November 23, 2014

Christ the King Sunday Year A

On this final Sunday of the church year, the feast of Christ the King, our Gospel looks to the future, and paints a picture of how it will be when Christ returns in glory. Jesus presents this picture sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph. He is teaching in the temple as the day of his death approaches.

The scene he describes is marked by surprise. Both the righteous and the unrighteous are shocked to discover that the needy people they helped or ignored are regarded by Christ the King as his sisters and brothers, members of his family. What's done for them he considers done for him. Where they are neglected, he regards himself as neglected.

To follow Jesus means more than to believe the right things. It means to act on what you believe to be the right things, not knowing what the consequences of our actions will be. And in much of life, what makes the difference, what tips the scale, is often something which in itself seems small.

The gospel reading for us today is the third of three parables Jesus tells. It’s a story about judgment, that theme rung so often in Matthew, with those unsettling stories and stark warnings. It’s a story about the end of this world, and the beginning of the reign of Christ in the kingdom of God. Jesus is on the throne of glory, with all the nations gathered in front of him. He’s sorting them all out—sheep on the right, goats on the left.

This story is sometimes called “The Final Judgment.” But some have suggested that a better title would be “The Great Surprise.”

Christ the King welcomes the sheep, saying, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The righteous say, “Who, me?”  “When did I do that?” or maybe even, “Hey, I don’t know you—I never saw you before in my life.”

Those on the left hand of the King are surprised too.  They don’t expect to be sent off to eternal fire.  It seems like they knew what they were supposed to do, and they thought they had done it. They thought they were the righteous. They say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

So both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the king.

But what Jesus expects is no surprise. The prophets told us again and again to care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and visit the prisoner. The good news is that these are all surprisingly simple things. We’ve all done them, at some time or other. Sometimes we’ve done them unselfconsciously, responding in love to the need we see in others, like those righteous sheep.

Other times, maybe our motives are mixed. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to look good to other people or to God. We do something out of duty or guilt - instead of love. But notice, Jesus doesn’t send anyone off for having a bad attitude.

Feed the hungry, give a drink to those who are thirsty, give clothing to those who need it, welcome the stranger, visit people who are sick or in prison. These are simple things that anyone can do, and yet they often go undone. At some time or other, we have all turned away from the need we see all around us. We find ways to separate ourselves from those people—making ourselves the judge.

Or, we turn away because we’re afraid of each other.

Or, we’re too busy to get to know our neighbors.

Or, sometimes we just can’t stand to look at all the need around us. Sometimes it seems overwhelming, and what can one person do, anyway?

So the bad news is, we’re all goats, at least some of the time. Because when we turn away from each other, we turn away from Jesus. When we separate ourselves from one another, we separate ourselves from God.

The good news is that the shepherd won’t give up on us. He comes to gather the flock that has scattered. He comes to bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. He comes to seek the lost.

Francis of Assisi was born into a noble family in the 12th Century in Italy.  As a young man, he was the worst type of spoiled, rich kid. Legend has it that after one of his trips away from home, as Francis was riding his horse toward Assisi, he saw a leper next to the road.  Although lepers were every bit as feared and as loathsome in the 12th Century as they were in Jesus’ day, for some reason Francis dismounted and walked over to the leper.  He gave the man all the money in his pocket – and then, extraordinarily, he took the man’s hand and kissed it.  As he put his lips to the leprous flesh, Francis felt at peace for the first time.  He hugged the man, previously considered untouchable and gave him the kiss of peace on his cheek.  The man kissed Francis’ cheek in return.  Francis then got back on his horse and rode away.  As he turned to look back at the leper, the man was gone – and Francis knew that he had met Jesus himself.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to heal this whole world by ourselves, only to respond to the need that is right in front of us. He doesn’t ask us to act alone. He calls us as a community, to share in the working out of his great love.

Amazingly, we do that in all our small acts of love and service. They might not seem like much. But God works through all of it, in ways we see and in ways we don’t.

Little by little, the eyes of our hearts are enlightened, so we can see Jesus in one another. Then, we can share God’s own vision and join God’s own work.

To share that work is eternal life, and it begins now.

So, sheep and goats, come to the table and receive the riches of God.

Come, and be filled.