Nov. 26, 2017: Christ the King
Christ The King, 2017. Zion, Baltimore
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
They say that in order to be a good writer you have to not only know how to tell a good story, but you also have to be able to show it. So, for instance, it’s one thing to say “It was an overcast day in London”. It’s another to say, “The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.” One is much more evocative than the other. One is reporting, the other is, well, something more than that. It’s showing. It’s painting a picture with words. But it’s not always that cut and dried, either. Some people like the simple and direct. For them, the latter example (from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad), would be too flowery or overblown.
A few weeks ago, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told us what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. This week, Jesus shows us what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. The Beatitudes and The separation of the Sheep and the Goats are two bookends in the gospel of Matthew. The Beatitudes (also called the Sermon on the Mount) is the first public teaching in which Jesus engages; The Separation of the Sheep and the Goats is the last.
They’re the bookends of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus tells us what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like in Chapters 5-7, beginning with The Beatitudes. He demonstrates the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven in Chapters 8-24. And lastly, he shows us what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like at the end of Chapter 25. So, there’s something for everyone!
We call ourselves children of God. Those are important words; they’re powerful words. They can bring as great comfort, especially when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering.
I’ve mentioned before that one of the things that I’ve struggled with in the past was depression. The thing about depression, at least the way I experienced it, was that it was so suffocating. My emotional state defined my life and everything about me. That’s what made it so overpowering, so terribly, debilitatingly overwhelming. Through the good graces of my therapist and my spiritual director, one of the most important and valuable things that I learned was that it’s not my emotional state that defines me. What defines me, first and foremost, is that I’m a Child of God. I might feel depressed, but that doesn’t mean that I am depressed. What I am, no matter how I feel, is a Child of God.
That realization is what helped me to get a handle on depression. That and Prozac.
What does it mean, then, to call Christ “King”. It means realizing that Christ stakes his claim over our whole person. In other words, faith is not just an internal, purely spiritual matter. In fact, it means just the opposite. In the end faith is about who we are, insofar that it's about how we live our lives in both the internal, spiritual sense and in the external, real-world, day-to-day sense.
Take the lessons for today as an example. We have the lesson from Ezekiel and we have the lesson from Matthew. Both of them are stories in that they tell us something. But to be quite fair, the story from Ezekiel is incomplete. It is only in half the story. The other half comes in the 10 verses, which preceded our lesson for today. And so, I would like to take the time to read those additional verses to you this morning, so that you can have a more complete picture.
“The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
“7Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep;9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.
The shepherds to whom Ezekiel refers are the leaders of Israel. They have systematically exploited their position, their power, and their privilege. Actually, that is putting it far too politely. They were abusing the people of Israel for their own gain. Ezekiel couldn't be more harsh in his choice of words.
"I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them." He accuses them of devouring, quite literally, the people whom they have been chosen to serve. Far from being the shepherds, they have become ravenous wolves. "11For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out," continues the prophet. ": I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep." So the Lord himself declares that he will be the new shepherd; the shepherd who watches over the sheep; who shelters them; who feeds them; who protects them.
For some reason, let's call it the work of the Holy Spirit, I kept thinking about the story of Cain and Abel while I was writing this. The story of Cain and Abel is the first major story in the book of Genesis following Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain, in a fit of jealousy, murders his brother, Able. God says to Cain, "Where is Able, your brother?" Cain responds, "How should I know? Am I my brother's baby sitter?"
Let's take a moment to think about that, shall we? Because isn't that a question that goes to the very core of who and what we are? Who are we? What are we? What does it mean when we call ourselves Children of God? What does it mean to call ourselves saints? Am I my brother's baby sitter? Am I my brother's keeper? Am I my sister's keeper? God's answer to those questions is a firm and resolute, "You better believe it!"
Much of the Bible, not all of it, but a lot of it, is an extended exposition upon God's response to Cain. Time and again this theme presents itself: This theme of mutual responsibility is emphasized over and over again. "Am I my brother's or sister's keeper?" It may strike us as sounding a bit too paternalistic, but at the heart of that question is the principle of the accountability of the individual for the well-being of others. The same principle that’s illustrated by today's Gospel lesson.
The blessed ones have demonstrated their faithfulness by performing acts of loving-kindness. The righteous ones performed these deeds with no idea that they were ministering to Christ. Jesus says that whenever they gave food to the hungry, welcomed a stranger, clothed the naked, or visited the sick or imprisoned, they acted in kindness toward Jesus himself. Jesus can identify with the least of these because he has walked in their shoes
Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' teaching has announced and illustrated the kingdom of God. God's kingdom does not function like a typical kingdom. This divine reign has invaded the world and is good news -- especially to those on the fringes of society. This rule welcomes those who have no status and seeks to serve others rather than exploit them. The righteous have inherited this kingdom. Those who claim to follow Jesus and hope to endure to the end (24:13) are called to live faithfully to God's righteous empire. Those who have experienced God's kingdom cannot go back to life as it once was. Lutheran Theologian and Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas writes, "The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid 'the least of these.'"1
The blessed ones are those who have seen a King who is not like the kings of this world. They are blessed because they know a King who brings real peace, who sees the needy, and who hears the cries of the oppressed. In God's kingdom, no one is hungry, naked, sick, or alone. To bear witness to Christ as King is to be a messenger of this kingdom--to serve others and thereby profess the invasion of God's glorious empire.
Jesus begins his story by saying, "When the Son of Man comes in glory...." Jesus has talked about the Son of Man at various points throughout the gospel, of course, but when is this "coming in glory"? Interestingly, the very next verse, 26:1, offers a clue: "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.'" The Son of Man comes in his glory in the crucifixion. The place we see Jesus revealed most clearly is in the cross.
And we need to keep in mind this promise: the one who will one day come to judge us is the same one who first came to be judged for us. As children of God, whatever we do, we do so trusting that Jesus is undeniably and unalterably for us. Thanks be to God -- for the One who cares about the needs of all. Thanks be to God for the One who comes in justice in mercy. Thanks be to God for the One who both judges and is judged for us. Thanks be to God for the One who meets us in the need of our neighbor; and for the One who works in us and through us in surprising and unexpected ways.
What kind of king is Christ? Christ is a king who refuses to conform to the expectations of this world, who will be governed neither by its limited vision of worthiness nor its truncated understanding of justice. Christ is a king who is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in our weakness and need. Christ is a king willing to embrace all, forgive all, redeem all, because that is his deepest and truest nature. Christ is our king, who ushers us into his kingdom, and calls us to recognize that kingdom as it exists around us and to grow it. AMEN