendency for American churches to read scriptures selectively. So Jim Wallis and his friends started a project. They went about locating every single instance in scripture that addresses the poverty and justice. They discovered that in the Old Testament, the only theme that is more prominent is that of idolatry—and even then, some of the passages regarding idolatry are related to the glorification of wealth. Well, one seminarian who was particularly disturbed by the dismissal of such significant passages decided to painstakingly snip each and every passage about poverty and justice out of the bible. As you can imagine, the book that they were left with was full of holes. He most certainly received criticism from those who found his actions sacrilegious, but this man used scissors to dramatize what happens week after week in too many Christian churches. It is altogether too easy for us to skip past the scriptures that bother us, to ignore the parables that convict us.

Because we allow the common lectionary to guide our scripture readings, we do not have the option to close our eyes and ears to the hard sayings of Jesus. We must face today’s scripture honestly, and hopefully, let it transform us. This is truly the heart of the gospel, the heart of God’s word for us. We are called to worship—and we are called to be transformed by that worship. We are called to believe—and we are called to be shaped by that belief.

We live in a culture that does not encourage us to act like sheep. Our culture has rejected ancient codes of hospitality that formed the skeleton of Hebrew culture. We are told to beware of strangers, and it is no wonder, because every day we read in the paper about the astounding capacity for human beings to treat one another with raging cruelty. And so we get caught up in a terrible cycle. We are afraid to be like the sheep, because we are afraid that the least of these are not Christ after all. We are afraid that the least of these are goats, or, worse yet, vicious beasts capable of doing us great harm.

And so we return again to the perennial gospel struggle of following the way of Jesus: we are called live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, even though we live in a world that does not abide by the laws of that Kingdom. We are called to love all of God’s people with the same joyful love we offer to Christ. This is huge work, work that requires us to have humble hearts, work that depends on a God that is ever-loving, ever-forgiving, and ever-gracious.

On this Lord’s Day, we celebrate a King who is very much alive in this world, a King who is more likely to be present among the poor and lowly than among the rich and mighty. We also celebrate the Thanksgiving Holiday. As we remember all of the ways we have been blessed, we are gently and firmly reminded by the Lord of All that we are called out to be a blessing—called out to mirror the grace—the active love—demonstrated by King Jesus. By the grace of God, let us be sheep.

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