Sunday, November 26, 2023

Christ the King: A Sermon for the Last Sunday After Pentecost Year A


At long last, we've reached the end of this very long season of "After Pentecost." Ready or not, Advent is coming...and that means new projects to run alongside that idea that we're supporsed to be "waiting with anticipation" the coming of Christ. Seems the way of the church is to get as busy as possible before Jesus shows up!! 

I'm taking on a fun, and ambitious, project of doing a staged reading of the Gospel of Mark. The script is almost 90 pages, meaning that this will probably take anywhere from 90-100 minutes to do this reading. I'm hoping we'll get an audience for it. It's slated to go up on Saturday, February 10th. So we'll see what happens.

OK...back to today. I found myself this year bothered by the idea of "Christ the KING." It isn't the Christ part that was troubling; I'm really cool with the idea of Jesus being the head of things. 

It's this "King" business which was troubling. There are a lot of political leaders these days who think that they are the King of the country, or the city, or the state. The Matthew Gospel has the king deciding who are sheep and who are goats...something that...again...our political leaders have engaged in this behavior way too much lately. 

So most of this sermon was really me wrestling with these questions...and taking the congregation on a ride with me. See what you think.

Texts: Ephesians 1: 15-23; Matthew 25: 31-46


Good morning! And welcome to the Last Sunday After Pentecost…also known as Christ the King Sunday.

It’s odd to call this Christ the King Sunday.

One could argue that in any Christian Church…Christ ought to be King every Sunday.

And it was relatively recent history that this last Sunday following Pentecost became Christ the King Sunday.

This whole idea started in 1925 with Pope Pius XI.

At the end of World War I…there was growing secularism in Europe and fascism was beginning to take root.

The Pope decided the best way to combat these dual pressures on the church was to declare…emphatically…that Christ is King and to mark a particular Sunday…the last one in October right before All Saints’ Day… as Christ the King Sunday.

In 19-69…Pope Paul VI thought the Last Sunday After Pentecost…and right before Advent… was the better placement for the celebration of Jesus as Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

And so that’s where we are today.

This celebration of Christ the King does raise some interesting questions for us in our time...particularly when we think about that whole history of how this day came to be a special day on the church calendar.

Just as in the era of the 1920s…we here in the 2020s are living at a time when more and more people are identifying as “Nones.”

That’s N-O-N-E-S.

They’re not interested in Christianity or any religious group.

In this country and around the world…our politics are skewing in the direction of authoritarianism…a system which centralizes power to a few and demands loyalty to an ethic that runs counter to that of a God of Love and Prince of Peace.

Perhaps we need to make a renewal of our commitment to this idea of Christ as King.

But then that poses another problem.

We live in a pluralistic society…one where we must contend with the idea that not all people who profess a faith in God also understand Jesus as the Son of God…let alone believe in a God who comes to us as the Holy Spirit, too.

We have a very particular understanding of who Jesus is.

And our thoughts on Jesus are not the same as our fellow descendants from our Biblical ancestor Abraham.

And then there are Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans: oh, my! They too live in our society…and they worship in a faith that calls them to a higher good for all creation.

It might then seem a bit arrogant for us to assert Christ as King.

Here’s the good news: we don’t have to diminish Jesus or shy away from our belief in Jesus as Christ the King.

We can have our beliefs about Christ as King and love and accept our siblings of other traditions or no-traditions at all.

Because they’re not excluded from the kingdom of God in Christ…even if they don’t profess Jesus as the Son of God.

One of the early church fathers…Irenaeus… found this hope for inclusion of all in the Letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning.

For Irenaeus… this passage reiterates the idea that Jesus’ life, ministry, and death was in fact for all of humanity…and not just an exclusive few believers.

Jesus came into the world to be a Second Adam… restoring all people to the right relationship with God that was lost in the Garden of Eden.

The twentieth century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer also emphasized that point. In his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” Bonhoeffer says that Christ wasn’t just a person; he was the person who represents all of humanity…no divisions between people. He is all people…and came as a savior for all of the world.

Karl Rahner…another twentieth century Jesuit priest and theologian…put forward an even more radical and controversial theory.

Rahner suggested that people who never heard the Gospel are “anonymous Christians”…having benefitted from Christ without even knowing it. His theory was highly influential on the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II statement. The Roman Church had to struggle with its antisemitism following World War II and the Holocaust. Rahner’s theory helped them find their way toward issuing an apology.

All this sounds fantastic, right?

It keeps asserting that Christ is King.

But then what about this passage from Matthew’s Gospel?

Aren’t some people sheep and others goats?

Doesn’t this sound like a more exclusive…only Christians get eternal life…talk?

I suppose one could read it that way…. if we believe that only Christians do the clothing of people, feeding them, offering them water when they’re thirsty, being kind to strangers, visiting the sick and those in prison.

But we know that’s not true.

In fact, we know plenty of people who call themselves “Christian” who not only don’t do these things; they have invested more time and energy in attacking fellow followers of Christ.

We can see that playing out right now with our siblings in the Methodist church.

And even the Southern Baptist Convention has turned on some of its own.  

The English hymnwriter and minister Samuel John Stone captured this well with these words in the old standard “The Church’s One Foundation”:

“Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed

By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.”

Thank goodness Stone completes that stanza with “soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song!”

When we sit in judgment of each other…deciding who is a sheep and who is a goat…we’re putting ourselves in that seat at the right hand of God…and making ourselves King or Queen of the universe.

I think if we are honest with ourselves…we’re all bouncing back and forth between being a sheep and being a goat.

There are days when we get it all right… and others where we fall short of this expectation that we will care for the least and lowest among us…either out of ignorance or exhaustion or both.

What I think is so telling about this vision of the kingdom is that those who Jesus declares as “righteous” and even those who are “unrighteous” are totally taken off-guard.

Both groups are like, “Huh? When did I do all that?” or “We never saw you in need? When did we miss that?”

The message seems to be that we can’t know which group we’re in.

Nor should we be so quick to assume which camp we belong to.

What we can do is take in the lessons Jesus teaches through the Gospels…trust in the power of God’s love…and then do our best to emulate Christ…both in our giving and receiving.

By making that our priority…and our ethic of living…we establish Christ as the King of our hearts and minds.

In that way we can only hope for a world where God’s kingdom will not only come on earth as it is in heaven…but will be seen and experienced through us.

In the name of God…F/S/HS.


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