Trinity, Mt Vernon—Matthew 25:31-46, Ezekiel 34:11-17, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7
Today is that last Sunday of the church year, and we are celebrating the feast of Christ the King. Christ the King is not an ancient feast in the Christian calendar; in fact, it’s quite recent, dating back only to the middle of the last century. And in our own American Prayer Book, it’s only implicit rather than official. You won’t find the expression Christ the King officially attached to this day in the calendar; it’s styled simply the Last Sunday after Pentecost. This is perhaps a reflection of our American discomfort with the very idea of royalty. The principle of equality between human beings is embedded very deep in our national DNA. We instinctively pull back from any notion of hierarchy or chain-of-command or any such thing that is not rooted in democratic decision-making processes. So we have a tendency to process our experience of, say, the British royal family, into peculiarly American categories like “rock star” or “cultural icon.” We know what to do with a rock star or other celebrity. We have no idea what to do with an actual king or queen.
So, as we attempt to come to terms with this festival of Christ the King, perhaps we would do well to first take certain images of royalty off the table, to point to them and say, “This is not what we mean when we call Christ our King.” First of all, Christ the King is not Christ the tyrant, Christ the despot. He’s not a self-indulgent egomaniac like, say, some of the Egyptian Pharaohs, or the Roman Caesars, or certain Asian sultans and potentates. He’s not like the petty French and English monarchs in TV docudramas, like Henry VIII or Louis XIV. But neither is Christ the King comparable to some ideal mythical “good king,” like, for example, King Arthur, ruling over Camelot wisely and benevolently as he leads his people into the land of “happily ever after,” even while taking care of an occasional crisis along the way. And Christ the King is certainly not to be thought of as a mere symbol or figurehead, and therefore of questionable relevance, like the current monarchs in Great Britain or Japan or Sweden or any number of other countries.
So, having set aside these unhelpful images of the kingship of Christ, what are we left with? What is it that we can positively affirm about Christ the King? I would suggest that today’s scripture readings supply us with two distinct but complementary and interdependent lenses through which we might view the kingship of Christ.
Let’s look first at the powerful narrative from the twenty-fifth chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. It paints a picture that takes us to the end of time—or, more accurately, to that time outside of time—when “the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him,” when Jesus “sits on his glorious throne.” It’s certainly a picture of royalty and all the signs and symbols that are associated with royalty. But it doesn’t stop there. It gets more specific. Matthew goes on to describe a scene of judgment, a scene where the one seated on the throne, whom we know to be Christ, discriminates between those gathered in the throng in front of him. He discriminates between those whom he considers to be sheep—these are the favored ones—whom he directs to gather on his right, and those whom he considers to be goats—these are the unfavored ones—whom he directs to gather on his left. This is a glorious scene, but it’s certainly not free of stress. It’s not a particularly happy occasion, especially among the “goats.” I guarantee you that nobody there is singing “Kumbaya”! Judgment is just that way.
But by the time we heard the gospel, we had already encountered a very similar, though certainly not identical, scene from the thirty-fourth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah puts these words onto the lips of the LORD:
Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
Now, the job of a judge is to measure behavior against some standard. The standard may be a formal written legal code, an unwritten common law tradition, or a universal social custom, but it is always something objective, something that a wide diversity of people can look at and see the same thing. A standard of judgment also needs to be impersonal—that is, it applies equally to everyone; a judge is not allowed to play favorites. A judge calls us to account for our conduct. Sometimes a judge is looking specifically for bad conduct; this is the job of a judge in a court of law. Other kinds of judges, though, are on the lookout for good conduct, such as the ability to sing or dance or cook, or some such. Of course, human judges are never perfect. Every umpire will have a slightly different judgment about where the strike zone is precisely located. But uniformity and consistency are certainly goals, even for umpires. Perfect uniformity and consistency do not define success, however. In this case, the attempt is just as important as the outcome, because it’s the knowledge that consistency is the goal that enables us to navigate life with some degree of confidence. Without those who exercise the ministry of judgment, we would live in a world like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where words don’t have any objective or consistent meaning, but mean only what those who speak them say they mean at any given time.
So, we learn from Matthew and Isaiah that part of the kingly ministry of Christ is to be a judge: Christ our King is Christ our judge. He will call us to account for what we do with the knowledge that we have. We have been given knowledge of right and wrong, and Christ our royal judge will call us to account for how we have used that knowledge. We have been given knowledge of God—in creation, in scripture, in the life and worship of the Church—and Christ our royal judge will call us to account for how we use that knowledge. We have been given knowledge of God’s call and God’s activity in our lives and in the world. Christ our royal judge will call us to account for how we have used that knowledge.
Christ our King is Christ our judge. But it’s a stereoscopic lens that the feast of Christ the King gives us—like one of those 3-D Viewmasters that those of us of a certain age routinely found in our Christmas stockings when we were kids—and our view is obscure if we do not also see his kingship as that of a shepherd. It is, after all, sheep and goats that Jesus is separating on the last day—and separating sheep from goats is the essential job of a shepherd! Looking back at the Isaiah passage, the God who declares himself to be a judge first declares himself to be a shepherd:
As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered … And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel…
And the Psalm for today reminds us that “…we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” Now, the job of a shepherd is to consistently provide several things to the animals entrusted to his care. A shepherd provides food and water, which is to say that he leads the sheep to pastures and streams where they can find the nourishment needed to sustain life and allow it to thrive. A shepherd also provides guidance and leadership, pulling when pulling is called for and pushing when pushing is called for—whatever it takes. And shepherds, of course, provide protection from thieves and predators, banishing and driving away those who would lure the sheep away from the fold or attempt to enter the fold and cause them harm.
Christ our Shepherd-King provides us, his sheep, with exactly this kind of ministry. The very words pastor and pastoral come directly from the business of minding sheep. Jesus provides pastoral care directly—through the sacraments, through our prayers, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit—and Jesus provides pastoral care indirectly, through ‘sub-shepherds’ whom we call bishops and priests, and through the various and diverse ministries of the laity within the Body of Christ. Christ our Shepherd-King provides us with spiritual nourishment; he provides us with vocation, guidance, and direction; and he provides us with protection from forces and desires that “draw us from the love of God.”
Christ the King is intimately relevant to our lives, as the one who calls us, equips us to follow him, and holds us accountable for our faithfulness to that holy and divine vocation. On this celebration of his kingship, we righty and appropriately offer him the honor and praise of our grateful hearts. All hail King Jesus! Amen.