a sermon for Christ the King [Year A]
Ephesians 1:15-23 and Matthew 25:31-46
Politics, politics, politics. We’ve probably all had our fill of politics lately. We’re tired of hearing about it on the news, tired of hearing it mentioned from the pulpit, and we’re probably afraid how it might get tired over Thanksgiving with relatives whose views differ from each other. After such a contentious election season, and with results still in a strange limbo, we’re so tired of it all, and—good grief!—here we end our Christian church year with what is clearly a political statement: Christ is King.
Christ is King: just saying that carries with it some political images and connotations. It sounds different and bears different weight from saying, for example, Christ is teacher or Christ is healer. Christ is teacher sounds comforting. Christ the healer is intimate. Christ the King expects me to obey and function a certain way in society. Even if we remove the masculine language from it, and say something like “Reign of Christ,” we still end up with something explicitly political.
And it’s not just the Christian church year that ends on this note. In fact, calling this particular Sunday—the last Sunday before a new Advent begins— “Christ the King” is a tradition that only began in the early twentieth century, which isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of church history. So you could still take this celebration away and still notice that the witness of Scripture ends with these images and phrases surrounding Jesus. He is seated on a throne or holding a scepter and wearing a crown. The writer of Ephesians, for example, says that God has seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places where he is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, and that God has put all things under Christ’s feet. That is very political language, both in ancient cultures and in ours today. Jesus is at God’s right hand, which is not really talking about a particular chair or passenger’s seat in heaven but a type of authority Jesus has now, an authority to judge and rule and make laws.
I’m here at the Virginia Capitol, which is like the right hand of our commonwealth. The elected government officials who work here will enact legislation that will impact the people of Virginia. They do good and important work. And even though the Virginia General Assembly is the oldest continuous law-making body in the western hemisphere, it is still somehow under Jesus’ feet. We give God thanks for good government and healthy democracy, but at the same time the baptized acknowledge that Jesus, crucified and now risen, has authority far above this one and others like it. That is, what Jesus says about us and about the world ultimately bears more weight than any of the authority on earth, even though his power might not always be clear and understandable.
Even Jesus himself brings up politics towards the end of his earthly ministry. In his final parable before he begins his final clash with the Roman and Jewish authorities Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming in glory to judge the nations. He perceives the power of his love not as something that rules just in the confines of our own hearts, not just something that cleanses individuals and makes them whole, which is all we’re often prone to see it as, but something that engages us with the world. His mighty love impacts our relationships with those in our lives, our relationships with everyone around us and the community that God forms among us. It is political—not Republican or Democrat political, and definitely not FoxNews or MSNBC political—but he is a King now and therefore his love is political in that has to do with the ways God wants his people to live together. God sees us as one, as a flock.
And this is what comes as a huge surprise to all the people gathered there before this shepherd King on his throne, Jesus says. His authority, his presence, has been among them, drawing them toward one another and they haven’t even noticed it.
For the past several years our third graders have made bookmarks to accompany the Bibles we present to them in the fall. This year, because we could not meet together and assemble those crafts in person the church office staff offered to make those bookmarks for them. Initially we were just going to forego the bookmarks altogether, but we quickly heard that the third graders had high hopes of getting them, so Hanne and Beth figured out a way to do it. On one side of this special bookmark is a photo of them in third grade, and on the other side is a photo of them at their baptism. We attach them to the bookmark and then laminate it so it’s a bit more sturdy. It becomes a way for these kids to see their own growth and how the church of Christ will come along side of them as they grow and discover the word of God.
Most of these kids are baptized as infants, so this year we got several emails with their baby pictures as attachments, and we had the hardest time figuring out who each photo was. Even by third grade, which is about 8 or 9 years old, people start to look different from when they were just a baby. Hanne, our administrative assistant, said at one point, “If the baby photos hadn’t come to us through their parents’ email addresses, we wouldn’t have known who these kids are!”
Christ is king, and his face is right here among us as we seek to live as God’s flock. Can we recognize it? Can we match the king in our midst with the King we envision on the throne? The only way that may happen is because Jesus has already come to us on the cross. His righteousness has already been placed right in front of us. It has come to us like a star shining over a Bethlehem stable in a dark, dark time, drawing foreigners with their gifts. His holy righteousness has already been given to us, like a full day’s wages in the vineyard when we only worked for one hour. His purity has been poured out for us like wine and bread set before disciples who will betray and deny him. His love has been hung out for all to see, that all may see him breathe his last, as he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is our king, and throughout his time with us, throughout his ministry with his disciples and among the people of Israel, Jesus identifies himself with the weak, the outcast, the excluded, the unclean. This is how we will know and recognize our King’s face and learn to live as the body he has redeemed us to be. That’s the email it came attached to, so to speak. God the Son in the form of tenderness and meekness.
The writer to the church at Ephesus prays that God would give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him. When we encounter the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, the ones who are persecuted, the ones who teach us to forgive, we are not just coming to know Jesus’ face. We are encountering our authority. These are the people who actually reign over the universe. So we listen to them. We heed their commands and pay attention to their needs, because—surprise!—they are righteous and have come to us and made us holy even though we didn’t deserve it. Even though we didn’t know it was him.
Christian writer Sarah Bessey puts it this way: “If you can’t find God while you’re changing diapers or serving food or hanging out with your friends, you won’t find God at the worship service or the spiritual retreat or the regimented daily quiet time or the mission field. I believe God hides in plain sight in your right-now life.”
She goes on to say it takes guts because these encounters are most often uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure I know what she means. I’ve been with the youth group on service project trips to some places in our country that are pockets of poverty and neglect. When I was there I realized it becomes all too easy to think of the people who live in those locations as merely recipients of our charity, like they’re subjects of the kingdom and I’m the generous lord or baron, higher than them, more affluent and wise than them.
But thankfully I come across some people have learned to recognize the hungry and the stranger as holy authorities, that they are actually the righteous face of the King in our midst. These kinds of servants are around here, to be honest. This week some members of our Community Service Team were busy assembling the donations for the Thanksgiving baskets that people have put together. Now, it is uncomfortable to think about people being hungry or lonely at the holidays, especially one that centers around food and family. But Brenda Barnes and her team were here almost every day, sorting things out and lining things up for distribution. She got positively revved up when she discovered that the nursery school had assembled a whole bunch of food donations. It meant a little more work for her, but she wasn’t bothered one bit. You could tell she was excited to serve. I’ve watched the volunteers for HHOPE and LAMB’s Basket too, curious and interested how they might be able to have more encounters with their clients during a pandemic, since need is probably greater. I’ve seen Eileen and Russ eager to take supplies to the ACTS house and Stew and Marilyn, Katie and Johanna, and many others request more opportunities for Habitat Builds.
None of these folks seem uncomfortable in their service. They are exuberant and blessed. They definitely don’t make it look like politics as usual. Because it’s not politics as usual. It’s politics of the kingdom of love. They and so many others here and in congregations and ministries around the world keep getting surprised over and over again by the presence of the King—surprised that, at least for the time being, the one who is seated at the heavenly places, whose authoritative love and grace is over all, not only in this age but in the age to come shows up right here among us and says, “When you do these things for the least of these, who are members of my family, you are doing it to me.” That one shows up right here among us to show us how to live…together…as one holy and righteous flock.
He says, “Come, enter the kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.