The Reign of Christ
Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal
This morning we come to the end of the story of our Christian year, which is always a deep dive into one of the three synoptic Gospels, proclaimed, in a slightly different way, in each of the three years of our lectionary cycle. [If you want to hear this sermon preached, it begins about 14 minutes after the start of this recording on youtube.]
So we are about to close the book of Matthew, and next week, open the book of Mark. Our story ends with today’s Feast of Christ the King.
If this is the climax of a whole year, the culmination of our evangelion, our evangelization by the Good News, what kind of an end is it? We’ve been walking for a year with Jesus. What desire is being fulfilled? Have our hearts been burning to see the sheep and the goats separated? Well, maybe, if we’re able to be honest for a moment. Especially if we think we know who those nasty goats are, and what has to happen to them. But careful, careful ….
It is all too human sometimes, especially when times are tough, to want to make sure that we know who the goodies and the baddies are. And we want somebody to take charge and fix things. Almost always somebody ELSE. So we don’t have to do too much heavy lifting. Generally speaking, this does not end well. Let me remind that it didn’t end well when the people of Israel told Samuel they wanted a king. Here’s an excerpt from I Samuel 8 which I’ve tried to edit for brevity:
“When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges for Israel. ….They turned aside seeking dishonest gain and accepting bribes and perverting justice. So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
But this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” Samuel told them: “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.” And so on, and so on, until “You yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. The LORD answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
So, Samuel gave them first Saul, which was kind of a bad first draft. And then he gave them David. And Jesus is still proclaimed to be Son of David, notably in the genealogy that begins the New Testament, in which Matthew’s gospel is placed first, because it consciously tries to keep a continuity with the Hebrew scriptures. So it’s not surprising in the last two months we have been swamped with different iterations of the question, Who is Jesus? Is he the king? What is the kingdom? Together with some very curious parables about the kingdom that are both baffling and paradoxical.
Not only did Jesus’ contemporaries not quite get it, his circle seemed also to be … at best confused.
Today’s gospel repeats key themes from earlier in Matthew, and we remember that scene where the mother of James and John asks Jesus to “declare that these two sons of mine will sit one at your right hand and one at your left in your kingdom. ” To which Jesus replies (this is in Chapter 20: 24-28)
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. And whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave. Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”
We also heard in today’s gospel a strong echo of the Beatitudes, which turn the idea of privilege on its head.
Not only that, there’s more.
If we had not stopped reading this morning’s gospel exactly where we did, but gone on for one more sentence, we would have heard what Jesus said next: “In two days, as you know, it will be the Passover Festival, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
It’s in the light of the cross that we proclaim Christ as our king. This is not a position of privilege. The actual crucifixion was gruesome, and people who were crucified were intentionally being completely degraded. They were actually crucified naked. Although we see some artistic drapes of cloth around their bodies in our depictions, that’s not the way it happened. It was a shameful way to be hoisted up and to be displayed, nevermind to die. Still would be.
Although that image is not one that was always used. The image of Christ on the cross in earlier part of Christian history showed Jesus there–the marks of nails still in his hands and feet–but wearing a crown and king’s robes, to show the transformation of Christ after his death. To show how he would rule beyond death, and conquer death.
If this is the king that we are to serve today, on our patronal festival: How is this possible? How is this much service possible? How is this much sacrifice possible?
We like to think, because we are western people, living in comfort, that we have the ability to choose Christ. But it’s really Christ who chooses us.
Last week Jen Bourque spoke very eloquently about the love and faithfulness that we enjoy not as individual Christians but as members of a community that has for decades, for more than a century, held its beliefs together and served each other and kept each other company as we tried to do these very hard things, and the joy of that, and the privilege of that. You can find her sermon here. (It starts about about 24 minutes into the youtube recording).
When we celebrate this feast of Christ the King, what we are doing is acclaiming the very possibility of regime change. And it’s not heroic behaviour that’s going to change it, either, none of our by ourselves are heroes, but simple servant ministry, what used to be called corporeal works of mercy.
One of my spiritual teachers gave an example of how this works. Imagine I have a friend who’s sick. It’s the middle of the winter and it’s cold, and I’m going out to visit my friend. Now, I can do that in a grudging way. I can let myself feel how cold it is and tired I am, and how played out I am at this whole thought. Or, if I really love my friend, I can forget how cold it is. I can suddenly discover that I’m doing exactly what I want to do. It doesn’t make it a pleasant task. I’m still putting myself out. But I’m doing it with a kind of strength I didn’t even know I had.
That’s the kind of energy we can get when we put ourselves in Christ’s service. (We call it Christ’s service. There are people who do that who don’t use Christ’s name, but do the same service–They’re doing it in love, and they’re doing it in a capacity to be present for the other person.)
Exactly when we might think it isn’t possible for us to make things better for ourselves or for anyone else, exactly when the darkness seems really dark, we are invited to consider that we have been already chosen for the kingdom. It doesn’t take a heroic act on our part, it just means settling into our identity as God’s children and co-workers with Jesus.
And as you proceed to experience the Eucharist this morning, I invite you to think about the language that’s used there about Jesus’ self giving and to realise that when we receive Christ that’s what we are receiving. We’re not receiving a crown, we’re receiving the capacity to act in love, more than we knew we could.
Next week, and in all the weeks of anticipation that follow it, as the season of Advent, begins, we are going to set aside this vision of Christ in glory, and set aside the answer we have barely been able to touch today, because words aren’t very good at reaching it, and return to this question again…. In the words of the ancient responsory antiphon that we’ll sing next week, I hope:
“I look from afar: and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth. Go ye out to meet him and say: Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people?”
And I hope the answer is, “Yes, Lord, Yes.” Amen
The associated image is a photo by Tony Fisher, Jesus Feeds the Hungry [The House of Mercy Mission, Newark NJ, one photo in a 12 photo set created for a photojournalism class at the New School in New York City] from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57785 [retrieved November 27, 2023]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonythemisfit/3254449443.