Sermon for November 26, 2017: Christ the King and the Sheep and the Goats (The Rev. Dr. Deborah Whit
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
You may have noticed that Jesus’ preaching has gotten tough lately. In recent parables, he has said that anyone can enter the kingdom of God – but they can also be kicked out for wearing the wrong clothes. He has taught that people can be shut out of the eternal banquet simply for forgetting to pack enough lamp oil. And he has suggested that a person can be thrown into the outer darkness for having poor investment strategies. Today, he is making the final selections for eternity. Forget about Cal versus Stanford. It’s the sheep versus the goats – and the outcome is final: winners inherit the kingdom of God and losers are thrown into eternal fire. So, are you ready? Are you ready for the judgment day?
That’s not a question Episcopalians like to talk about. First of all, we believe that we are saved by our faith in God, who alone can redeem us from our sins. Secondly, the whole idea of an actual, literary “judgment day” seems pretty questionable. We know that some Christians believe that the last judgment will come in the context of the end of the physical world with floods, plagues, war, famine, and fire, and that ultimately Jesus will appear, riding at the head of a column of angelic soldiers to destroy the evil of the world and bring about God’s kingdom on the earth. It will be victory for the righteous and death for the sinner.
But that scenario is hard for some of us to swallow. We’d rather think about judgment day as something figurative. Because a Jesus who punishes – a Jesus who judges without mercy – a Jesus who slaughters non-believers, is not the Jesus we know. The Jesus we know was born in a cave. The Jesus we know knelt on the ground and washed the feet of peasants. The Jesus we know was a teacher, a preacher, and a friend – certainly not the King presented in today’s gospel. This Jesus is a judgmental ruler who sits at God’s right hand in a heavenly place – far above all earthly rule and authority -and puts everything under his feet. This Jesus judges us in a very non-hypothetical way. This Jesus is the focus of a feast day celebrating his status as our king and judge – and on that day – on this day – we are asked if we are ready for that judgment day. No wonder modern Christians are ambivalent about the Feast of Christ the King. No wonder today is called “The Sunday of Doom” in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden.
There are more significant reasons that today’s Christians might have issues with this feast day. The idea of Jesus as a king is pretty confounding. After all, Jesus spent a great deal of his earthly ministry condemning authority figures. He spoke often about mercy and he commanded his followers to treat everyone with love. Yet according to the gospel writer, when the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will sit on a throne and judge as a king. And when does, he will not forgive the sins of those who failed to follow his commandments. He will not act with mercy. He will not unify us as one people. This is incredibly inconsistent with what we believe about Jesus. That is why some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus was actually being ironic in this passage. That he was, in essence, mocking the very idea of power and authority by suggesting that he could – or would – sit in judgment over his disciples.
Perhaps he was. But, if so, his sarcasm seems to have been lost on many people. Because the desire for justice against your enemies is consistent with what many people want. Look at the early Christians. They were oppressed people who were waiting for a Messiah to save them from their trials. There was no precedent for a savior who was poor and humble and gentle. The idea of a messiah who allowed himself to be killed by the Romans made no sense. What good is a savior who can’t save? What good is a leader who can’t mete out justice? What good is a king without a crown?
So the writer of Matthew gave his community what they wanted: a king who has the power and might to hand out justice to evil doers. There’s just one catch: non-believers aren’t the only ones who will be judged. Christians will be too. This passage is one of the principle arguments for the importance of works over faith. Adherents to this theology argue that we are to be judged not by what we believe, but by what we do. That is the opposite of what we profess when we say that we believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins – and that his sacrifice was sufficient to save us once and for all. So which is it? Grace or works? Faith or service? Which of these makes us Christian?
I would suggest that the answer is “both.” Whether or not we believe that Jesus will appear on a heavenly throne to judge us, it is crucial that we look at ourselves and ask ourselves not only what we believe, but also whether we act according to our beliefs. Matthew tells his community exactly what many of us tell our own children, “You don’t have to be the best child in the world -just be the best you you can be.” The gospel writer declares that yes, Jesus can save them and yes, Jesus can indeed put their enemies under his feet, but he also instructs them to act based on what they believe. In other words, we must be the best Christians we can be. And that means that Christianity cannot end with coffee hour.
What Matthew’s gospel is saying is that it is not how we act when we eat and drink together that matters, it is whether the people outside of our community have anything to eat and drink at all. It turns out that Christ the King – this judgmental Jesus that seems so alien to many of us – is the same Jesus who loved the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden. “Come to me you that are blessed,” he says, “for I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” Feed the hungry. Clothe the poor. Love the stranger. That’s the Jesus we know. The Christ who Matthew’s gospel identifies as our judge is the same good shepherd who seeks us out when we stray, binds up our wounds when we are injured, and strengthens us when we are weak. But he is far less accessible when we are too strong, too full, too powerful. When we put our own interests above those of others. When we fail to feed the hungry. When we forget to welcome the stranger. When our Christianity stops at the church door.
It is those values – Jesus’ values – that we must make real in the world. Belief is not enough to call ourselves Christian. Belief brings us into the good shepherd’s fold, but within the fold we are held accountable for what we have done in the name of our beliefs. This accounting is not figurative or relative. We can’t say, “Well, I did better than those people,” or “But those people don’t believe in God at all.”
Luckily, our God has given us the standard by which we, as Christians, have agreed to live. That standard is love. Love not only for those we love, but for those who hate us. Love not only for other Christians, but for strangers. Love not only for those in our household, but even more for those beyond it.
Christ the King Sunday gives us the opportunity to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death with the vision of a glorious, majestic Christ. But it is the prophetic Jesus – the poor, humble, broken Jesus – that is our guide. Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we enter the season of Advent, when the church calendar starts again, giving us a fresh opportunity to live out our faith. It is time to make our Christian New Year’s resolutions- resolutions that will prepare us for our judgment day. So let us resolve – let us resolve to remember our baptismal vows to love one another. Let us resolve to live our lives – all of our lives – according to what we profess we believe. And let us resolve that when we see anyone hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked we will remember that each of those people is one and the same as our savior Jesus Christ. And if we can do that, then perhaps when we are asked if we are ready for the judgment day, we can say, “Yes, teacher. Yes, Saviour. Yes, yes, yes, my Lord.” AMEN.