“King of Kings, Lord of Lords” Colchester Federated Church, November 26, 2017, (Matthew 25:31-46) Reign of Christ Sunday

In Seminary there was one class that I really wanted to take, and waited until the last semester of my final year to sign up—it was Seasons of Celebration: Worshipping through the Liturgical Year with Mary Luti, undoubtedly one of the best professors at Andover Newton. This class was designed to help us think creatively about worship and better understand the rhythms and feast and fast days of the Christian year.  We dealt with worship controversies!  Can you sing Christmas Carols during Advent?  Should you read the Passion of Jesus Christ on Palm Sunday?  Should the pastor wash peoples’ feet on Maundy Thursday?  How should we commemorate All Saints Day?

Now some of you may be thinking, who cares about stuff like that and you’d better not ever wash my feet without advanced warning.  When serving my church in Wellesley I brought up the possibility of washing each other’s feet before a women’s retreat and was promptly scolded that I had better give them advanced warning if that was going to happen so that everyone could get pedicures beforehand.  You know because Jesus’ disciples certainly got pedicures before he washed their feet on Maundy Thursday, but whatever!  These are rather interesting worship controversies when you learn more about them.  So over all this class enabled us to think critically about long-standing Christian traditions and local practices in congregations and challenge it all.  But we’ve always done it that way wasn’t a good enough reason to keep every tradition.

Because of Mary and the Seasons of Celebration worship class, our whole class came to see this Sunday in the church calendar as a unique Sunday.  Technically, the first Sunday of Advent begins the Western Christian Liturgical year—that’s next Sunday.  So this Sunday (Reign of Christ Sunday or Christ the King Sunday as some traditions call it) acts as a bridge between the last Sunday of Ordinary Time (last Sunday) and the beginning of Advent (next Sunday.)  This is a day of transition, as we’ve been reading texts about signs of the end times—like the 10 Bridesmaids and their oil controversy or the Parable of the Talents.  We’re soon going to be reading texts about the future.  Texts about the one who will come into the world to show us a different way.  But today, today we get to see a glimpse of the glory of the Son of Man.  And we get to think about his reign on earth right here and right now.

Our passage begins with the Son of Man coming in all his glory, “and all the angels with him.”[1]  It’s worth thinking—what would the Reign of Christ look like?  How is the Reign of God different from the way our governments function in all nations of the earth?  Increasingly, we can hear people get frustrated by politicians and the whole political system.  It seems like controversies are a constant these days and ethics and really working for one’s constituents doesn’t always happen.  The list goes on and on of politicians who have been unethical.  And it appears that our political climate is like Groucho Marx once said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”

So on this Reign of Christ Sunday, we get to consider what it would look like if Jesus Christ ruled the earth, really ruled the earth.  For one thing, people are judged as successful, good, righteous people based on pretty different standards from that of our earthly societies.  The righteous are judged to be righteous because they fed and quenched the thirst of the hungry, welcomed strangers, gave clothes to people who had none, took care of people who were sick, and visited prisoners.  Because they did all these things, they are judged by the Son of Man in all his glory to be righteous.

For the people who are accursed, they are judged to be so because they didn’t do any of those things.  There was an intentional turning away from those in need, ignoring vulnerable people.  Wealth and power after all can insulate us and allow us to put up literal or figurative walls to ignore those on the margins.

Actually a similar story line can be found in the Walt Disney movie Beauty and the Beast.  At the very beginning of the movie, before we meet Belle and Gaston and all the other characters, we see a gorgeous castle in the woods.  And here’s what the narrator says in the animated version anyway:

“Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind.  But then, one winter’s night, an old beggar woman came to the castle and offered him a single rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold.  Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the prince sneered at the gift and turned the old woman away.  But she warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.  And when he dismissed her again, the old woman’s ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress.  The prince tried to apologize, but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart.  And as punishment, she transformed him into a hideous beast and placed a powerful spell on the castle and all who lived there.”[2]

In the passage from Matthew, the accursed folk don’t exactly get transformed into beasts like the enchantress did to the unkind prince.  But the accursed are told that they are to depart from the Son of Man “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”[3]  Both the beginning of Beauty and the Beast and the punishment doled out in this passage are really harsh.  And it would be great if we could tie them up in a nice red ribbon and make it easier to handle.  None of us probably relish getting judged for our actions or lack thereof and possibly being condemned because we didn’t always do the right thing.  And there’s the whole faith versus works argument of the Protestant Reformation to think about too.

But what this passage points to (in the words of Worship scholar Laurence Hull Stooky) is that “God’s reign becomes a kind of metaphor by which to judge and on which to base human behavior.  Talk about the reign of God makes apparent the deficiencies of human rulers and provides clues as to what might make human governance more just.”[4]  We are to think about applying these principles to our life here on earth right now.  When we actually care for, clothe, and feed children of God, we are caring for, clothing, and feeding Jesus Christ himself.  That’s a powerful and important thought, a revolutionary one actually.  It’s no wonder that Jesus got into trouble with the religious and political authorities of his day all the time with teachings like this!

Taken within the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew is trying to distinguish Jesus’ teachings from those of other contemporary Jewish groups.  There was a lot of family fighting going on at the time, and Matthew often self-consciously has the habit of smugly saying anything you can do, we can do better.  We can’t forget that Jesus himself came from a humble background, and his place in society influenced his teachings.

New Testament scholar Raymond Brown reminds us that, “The admirable principle that the verdict is based on the treatment of the deprived outcasts is the Matthean Jesus’ last warning to his followers and to the church, demanding a very different religious standard both from that of those scribes and Pharisees criticized in chap. 23 and from that of the world that pays more attention to the rich and powerful.”[5]  Matthew is trying to say that the reign of Christ turns religious and political systems upside down and transforms the very way our society treats people.

The first will be last and the last will be first.  The righteous are those who help their brothers and sisters, not the ones who ignore those in need or turn old beggar women away from their castles on a winter’s night.  The people who are ignored by other religious authorities and government officials are to be cared for and loved as if we are loving and caring for Jesus himself.  That’s why the king in the passage says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[6]

The Reign of Christ is a radical and revolutionary concept to consider on this Reign of Christ Sunday.  If we allowed Jesus to rule the world, if we allowed Jesus’ ethical teachings to be the center of our common life together—things would look pretty different than they do now.  Thinking of God’s reign and what this looks like, thinking of God as the one ultimately in charge defies hopelessness.  We can’t control events as much as we would like.  We can’t single-handedly prevent senseless acts of violence carried out against people of faith like those worshipers in the mosque in Egypt.  Or people treating one another with disrespect and the ethical questions that keep arising in our society with women coming forward to talk about sexual harassment and abuse.

But here’s what we can do.  We can feed the hungry.  We can clothe the naked.  We can visit those in prison.  We can care for the sick.  We can welcome the stranger.  And when we do, the future looks brighter for everyone.  When we do, we’re embodying our values as Christians.  We don’t value stuff as much as we value people.  We don’t value success as much as we value being our brother and sister’s keeper.  When we forget or get wrapped up in what society tells us that we should prioritize, we have Jesus pulling us back from the brink.  “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[7]

Maybe we would be ready for the reign of Christ to begin tomorrow or maybe we wouldn’t.  But as we go into Advent next Sunday, as we begin our next Christian liturgical year together, we can consider what this King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Prince of Peace came among us to do.  We can consider how Jesus wants us to live out his teachings on earth today.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 25:31, NRSV.
[2] Beauty and the Beast, 1991.
[3] Matthew 25:41.
[4] Laurence Hull Stooky, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 140.
[5] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 199.
[6] Matthew 25:40.
[7] Matthew 25:40.