The Festival Day of
Christ the King
The Revd Deacon John Wilson
Readings: Ezek 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps 95:1-7a; Eph 1:15-23; Mt 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.”
Today, after several challenging parables from Jesus, we come to the central question: What will happen at the end of the story? Not only our individual stories, as mortal humans who will one day return to ashes, but the story of history itself.
Unlike many other Eastern religions or philosophies that conceptualise history as cyclical –an Eternal Return – the Jewish tradition, as well as Christianity that flows from it, conceptualises history as building to a climax. The Day of Judgment looms off in the horizon, a paradox that simultaneous inspires both fear as well as hope. The end is coming, but it will also represent a new beginning; a day when the world will finally be made right, but in doing so, will also need to be remade. There will be continuity between this world and the next, but also discontinuity – a major break, like the transfigured body of Christ after the resurrection. However, beyond these rough outlines, we are left with a great deal of mystery surrounding what awaits us on the other side.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday which embodies this tension between the now and the not yet, the overlap between the Kingdom of God that has been inaugurated but has not yet been fully realised. It has only been part of the liturgical calendar for about a century, and part of me wonders if it represented a response to the horror of the First World War, a correction to the naïve pre-war triumphalism of Enlightenment humanism, but simultaneously also a reminder that the darkness of this world will not last forever.
For me personally, this Sunday has special significance, because it is the Sunday I was confirmed on. Unlike many ‘cradle-Anglicans’, my story more resembles the Prodigal Son, and much of my early life was spent wandering spiritually. Yet finally, after several decades of theological wrestling, when I was confirmed as an Anglican in London on Christ the King Sunday, it was like finally coming home.
Interestingly, this Sunday is also known as ‘Stir up’ Sunday, not because it’s the day to stir up the Christmas pudding as is commonly believed, but rather because the traditional Collect begins with the line, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”. That is because Christ the King marks the end of the liturgical year – and appropriately carries with it an eschatological dimension. The Church calendar begins with Advent, the coming of Christ into this world, and builds toward its conclusion, when Christ returns in glory, mirroring the end of time in general.
Our reading this morning from the Gospel of Matthew seemingly creates more challenges and tensions than it resolves.
Jesus describes a judgment between sheep and goats, those who will share in the eternal blessings of his kingdom, and those who won’t. Furthermore, the criterion used to distinguish between the two seems excessively concrete and sits in tension with other New Testament writings that emphatically deny a person can/will be saved based on the quantity of their good works or lack thereof. After all, the man hanging on the cross next to Jesus who decided to believe lacked the opportunity to atone for his previous wrongs.
Core to the Gospel is that it is Jesus who saves, not the balance-sheet of our good works. We are invited to put on his righteousness, not our own. But what then should we make of this passage?
While in our minds sheep and goats probably look a lot different to one another, in the Middle East, the sheep – both back then as well as now – were brown with black patches, as opposed to white and fluffy. In Texas, my parents had a flock of similar sheep, and unless you knew the difference, looked almost indistinguishable from goats, which is part of the point of the parable. Not only were the sheep and goats living amongst each other, but even they themselves were mistaken about which group they belonged to.
It is easy to identify as Christians, think that we are, on balance, good people, and yet live a relatively self-centred life. And that tension between sheep and goats sits at the heart of our readings today. What will ultimately happen on the Last Day? How will Jesus – born the Son of Man, but reigns as the King of Glory – respond to us when we stand before him at the end of time?
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus gave a double answer – to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind – and to love your neighbour as yourself. These are the fundamental postures of the heart of those who choose to make Jesus their Lord.
In this teaching, Jesus is not saying that if you feed the hungry and care for the sick and homeless you will be saved, and if you don’t, an unpleasant fate awaits you. Rather he points out that a person’s concrete actions betray the true state of their heart. Ultimately, the goats neither loved God with all their heart, soul, and mind, nor did they love their neighbour as themselves.
It is so easy to become absorbed in our daily lives. Yet, the liturgical calendar invites us to reflect on the state of our hearts and the inherent tensions and directions of our life and faith once again.
At university, I took a class in Creative Writing, and I still remember one of the poems I wrote. It began with the question, “Where will I be standing when trumpets resound, calling forth ancient men, embalmed in righteousness?”
As we celebrate Christ the King and enter the season of Advent, that question still comes to mind – Where am I standing in the grand scheme of things? And for that matter, where does any of us stand?