Christ the King
Nov. 203, 2014
I remember reading an English legend when I was young. It told about a poor man who killed a deer in the forest in order to feed his hungry family. He was arrested and thrown in prison indefinitely because the forest belonged to the king and, therefore, all of the animals in the forest were considered his property. It was a serious crime to kill a wild animal in the forest without the king’s permission. (And poor people had no way to get his permission.) I remember thinking how ridiculous and unfair this was. “How horrible to have a king!” I thought.
As a social studies teacher I know a fair amount about the kings this earth has seen. I know how they would surround themselves with extravagant wealth and expressions of power. They threatened and delivered punishment to those who defied them. They wielded power and privilege from the spent labor and lives of thousands of their subjects beneath them.
Examples of history tend to color, of course, our view of what it means to be king. That can get in the way of understanding what this special Sunday of the church year means… Christ the King Sunday.
Our Gospel lesson for today is an amazing treasure. In it two images of Christ are presented more powerfully than anywhere else in the Gospels.
First, Jesus is identified and described as King like he is nowhere else in the Gospels. He sits on his throne in glory with all the angels around him as his attendants. He is called “the King” and all people must yield to his rule as he judges between them.
Today, on Christ the King Sunday, we pay special attention to this vision of Christ, and the promise it represents; that in the final analysis, this is how things stand — Christ — the crucified one — is the King of all creation. The rule of love and grace, which he manifested in his life on earth, will, in the end, transform creation. He will stand as undisputed Lord of everything.
In the end, Christ has the final word over all things. In that sense, Christ is king.
However, there is another image of Christ in this parable that is equally important. In fact, the picture of Christ as king cannot be understood without it. It is an identification that is more intense in this parable than anywhere else in scripture… and that is Jesus’ identification with the poor.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is not just bringing good news to the poor and outcast, he is not just serving them, rather he is the poor and outcast. He is in them.
It is rather mind-bending that in this one passage we should find these two powerful and contrasting images of Jesus — on the one hand, Jesus the undisputed King of all creation, all power belongs to him; and on the other, Jesus hidden in the forms of the poorest and most insignificant people of all the earth. Christ is identified as being both of these.
That is truly astonishing! It is actually hard to know how one should bring this all together. It is something that begs a great deal of thought and reflection.
I think it is easier for us to understand the first image, because we have historical examples to work from (like earthly kings and emperors). But the problem is, these examples aren’t particularly helpful. They can actually really lead us astray.
For this reason, the 2nd image of Jesus in this passage is extremely important, because it reveals for us the surprising and wondrous nature of Christ’s kingship… and God’s kingdom. And that is something we don’t expect at all.
Because he is the king, he does as he chooses. No power can hinder him. And what he chooses to do is to leave his throne of power and the majesty of his deity to stand with those on this lowly earth who have no power, who have nothing… the hungry, the lonely, the destitute, the sick and outcast. That is love. It fills God’s being, his will and action; and it is meant to fill ours.
And in this fact lies the truth of the Kingdom of God that we need to know.
In today’s Gospel lesson, pay attention to the reaction of the people who come before Christ. The righteous have no idea what they have done. Jesus tells them how they fed him when he was hungry, welcomed him when he was a stranger, and so on. And the righteous are surprised. They know nothing of this. It appears that they know of no good deeds to their credit. They don’t recall having done anything for Christ. They don’t seem to recall the people they’ve helped.
Here is the most important message of this passage. This is what true righteousness is. This is the way of the Kingdom of God. The righteous person does not think of his good deeds as a matter of record; neither before others, nor before God; not even before himself.
In other words, the truly righteous person does not keep track of good things he or she has done with idea that “this is good for me” because “I’m scoring points with God… I’m earning my way into heaven.”
That kind of thinking is completely wrong. If we think righteousness is about earning points with God — if we turn salvation into an achievement on our part — it becomes just another expression of our self-centeredness and self-concern. The Kingdom of God is simply not like that, and neither is being a child of God.
It is not good deeds that God demands of us. It is love. It is that Jesus becomes king, not just of the cosmos… of all creation… because that is simply the way things are and will be no matter what we do. What God demands of us is that Jesus becomes king of our hearts.
As king of our hearts, Jesus will teach us to feel for others as he feels for his people. When Jesus is king of our hearts, we will reach out to those who need us naturally — without thought of reward (or how it looks good for us). We will act out of compassion and love, because that’s how Jesus has made us. We will be obedient to the command to love God and our neighbor, not out of fear or self-interest (or because it will get us to heaven); but because the love of Christ simply lives in us.
That’s the wonderful kind of king Christ is… that when he becomes my king… the king of my heart… he frees me, by the work of his spirit, from domination by selfishness and greed, so that I can live and act to help others.
In the vision from Matthew, the righteous belong to Jesus, not because they earned their way into heaven, but because Jesus claimed them long ago, long before the judgment scene described in the Gospel. Jesus claimed them long ago, and when he claimed them, they yielded their hearts to him. They gave themselves to him. They let him be their king. And Jesus, with his kingly power, over time, molded them (remade them) to be the kind of people they were created to be… the kind of people who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick… love… because love for others is what is in their heart… because God formed it there.
On Christ the King Sunday, we give thanks for Christ’s wonderful kingship. This tired earth has never known a king like him, or a kingdom like his. We look forward to the day when his kingship will be fully realized and all creation will be transformed by his rule. But today, we humbly ask Jesus to become our king (the king of our hearts), to rule in us, so that his wonderful kingdom might be born in us and grow in us.
In that way, our lives — like those of the righteous in today’s Gospel lesson — will come to bear the beautiful and eternal mark of Christ’s love and grace.