Sermon; Last Pentecost/Proper 29A; Christ the King Sunday; Matt. 25:31-46
Last Pentecost/ProperToday is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday, or the Reign of Christ Sunday. Whatever we choose to call it, today signifies and celebrates the reign and supremacy of Christ as King over all creation. This is the day, specifically, when we recognize what Paul wrote in both Romans and Philippians that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” that Jesus Christ is Lord. And while this is a relatively new feast on the Church calendar, it is appropriate that we celebrate it here on the final Sunday of the Church year; because, really, this is what we've been working toward for most of the year.
The Church year can be broken up into two cycles – liturgical time and ordinary time. Liturgical time consists of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the Day of Pentecost. These liturgical seasons focus on specific events in the life of Christ and/or the Church.
Ordinary Time focuses not on an event, but on the life of Christ and our becoming disciples and apostles by learning what it means to live in communion with God through Jesus' example. It is during this time that we work at deepening our relationships with God and each other. This time is ordinary not because it's boring, but because it is representative of how we are to live our lives each day, every day, day after day, week after week.
And this is where it all leads – to Christ the King Sunday. Our daily and weekly journey with Christ over the past six months should have brought us to a point where we can say honestly, truthfully, and with conviction, “My Lord and my God.”
Today, like the previous several weeks, we are confronted with an end-time parable. Once again we hear a story of judgment, of who's in and who's out, of who's included and who's excluded. Unlike some of those earlier parables, however, where the exclusion seems random at best and vindictive at worst (“You didn't bring enough oil or the right kind of clothes? Too bad for you; out you go!”), today's parable is neither random nor vindictive but a matter of fact.
“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
In Matthew, Jesus is asked to state the greatest commandment. In Luke, Jesus is asked about eternal life and it is the questioner who gives the, “Love God, love neighbor” answer. In these two gospels we are given two different reasons for giving the the two greatest commandments. Everything comes down to this – love God, love neighbor. Today's parable shows us what this looks like.
But it's not only from Jesus' teachings that this parable draws, it also draws from the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In today's parable, Jesus not only reaches back to the Law, but he reaches back to the words of a prophet to show what those words look like when put into practice.
The words of Micah and the Summary of the Law are reflected in this, the last of Jesus' parables. This parable appears only in Matthew and it occurs during Holy Week, roughly two days before his arrest. So not only are we at the end of the season and the Church year, but this story is told near the end of Jesus' life on earth. And what have we learned during this time of discipleship? Have we deepened our relationship with God? Are we closer to living lives in accordance with God's will?
I would hope so. And on this Sunday I would hope we are closer to both proclaiming Christ as King and living as our King desires.
In the latest issue of the Anglican Theological Review, Stephen Fowl, author, professor of theology at Loyola University in Baltimore, and parishioner of our cathedral, writes, “Scripture is dependent on God's desire to draw us into ever deeper communion . . .” This parable today exemplifies that desire.
At the end of days the Son of Man will hand down a final judgment. Those who provided him food, drink, hospitality, clothing, healing, and companionship will be welcomed into everlasting life. Those who did not will not be welcomed but banished. And then the wondering and rationalizing will begin. “When did we see you . . . We never saw you . . .”
The response is biting – “Whenever you did or did not do it to the least of these, you did or did not do it to me.” The Summary of the Law and the words of Micah come back to roost on this day of judgment: Love God, love neighbor, do justice, and love kindness.
For the group who should have known better, they were too busy looking for signs of the physical presence of Christ that they missed doing what God requires of us. This is the downfall of religious people of all stripes – that they, and we, look for evidence of Christ's actual presence before we perform the works of Christ.
Another way of saying it is that we only do good when we believe Christ is watching us. That's a problem. If that's how we behave, then we really haven't learned anything in our journey with Jesus to this point. If that's how we behave, then we really haven't incorporated the Law or the words of Micah into our hearts. If that's the way we behave, then Jesus really isn't our King. Our king has become anything and everything else that takes precedence, or is more convenient, over doing the works of God.
The works of God are to feed, clothe, heal, visit, and show hospitality. The works of God are summarized by the command to love God and love neighbor. The works of God are stated in the words of Micah to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. These actions ultimately, as Stephen Fowl alluded to, help draw us into deeper communion with God.
Today's parable shows that when we take the words of scripture seriously and to heart – love God, love neighbor, do justice, love kindness – we behave in ways that feed, clothe, visit, heal, and show hospitality to the least of these. When we read scripture in such a way that leads us to have compassion toward others, those acts of compassion allow us to enter into communion with them. When we enter into communion with others, we are also entering into communion with God. And when we are drawn deeper into communion with God, we are more open to seeing God in the world around us, rather than waiting for some sign from above that he is present.
On this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, on this Sunday when we celebrate the reign of Christ the King, this parable is indicative of how we are to act toward Christ and his creation. As disciples, apostles, and subjects, our King is telling us what he requires: Love God, love neighbor, do justice, love kindness.
By doing this we will be seeing the face of Christ in others every day. By doing this we will be serving the will of God. By doing this we will be able to say honestly, truthfully, and with conviction, “My Lord and my God.”
If we wait for Christ to appear before doing these things, we will end up on the wrong side of the aisle. By waiting for Christ to appear before doing these things, we end up serving only ourselves and our selfish ambitions.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. Whom do you serve?