Christ the King
Nov. 20, 2011
I remember reading an English legend when I was kid. 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.
In college I remember reading about the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, China. The Forbidden City was, for 500 years, the enormous, sprawling palace of the Chinese emperor. It was a place so restricted that no commoner, foreigner or even noble could enter it. Only the emperor, his family and their servants were allowed to be there. The punishment for anyone who violated this taboo was death.
These kinds of stories from history tend to color our ideas about kings; so when we talk about Christ as king, these kinds of ideas sometimes creep in.
Our Gospel lesson for today is an amazing and very significant passage. In it two connections are made more completely 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 he judges between all the peoples of the earth. All the peoples of the earth must yield to his rule.
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 revealed in his life on earth, will, in the end, fully 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. That hymn we sang before the sermon (“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”) portrays Christ in that way, and it is important that we carry that picture of Christ in our head and heart.
However, there is another association/connection in this parable that is equally important. In fact, the picture of Christ as king cannot be understood without it. It is a connection that is stronger in this parable than anywhere else… and that is Jesus’ identification with the poor and outcast. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is not just sent to the poor and outcast, he is not just found with them, rather he is the poor and outcast. He is hidden in them.
It is fascinating that in this one passage we should find both of these sharply contrasting images of Jesus — on the one hand, Jesus the undisputed King of all creation; and on the other, Jesus hidden in the lowly 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 these two sharply contrasting images together?
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 truth is, we have a tendency to go the wrong way with these examples.
Some years ago, I remember seeing a bunch of kids in the mall in Minot, with several of them wearing various “in-your-face” Christian t-shirts. One I remember was a shirt with the threatening slogan: “Sinner beware. My God will not be mocked!” The use of that slogan shows how our thinking about Jesus or God as a king can be shaped by the poor examples of those English kings or Chinese emperors who bullied their subjects and tried to make them obey by filling them with fear.
For this reason, the 2nd part of this passage’s picture of Jesus 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.
In today’s Gospel lesson, pay attention to the reaction of the people who come before Christ. It is really striking that 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 knew 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.
This is the way of true righteousness… 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. The Kingdom of heaven is not bought (or earned) by deeds we do to serve ourselves. True righteousness is not earned by piling up so many good deeds that can be credited to our soul and then cashed in, at judgment, for eternal life. If we think this way — 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.
This is an essential truth of the Kingdom 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 (that will happen no matter what we do); but Jesus must become king of our hearts as well.
As king of our hearts, Jesus will teach us to feel for others as he feels for others. When Jesus is the 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… and so on.
On Christ the King Sunday, we give thanks for Christ’s wonderful kingship. This tired earth has never before known a king like him, nor a kingdom like his. We look forward to the day when his kingship will be fulfilled and all creation will be transformed by his rule. But today, we humbly ask him 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 will come to bear the beautiful fruit of Christ’s love and grace.