26 November 2017

"Christ the King?" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
November 26, 2017
Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

So you may have already guessed, from the white-and-gold banners that we have hanging today, and the hymns we are singing, and from the bulletin – today is Christ the King Sunday, also known as the Reign of Christ Sunday.  This week, we get to pull out all of the stops and celebrate the majesty of Christ.  If we had someone in the congregation who plays the trumpet, we could have fanfares.  For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reading parables about how we wait for the coming kingdom of God, but today we get to celebrate this kingdom, when Jesus Christ will rule over the whole universe and everything in it.

And the reading from Matthew assigned for today – this is one of the classic Christ the King readings.  Jesus is talking about the end of time when he, the Son of Man, will come in his glory, surrounded by angels, and sit on the throne as a king in order to judge all of the people of every time and every place.

This is probably one of the better-known passages of scripture – the separation of the sheep and the goats.  It is often referred to as a parable, but if you look closely, it is more like a simile or metaphor – the king separates the people like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.  From that point forward, the judgement refers to people, not sheep!

Can you imagine acting out this judgement in church one day?  Everyone who self-identifies as a sheep – head over to this side of the room; and everyone who self-identifies as a goat – head over to the other side.  Which side would you choose?  But in Jesus’ description, the people on both sides are surprised to find themselves where they are.  Both sides ask Jesus, “Lord, when was it that I did or didn’t take care of you?”

So maybe instead, I should choose what side everyone goes to.  After all, the sheep and the goats don’t get to choose – the king sitting on the throne of judgement is the one who separates them.  So you, over to that side; you, over to that side; you, head on over there.

Actually, it’s a bit of a relief that I don’t have to do that.  I wouldn’t want the responsibility of deciding who gets to inherit the kingdom of God prepared for you from the foundation of the world; versus those who need to go to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  I’m relieved that we are told not just that we don’t have to judge others, but that we aren’t allowed to judge others.

So Jesus the King is on his throne, clothed in glory, judging everyone who comes before him – inherit the kingdom, go to the eternal fire, inherit the kingdom, go to the eternal fire.  A very awe-filled image.

I have to confess though; giving Jesus the title of King gives me some difficulties. 

First of all, there is the word King.  Think of what you know about kings from history class.  The history of countries that are governed by a monarchy is usually peppered with intrigue and violence and treachery, in a quest to rule.  Think of the popularity of the Game of Thrones books and TV series – the violence and backstabbing (literal and figurative) that the characters go through in order to win the ultimate prize – the throne of Westeros.  Or when I think about the British royal family today, I think most of all about tabloids and scandals.  With all of this baggage attached to the word “King,” how can we dare to call Christ our king?

Things weren’t that different in the time when Jesus was living.  The word King was closely associated with the Roman Empire, with the Emperor in Rome having control over all lands under Roman control.  There was intrigue and murder in the succession of Emperors, scrambling for the absolute power that the position gave.  And the Emperor ruled through oppression and force.  If you tow the party line, you will be fine; but if you dare to speak or act against the empire, you will be nailed to a cross.

There were kings in the history of the people of Israel as well.  Most immediately, there were the Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian kings, whose armies had taken turns controlling the land that the people had been given by God.  Before that, there were the royal family trees of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel stretching right back to King David, the first king.  Of the 43 kings, the bible tells us that 7 of them were good in the eyes of God.  Which leaves 36 who did evil; which usually meant worshiping other gods and neglecting the needs of the poor.  With all of this history attached to kings in the land of Israel, how can we dare call Christ our king?

Are we supposed to imagine a triumphant Jesus, wearing a golden crown, sitting on the throne of heaven ruling over the world with absolute power, the way our earthly kings do?  That is certainly how many generations of the church have imagined it.  If you do a Google Images search for pictures of Christ the King, you will come up with icons and stained glass windows that try to out-do one another in portraying Jesus with a crown of gold or jewels, robed in crimson or purple, the colours of royalty, arms outstretched, holding a sceptre of power.  Our king Jesus is more powerful than your king, and he will blast you all to smithereens, the same way that the powerful kings of history have done.  Is this the way we imagine Christ the King?  One more despot sitting on the throne, but this one more powerful than the ones that came before; and more importantly, this one is on our side?  This one is bringing us into the inner circle of power so that we can have a say in how the world is run?  Is this Christ our King?

So as well-loved as this passage is, how can we celebrate Christ the King without ending with the violence and intrigue associated with the word “king”?

The thing with this story though, is that it plays with the time-space continuum.  While Jesus Christ is found on the throne of judgement, that isn’t the only place that he is found in the story.  Jesus Christ is also found in all who are hungry, all who are thirsty, all who are strangers, all who have no possessions, all who are sick, and all who are in prison.  Jesus identifies with the poorest and the least in this world; and Jesus tells his disciples that the way in which they treat the poorest and the least is the way that they treat Jesus Christ himself.

So we have Jesus identified with the king who sits in judgement, as well as with everyone who is trampled by society.  This is a more complicated image of a king than we normally see.  And if you look even more closely, Jesus takes on a third identity in this reading.

In the very first line of this story, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man.  This reminds us that Jesus, the story-teller, is the one who will be tortured and who will die on the cross, and who will be resurrected on the third day.  This is a very different kind of king.  This is a king who doesn’t sit on the throne of glory, but who is enthroned on a cross.  This is a king who doesn’t wear a golden crown, but who wears a crown of thorns.  This is a king who chooses the power of silence when he is brought before the earthly powers of this world, rather than repaying violence with violence; and by doing so, he breaks the cycles of violence that rule this world.  This is a king who chooses to empty himself of all of his godly powers, and who chooses to die on the cross rather than blasting his enemies and leaping down from the cross.

Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, is Jesus Christ, the judge on the throne of glory, is Jesus Christ who is one with the hungry and thirsty and stranger and homeless and sick and prisoner.

And all of this has some very profound implications to us today.  I would contend that proclaiming that Christ is our king is the most powerful and dangerous claim that we can make.  When we declare our allegiance to Christ the King, we are saying that we don’t owe our allegiance to anything in this world.  Christ the King has an absolute claim on everything in our lives.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that no earthly ruler can be our king.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that we don’t live by the violent systems of this world.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that we will not repay violence with violence.  When we proclaim that Jesus is king, we are saying that we won’t be ruled by a thirst for money or a thirst for power, or a thirst for celebrity.  When we proclaim that Jesus is our king, we are saying that we belong to a kingdom that is free from fear.

And when we as a community declare our allegiance to Christ the king, when we tell the world that we are on the side of God through Jesus Christ, then God’s coming kingdom can bubble up into our little corner of the world here in Chetwynd, and the whole world can see that we have been changed by this one whom we call king.

We follow a king who chose the power of weakness instead of the power of violence, and who broke the cycles of violence in our world.  By calling ourselves followers of Christ, we are committing ourselves to this kingdom too.

And so I ask the same question that I asked early on – do you self-identify as a sheep on the right hand of the judge, or as a goat on the left hand?  Do you stand in awe before Jesus Christ the king who is sitting on that throne of glory?  Do you see the face of Jesus Christ in the face of everyone you meet who is hungry or homeless or sick, or in prison?  Do you proclaim your allegiance to a kingdom of peace that runs contrary to every value that our world seems to hold?

So yes, let us celebrate Christ the King as we look forward to the reign of Christ.  But let’s not forget what this kingdom really means.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
Blow your Holy Spirit through us,
            uniting us, and making us one with Christ.
Help us to be a place
            where your kingdom can come.
Help us to show the world
            that there is a different way to be.
We pray this in the name of Christ our King.

(Christ the King?)