The Feast of Christ the King
Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
If there is one thing that 2020 has taught us, it's the interconnectedness of all things. A bat sneezes in Asia and suddenly people are dying all over the world. Borders are shut, entire industries are closed down or decimated, and the global movement of people comes to an abrupt halt as we shelter in our homes fearing the unknown outside.
Someone should have handed that bat a handkerchief.
Today’s gospel reading starts out with an odd little turn of phrase which is then mostly ignored through the remainder of the reading. The text quite deliberately says that “All the nations will be gathered before him.” All the ‘nations’. I don’t think that is an accident, or even an old fashioned way of saying ‘all the people’.
As we read this passage today on the Feast of Christ the King I think that it’s well worth us reflecting on what Christ’s Kingship means. The judgement of the nations in Matthew’s Gospel is set at the eschaton, or the end-times, but I think that it's telling us something very relevant about the here and now and what sort of King Christ is.
Think about what a King would have meant to Matthew and the people he was writing to. Unlike today, where Kings and Queens are most widely seen on Netflix, for the early church they were a reality of life. As a constitutional monarchy, Australians have come to see Kings and Queens as simply a spot at the top of what is essentially the organisational chart of our nation’s political structure, yet the concept of Kingship is so much more than that.
In a Kingdom, all authority owes its very legitimacy to being sourced in the sovereignty of the monarch. Political power is not held by anyone on their own terms, but only insofar as that power has been granted to them by the sovereign.
The sovereign is above politics because politics itself is derived from them. So what do you think is happening when the King comes one day and ‘sits on his throne in glory’ and then calls ‘all nations’ before him?
Well, obviously the nations come, but as you imagine this event in your mind what are you seeing? Are you, like me, seeing the people gathering before the throne grouped together by the nation they belong to?
I think that this is no accident of translation, it is intentional. Matthew wants us to imagine the scene this way as it is vital for understanding the remainder of the passage. People face the throne in groups together as the communities they are members of. Even the idea of ‘nation’ in the ancient world was different from what we have today. In the ancient sense a nation wasn’t necessarily a line on a map but a group of people who identify as a community.
So it's not ‘Australians’ and ‘Japanese’ and ‘Americans’ standing together, it is those ‘nations’ or ‘communities’ who make up society. We are not standing before the throne in political segregation but in our social nations.
So why is this important to the reading? The king starts separating the sheep from the goats and nothing about nations is further mentioned. Or is it?
Sheep are placed at his right hand, and goats to his left, and then he speaks to them collectively. He speaks to all the sheep together as one and they answer him as one. He speaks to all the goats together as one, and they answer. From the beginning of the parable, Christ the King is only talking to groups of people, not individuals.
They gather before the throne and are judged together as groups of people. If we read this passage as something that is only being spoken to individuals then I think we are missing much of Matthew’s point.
Christ says to them ‘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.’ He is still talking in groups! ‘Members of my family.’
Because of the interconnectedness of all things it is not enough that we as individuals do acts of mercy and charity. We are connected to each other as a society, and a society is made up of much more than its individual parts, just as a family is more than simply its individual members at any given time.
Christ the King is judging not only by what we have done as individuals, but what sort of society we built around ourselves. You can be a good and generous person all you like but if you do it within a society you created around yourself that oppresses the poor, takes from others with violence, and acts with indifference to suffering in other nations, are you truely a sheep or a goat in the eyes of the King?
Matthew is calling not just for individual action, but for social change. Interestingly, unlike Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which we heard earlier talking to us about ‘faith in the Lord Jesus and love towards all the saints’, Matthew doesn’t even mention what the sheep or goats believed, only what they did.
Because of the interconnectedness of all things, we have to always act at multiple levels. Yes, we need to welcome, feed, clothe and visit as individuals, but we are also responsible for building a society around us that values these things too. We must value them not just for ourselves, but also towards other communities and nations.
Many of you know that I lived in the United States for a number of years, one result of which is that both my daughter and granddaughter are dual citizens. I have said many times that I love the United States and its people, and hold them close to my heart.
Unfortunately in the midst of this pandemic, even though many are trying to do the right thing they’ve nevertheless become a clear cut example of being very goat-like. Because of the interconnectedness of all things, believing that individual action would be enough to defeat the virus has been an abject failure. This is a perfect example of what I’m saying. As an individual you can strive as much as you want to be safe, but unless your community as a whole is doing the same thing you can’t be safe, and the result is tragedy.
It is tragic and heartbreaking for me to see so many people needlessly dying. As the pandemic rages across the world at higher rates than ever before, and as more people die of Covid-19 than ever before, we are running the risk of all of us looking like goats before the King. Because of the interconnectedness of all things!
So what can be done? How does a community become sheep instead of goats? It can only be done through cultural and political change. Our challenge is not just to welcome the stranger, but to build a society that welcomes them. Not just to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but to build a society that feeds and clothes them. Not just to visit the sick or prisoners, but to build a society that does not leave people alone, isolated from genuine human contact.
And it's not just within our society either. We are challenged to build a nation that welcomes other nations, clothes other nations, feeds other nations and has friendly and warm relationships with their people.
That is what I believe the Gospel is saying that Christ the King asks us for. But it's no burden. Since all legitimacy for these actions is derived from our sovereign, Christ our King, we are acting for Christ and as Christ in the world when we do these things. The celebration of the Feast of Christ the King is one of the most joyous that we have in the church. It is with great joy that we declare that Christ is our King and that we are his people and that we stand for a society which treats everyone equally, with compassion and dignity, and that we do so in his name.
This week here in Australia we have been confronted by some very distressing reports about actions of people serving and representing our nation. For me, I find it hard to lay the blame just on a ‘few bad apples’ without also recognising that this sort of behaviour happened within a much larger structure that has failed at multiple levels to do the right thing. As a democracy, we the people are ultimately responsible for what we are as a nation, and this week it is clear that our nation failed. As a nation, what was done “to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In this case, we were goats.
So how on this day can we still hold onto our joy in Christ the King in the midst of all this? Because, as Christians, this joy is our solution. It is our hope. As Christians the Gospel reading today shows us that we must be part of building a nation that can truly be part of Christ’s Kingdom. We have joy that in Christ we have a King and that gives us hope that we can build a society who, like sheep not goats, will be welcomed into his Kingdom. This hope says our nation can do better. This hope says, we can love our neighbor. This hope says we can feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and clothe the naked.
Because of the interconnectedness of all things, we as Christians can really make a difference. We have joy because we’ve been told what we need our nation to be, and we don’t despair, because we know that Christ is with us and helping us do it, with God’s help.
When you leave here today, I want you to keep holding onto that great joy in your heart. We are the change that we want to see in the world.
Sermon delivered by The Rev’d Grant Sparks at Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the Feast of Christ the King, 22nd of November 2020.