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The Hidden Reign of Christ: Reign of Christ / Christ the King Sunday

Sunday, November 26, 2023:
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

When something’s wrong the natural response is to find a solution. Sometimes that solution is embodied in a person: a hero, a strongman, a saviour. A lot of people in our own day feel discombobulated, or alienated, or like things just change so quickly. So — especially online — they go after solutions: ideologies, communities, and those saviour figures. Some movement or person they can buy into so much that they can turn off their critical thinking faculties, and just follow.

Some thousands of years ago, as recounted in the Old Testament, people were dissatisfied with the leaders of Israel. So the elders of the people said to the prophet who was sort of the go-between for them and God, “give us a king, like everyone else has.” To which God replies, “Just so you know… this king will put your children on the front lines of the battlefield and others working in the palace… will tax you and take all your best stuff: your crops and your flocks… and you might even find that this king takes you to be his slave.” [1 Samuel 8, if you want to look it up.]

The desired ends — the outcome — is security… confidence… predictability. (Whether we’re talking about ancient Israelites or the twenty-something on their computer in their parents’ basement.) The means, however, is, as God wanted them to know: loss of freedom, and loss of life.

So God says: is that what you want??? Or would you rather just stick with me? The people think about it for a second and say, ‘we’ll try the king idea, because everyone else is doing it.’ And God says ‘OK.’

So they get Saul, who’s pretty good, and then pretty bad. They get David, who’s really good, and sometimes really bad. Then David’s son Solomon, who’s really wise, except for when he’s being really foolish. And then the whole country breaks apart, and each side gets a succession of kings, mostly fairly bad, sometimes fairly good.

When we have once again gotten to the end of another Church year and come to this, Reign of Christ (or Christ the King) Sunday, we look back on that story (which represents so much of human history) and admit that it still hasn’t worked out the way we had thought it should. And with hope (alongside the frustration, if not desperation), we turn to Jesus and recognize that with him as Lord (Master, King, Shepherd) things actually will be different. Because in Jesus we find some coherence between the ends and the means. His is a Kingdom of Compassion, and you get there by being compassionate. Or maybe more theologically accurate: you notice it, you recognize it when compassion is manifested (given or received).

Jesus is king — in this radically different way, calling for the binding up of the injured and strengthening of the weak — as we heard today — when he’s judging from his throne in some vision of the future.

Jesus is king — in this radically different way, refusing to hurt and hate, and refusing to insulate himself from the frailty of human existence — when he’s enthroned on his cross, arms opened wide in embrace of the whole world.

And Jesus is king — in this radically different way — enthroned in the manger at his birth. Angels proclaiming, shepherds kneeling, wise ones bestowing gifts. But also a different sort of king in facing the harshness of life, and the threats from the rival powers and dominions of this world. Think of the bloodthirsty reaction of King Herod, and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. This king Jesus knows danger, and tragedy. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it (feed, welcome, clothe, take care, visit) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then sometime after his birth (but not long in the Church calendar of ours) Jesus is baptized and sent to the desert. Where those rival powers tempt him to be just like them: with comfort, status, and power. And to all that Jesus says ‘no.’

The curious thing about the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is that they both share one thing in common: neither of them noticed Jesus, noticed the king. “The righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…. Then [the accursed] also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…”

“The end, [the Kingdom of God] which will ‘come’ at the end of time, is already present when the divine means (Jesus, the Mediator) is present.”* Our human (even churchy, but human) attempts at building the Kingdom with our own hands have so often failed, from relying on our own works, or in (maybe unknowingly) just imitating the ways of the world.

St. Paul proposes something different: that the “Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom… so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” The hope is the Kingdom of God. But it’s not just some far-off end. The Kingdom is personified in the person of Jesus. When and where he is present, there is the Kingdom. So Paul prays for the Ephesians (and for us) that they would have the wisdom to know that hope in us, and to recognize Jesus and his Kingdom. To recognize it better than the sheep and the goats, who missed it.

It is sometimes assumed that Reign of Christ is some correction or completion of the cross, or of the humanity of Jesus. That we finally get to the powerful Jesus, the divine Jesus. But some have argued otherwise. On Reign of Christ Sunday, especially with this parable of sheep and goats, we see Jesus inhabiting and restoring our true humanity. He’s showing us what it means to be human. What our role is in being human. It means to recognize our vulnerability: the precariousness of life with its hunger, thirst, sickness, and danger. Jesus goes right into that, and reveals our vocation to live at peace with one another and with all of creation. By being humane to one another while reckoning with our brokenness. By being human, truly human. A way of life that the kings and rulers of this and so many ages past have not known or understood.**

That is the ethic that Jesus embodies, and in so doing reveals our baptismal vocation of loving God, our neighbour, and respecting the dignity of every human being. When that happens, there Jesus is. (If we have eyes to see.)

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, Second Edition (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 65.

** William Stringfellow, Conscience and Obedience (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1977, 31.