Reign of Christ 2017
This year I have been preaching on significant words in scripture for our faith. Today, the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar year has long been known as “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. These are fitting titles for the Sunday before a new liturgical year starts with the beginning of Advent. However, it can be awkward for a sermon series based on single words. “King” is not the best fit when trying to grasp gender neutrality and, well “Reign of Christ” is just plain awkward as a word
So this week’s word, Sovereign. Thinking of the dictionary definition, it is a nice fit for Jesus: “Supreme ruler; possessing supreme or ultimate power.” Jesus Christ, ultimate ruler! Ultimate ruler of our lives. But what does that mean?
The whole Gospel of Matthew has been moving toward this dramatic parable, Jesus’ last formal teaching. The parable of the sheep and goats presents a majestic picture of the triumphant Jesus reigning in glory as king and judge, sovereign!
The story begins with a glorious victory hymn: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…” The Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head is now seated on a royal throne as Sovereign. (Matt. 8:20) The Jesus who was accused of being an agent of Satan is now revealed as Lord of lords.(Matt. 12:24) The Jesus who was rejected by the hometown crowd is now exalted as judge of the whole human family.(Matt 13:54-58) The Jesus who resisted the devil’s temptation to throw himself down from the temple and let the angels take care of him, (Matt. 4:5-7) is now elevated in glory above all earthly temples and in command of the angels.
To top it off, all the nations of the earth, row after row of humanity, are gathered before his throne. As a shepherd of that time sometimes would divide the larger flock, separating the sheep from the less valuable goats, the Son of Man divides the people into “sheep” and “goats.” Good news for the “sheep.” They receive a divine blessing because they gave food, drink, hospitality, clothing and care for the Son of Man.
The “goats?” Well not so much because they supplied none of those ministries, even though the Son of Man was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison.
Simple story, right. Obvious lesson for life. Those who do good deeds are rewarded by the sovereign. Those who do not are punished. That’s a classic morality tale found in many of the world’s religions, do good, be nice to fellow humans, and you’ll make out all right.
But wait, there’s a catch. Did you notice it? The catch is this, the “sheep” had no idea that in their compassion for people in need they were providing ministry to the Son of Man. At the same time, the “goats” had no clue that their apathy toward others was in fact neglecting the Lord of all nations. The “sheep” and the “goats” were taken by surprise: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?” (Matt. 25:44)
The sovereign’s reply knocks all of them for another loop. Whenever they acted – or failed to act – compassionately “to one of the least of these who are members if my family, you did it to me.” This is the focal point of the entire passage, that Jesus Christ is present in “the least of these who are members of my family.”
It is a profound, radical statement. It is a shocking vision. Neither the sheep nor the goats recognized Christ because they assumed that the majestic, triumphant Lord of all time would appear as a powerful presence.
But that is not God’s way in the world. Isaiah proclaimed: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him…He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” (Isa. 53:2-3) This is a different kind of sovereign.
There are three important ideas about what this sovereign means for the world.
The first is about God. God is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out in the far reaches of the universe. Jesus is telling us, God is here. God is here in the messiness and ambiguity of life. God is here, in your neighbor who needs you.
If you want to see the face of God, look as the sheep in the parable did, into the face of one who is in need. See the face of God in the homeless woman on the street corner. See the face of God in the family forced to stay in a motel. See the face of God in the inmate whose crime spree locked him behind bars. See the face of God in the woman next to you in the pew as she helplessly watches her child’s marriage break-up. See the face in the fellow behind you who was downsized last week. Look into the weak, the vulnerable, the children, God is there.
The second radical thing about this story is what it says about our practice of religion. You cannot read the paper, or catch stories on the internet and not be concerned about the role of religion in the world. Terrible atrocities are committed by people shouting “God is great.” Religious officials hide clergy abuse or deny sacraments to those with whom thy disagree. Religious leaders condemn each other, invest inordinate amounts of money fighting each other over who gets in and who is kept out. We fight over whose doctrinal statements are true and whose are false. There is a laundry list of issues about which Jesus said nothing, yet we go on fighting.
Jesus did say this, however, “when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
It is worth noting, that in the only New Testament description of the last judgment, Matthew 25 there is no one word about creeds, or theologies, or orthodoxies. There is nothing here about denominations or religious practices. There is only one criterion here: whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself way in love in his name.
Which brings me to the third important thing about this text. And it is not social or political or economic or religious. It is personal. This God wants not only a world molded on Jesus as sovereign, God wants us, each of us. God is a God of love who, in the language of a revival, wants to save our souls. God wants to save our souls, redeem us and give us the gift of true, deep, authentic human life.
God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love. God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see every other human beings as God sees them, as people in need. People who need us.
God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others.
That’s God’s favorite project: teaching you and me the fundamental lesson of the majestic, ultimate ruling sovereign, the secret, the eternal truth, that to love is to live.