Holy Trinity, Danville—Matthew 25:31-46, Ezekiel 34:11-17, I Corinthians 15:20-28
The end of the Christian liturgical year certainly comes at an odd time, doesn’t it? One would think that it might have the good sense to coincide with the secular calendar, but, no, here we are bringing our year to a conclusion five or six weeks early. One might think that, given the pattern of our society’s ebb and flow of activity, that it might coincide with what we refer to more and more as the “program year”, but it doesn’t work that way either. So here we are, at the end of that long season of green vestments, about ready to jump into Advent. Under our previous Prayer Book, a few of you may remember, the year just kind of ground to a halt without any particular fanfare, and this day was simply called the “Sunday next before Advent.” Now, in an ecumenical spirit, we and the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans, along with any Protestants who wish to join us, celebrate this Sunday as a feast of Christ the King.
I, for one, am glad for this newer way of doing things. It gives us a chance to dress up the liturgy a bit—although, of course, Holy Trinity hardly needs such an excuse! Keeping the feast of Christ the King lifts our hearts and imaginations to that time outside of time when we will gather around the heavenly throne and sing the praises of the Lamb who died to ransom for God a kingdom of priests from every family, language, people, and nation. We look forward to that great day when Christ the King will present us to God the Father and say, “Mission accomplished.” We look forward to that great day when we are given title to our final inheritance in company with the saints in light.
An on that day, on the great day, we will know that Christ the King, Christ our king, is and has ever been a Shepherd-King. As the Lord God assures us this morning through the prophet Ezekiel:
As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek our my sheep; … I shall feed them with good pasture; … they shall lie down in good grazing land, … I myself will be the shepherd of the sheep, … I will seek the lost and will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the week, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.
Christ the King is Christ our Good Shepherd, who tends us and feeds us and patiently and gently cares for us and meets our needs. And even if, in this present life, we see Christ our Shepherd-King only dimly, we will on that day, on that great day, see him clearly, and hear him call us each by name. In our worship this morning, we receive but a glimpse, a shadow of a glimpse, of the glory in which we will share on that day, on that great day.
Now what I’d like to do at this moment is say “Amen” and start in on the creed. But that wouldn’t be quite honest, would it? There’s a fly in the ointment, and it won’t just go away if we ignore it. The fly in the ointment is this vision of sheep and goats that we find in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Christ the King, Christ the shepherd-king, is on that day, on that great day, separating the sheep from the goats. There are some among the great throngs on that day, on that great day, who when they see Christ enthroned as king also want to worship him and to proclaim him as Lord. But their songs of praise will be slightly off key, and sound a bit thin and hollow. When these, shall we say, “goats” are shown their final destiny, they will not know Christ the King who is also a Shepherd, but Christ the King who is also a Judge. They will know a Christ the King who calls them to account for their behavior toward him while history was still in progress, while time still marched on, while one day still followed another, before the curtain had been let down onto the stage, bringing the performance to an end. They will know a Christ the King who will ratify a judgment that they had already pronounced upon themselves by the decisions they made during their lives.
And we find—at least, I find—all of this a bit disturbing, because we wonder, just who are these goats, anyway? And how can I be sure that I am not one of them? This is one of those times when it helps to be a scholar. Not that I am, but I’ve got a bunch of books by people who are. If we read this passage of scripture about the sheep and the goats in isolation, most of us are going to get from it that the goats are people who just aren’t nice. They’re cruel or indifferent to human need and suffering. They turn their backs on the hungry and the homeless and the lonely and the inadequately clothed. If, on the other hand, we perform works of charity and mercy and humanitarianism, it is as though we’re doing so to Christ himself, and we thereby increase our chances of being numbered among the sheep.
What the scholars tell us, however, what the experts say, is that this is not the proper interpretation of this apocalyptic vision. (I’m not trying to demean charitable and humanitarian activity, but simply saying that the biblical basis for such work is elsewhere than in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.) The naked and the hungry and the imprisoned in this passage are not merely the naked and the hungry and the imprisoned of the world. Rather, they are symbols for the followers of Christ who are in the world bearing witness to his life and death and resurrection and, most of all, perhaps, his Lordship. The “least of these my brethren” are those who proclaim Christ as King, and are persecuted for their faith. The sheep are those who respond to their message and enthrone Christ as Lord of their lives too. The goats are those who turn a deaf ear to their message, perhaps giving lip service to the Kingship of Christ, but never surrendering to him the allegiance of their hearts and their wills. The goats are those who offer Christ their allegiance, who proclaim Jesus as Lord, only after it has become impossible to do otherwise, when it is obvious that it would be ridiculous to do otherwise. But on the day, on that great day, it will be too late. The habits of a lifetime cannot be undone in the twinkling of an eye. When the author walks onto the stage, the play is over, as C. S. Lewis famously reminds us. There’s no more time to change the script, no more time to learn any more lines, no more time to block any more action. Christ the King is Christ the Judge.
The good news today is that Christ the King wants to number us among the sheep on that day, on that great day. And as long as one minute still follows another, as long as night still turns into the morning, there is still time to listen to the Shepherd’s voice, to respond to the message of the least of his brethren who invite us to name him and follow him as Lord. Is Jesus the Lord of your life? Is he the Lord of your whole life? Is he the Lord of your time? Your money? Your possessions? Your affections? Your relationships? Your family? Your marriage? Your career? Your body? He wants it all, you know! It won’t do to hold back. Today, in this liturgy, as we join with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven to sing the praises of Christ the King, I invite you, if you’ve never done so, to consciously and with full intention, consecrate your life to the Lordship of Christ the King. Now, I might remind you that if you’ve been baptized or confirmed at a knowledgeable age, or if you’ve ever had a child baptized or been a godparent, then you’ve already done what I’m talking about, whether you’ve realized it or not. So, either for the first time, or as a reaffirmation, I invite you to name Christ not only as the King, but as your King, not only as the Lord, but as your Lord. Tell him so silently in your prayers, even where you sit. And in a few minutes, when you reach your hands across the rail to receive the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation, you will know that you are being cared for and looked after by Christ the Shepherd-King. And on that day, on that great day, he will say to you: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”