Who Do You Say He Is?
The Gospel assigned to this morning, a feast day traditionally called “The Feast of Christ the King,” is Matthew 25:31-46. In reading it, I see very little of the pomp and circumstance of royalty, save the Son of Man coming in glory and sitting on a heavenly throne with all the peoples of the world coming before Him. Here, he separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are those who follow Jesus of Nazareth’s mandate that whatsoever we do to comfort the afflicted, whether it be feeding, clothing, offering counsel, quenching thirst, healing, we comfort Jesus – we do it to him and for him. The goats are those who do nothing and they don’t get to stay there at the throne.
This is not a temporal king. Jesus himself in the gospels never once said that he was a king, let alone a wordly king – a king that some of his followers hoped he would be, the kind that overthrew empires – he was proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of Heaven was there and then on earth, it was and is now.
What we may read in this morning’s pericope is the job resume of a man who shepherds his flock (that being the children of God and especially Jesus’ followers) and attends to their needs, inviting members of the flock to care for one another as a show of love for him and each other.
Can’t remember a king in history doing that, other than Martin Luther King, Jr.
So what is this Feast of Christ the King? Why do we insist on calling Jesus of Nazareth the King of King and Lord of Lords?
A review of church history shows that this particular feast is not an ancient one; it was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to celebrate and observe the all-embracing authority of Christ, which would ‘lead mankind to seek the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.’ * Since 1970, the feast has been kept on the last Sunday of the church year, i.e., the last Sunday before Advent.
Some Anglican churches observe this feast, and that has always been a puzzlement to me, since the Anglican Communion grew from the Church of England, which was founded by Henry VIII as a way around the control of the Papacy, the ultimate medieval monarchs with power and control issues. In the United States the Anglican Church took root after the English settlements of the 17th century, and after the Revolutionary War, the Episcopal Church was founded as an autonomous body and is now one of the members of the Communion. There were and are no kings in America.
And yet today we call Christ the King.
If we’re going to perpetuate this feast and this observance, then let’s put a different spin on it, shall we?
This king is no monarch set on a dais clothed in ermine and holding sceptre and orb surrounded by his nobles. This is a man for all people. All are welcome at his table, not just dukes, earls, barons and emissaries.
Jesus does something few monarchs on earth have done. He cares for the poor – not just as slaves and laborers, but as individual children of God. When he rallies his vassals to wage war, it is not on another kingdom but on the worst of human conditions: poverty, injustice, prejudice, ignorance and disease. The largess he distributes is not purses of gold for jobs well done in tournaments or spying in other courts, for building massive keeps and tremendous cathedrals, but the Word. It is given to all who believe and it is incumbent upon us, his disciples, then and now, to continue gifting this precious coin of God’s realm. He invites us to believe in him, in his mission and ministry and to accept the unconditional love of God. We do not walk on this journey of faith and social activism alone.
No, this is not a king that we’re used to. We get a glimpse of that kind of monarch in the book of Revelations, but is this really the Jesus that walked the earth and spoke to the people, upset the merchants and moneylenders in the Temple, healed and comforted? Matched wits with the Temple authorities and the Romans and won on so many levels?
If Jesus is the kind of king that sits on a throne with angels surrounding him as we approach the great audience chamber where the robes fill the room to the doors, I just bet that Jesus would also be the kind of man who would rise from his throne and extend a hand in greeting as he walked halfway down the hall to meet you, and offer an embrace and welcome you into the Kingdom of Heaven; he would be the person standing beside me as I help feed the hungry and clothe them, comfort the afflicted, and stand up to the comfortable.
*Encyclical Quas primas, 11 Dec. 1925