Sermon delivered on Christ the King Sunday A, November 23, 2014, at First United Methodist Church, Van Wert, OH.
There is no audio podcast of this sermon.
Lectionary texts: Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100.1-4; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am Fr. Kevin Maney, rector of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus OH. I grew up in this church and some of you will remember my parents, John and Margaret Maney, who loved this church and were active in it. To say that I am honored and thrilled to be invited to preach here today would be a massive understatement and I want to thank Pastor Gus for the trust he put in me to preach the gospel to you faithfully. But I am also mindful of what happened to Jesus when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth to preach. He angered the folks there so badly that they sought to throw him off a nearby cliff. Not wanting this to happen to me when I returned to my home church, I sought the highest authority in the land on preaching, my wife, and asked her sage advice about preaching this sermon. She mused for a moment and then reminded me that a well-received sermon should have a good beginning, a good ending, and the two should be as close together as possible.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a feast relatively new in the Church’s calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 as a way to resist the rise of totalitarianism and secularism of his day. It marks the last Sunday of the Church’s calendar year and as its name implies, today is a day when we celebrate Jesus as King, Messiah, and Lord of all God’s creation. So this morning I want us to look briefly at what we can learn about living as faithful subjects under King Jesus’ sovereign rule.
In our gospel lesson this morning we as Jesus’ followers are given both a word of encouragement and a word of warning. The encouragement is not so obvious so we need to have a little background because the judgment scene Jesus describes is part of the overall biblical narrative. The entire story of Scripture is about how God is putting to rights his good creation and creatures corrupted by human sin and the evil that accompanied it. God has chosen to do this by calling Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, to bring God’s healing love and blessing to the nations. Those nations who embraced God’s people Israel would be blessed by God while those who did not would be cursed (Genesis 12.1-3). There’s more to the story but this is what we need to help us make sense of our gospel lesson.
With this in mind, then, the first thing we note is the startling fact that instead of the nations being judged based on how they treated Israel, Jesus is declaring that he will judge the world based on how it has treated the least of his brothers and sisters (his followers), the reconstituted Israel. So much for the old canard that Jesus had no self-awareness of who he was or that he was just an extraordinary teacher. Teachers don’t get to judge the world, not even extraordinary ones. Only God gets to do that and here we see Jesus telling us that he will judge the world!
But how do we know that Jesus is talking about his followers and not all people? Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had warned that not everyone who called him Lord would enter God’s kingdom, but only those who do the will of his Father. Lip service alone will not cut it. All true love and faith is manifested in action (Matthew 7.21-23). And then in a scene that would have shocked those who witnessed it, in response to his mother and brothers coming to speak to him, Jesus declared that his mother and brothers (and sisters) were those who do the will of his Father (Matthew 12.47-50). So the likely meaning of this judgment scene is that those who have not followed Jesus will be judged based on how they have treated those of us whom Jesus counts as family, his brothers and sisters, you and me, even (or perhaps especially) the least of us. Here we see our Lord who sends us out into his world to be his salt and light reassuring us he understands all too well that he is sending us out on a dangerous mission but that he is taking note of what we suffer and that we will be rewarded for our faithfulness.
Now of course we as Americans are rarely called to suffer and die for the faith the way many Christians around the world are suffering and dying for Jesus’ sake. But our lesson warns us not to neglect their suffering. So, for example, we are called to support our family members in Jesus around the world, both tangibly and through our prayers. And we are to offer encouragement and hope to those we might know personally by reminding them of passages like these (cf. Romans 8.31-39). Charity, of course, starts at home.
And while we may not be suffering as some of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world are, we are under increasing pressure to sit down and shut up. Our culture is becoming more hostile to Christian perspectives and morals and the net effect is that we are increasingly silenced because we don’t want to offend anyone or be found to be politically incorrect or be subject to name calling or job loss or worse. None of this should surprise us because our Lord himself warned that this would happen to us and that many of his followers would fall away as a result (Matthew 10.16-24; 24.9-10).
So if we have lost our voice in proclaiming the gospel to those in our world through word and deed, or if we hide Jesus’ light by failing to tell others in whose Name we do our good deeds because we are afraid of how others might react, then let passages like our gospel lesson be an encouragement to us so that we recover our voice and embody Jesus’ great love for all people as he commanded us to do in this judgment scene and elsewhere. And in doing the hard work of being Jesus’ salt and light to the world, we can take further encouragement by remembering that we are doing something else Jesus commanded us to do. We are taking up our cross, i.e., we are willing to suffer for our Lord, and denying our selfish ways for the sake of others, as we follow our Lord Jesus, who will not only judge the world at the end of time but who is also alive and reigns as king right now, judging it and us, deeply ambiguous as that may be.
But if this is the only thing we draw from today’s lesson, we will miss its warning to us as God’s people in Christ. When Scripture offers us encouragement as it regularly does and as we have seen in the judgment of the sheep and goats, our appropriate response is not to sit back, prop up our feet and get all uppity and self-righteous because we are on the winning side. The warning in the judgment scene pertains to us as well. And here it is good for us to remember what we have been given as Christians and why we do what we do in the power of the Spirit.
As we have seen, the biblical narrative is about how God is rescuing his good world from the ravages of evil, sin, and death. God has ultimately accomplished this by becoming human in Jesus of Nazareth to confront and defeat sin and evil by dying on a cross for us (cf. Colossians 2.14-15), shocking and unexpected as that is. As Paul put it, there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh so that he would not have to condemn us. By Jesus’ blood we are reconciled to God who has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Romans 8.1-4; Col 1.13-14, 19-20).
We know this is true because God raised Jesus from the dead in a mighty act of new creation that would be a preview of the day when God would finally put to rights forever all that is wrong with this present world so that resurrection and new bodily life, eternal life, is our destiny. As Paul reminds us in Romans, those of us who are united to Jesus in faith share in a baptism like his so that we share in his death and resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And until we see the Lord face-to-face, he is alive and available to us in the power of the Holy Spirit. None of us deserve this gracious gift but it is ours through repentance and faith, thanks be to God!
I can hear some of you right now. What’s this got to do with our gospel lesson? Get to the point, dude. Balyeat’s is filling up as you speak! Here’s the point. Contrary to a superficial reading of this story of judgment which seems to advocate a works-righteousness, it is anything but that because we must fit it squarely within the broader story of the gospel, which is the story of how God has rescued us through Jesus the Messiah, the one true and faithful Israelite. We have been given a wondrous gift, a gift that reflects the very heart of God, and we who have embraced this gift through faith are expected to imitate our Lord in doing the will of his Father. As we have seen, real faith must always show itself in what we do because what we do is always a product of what we think and believe. In the story of the sheep and goats, Jesus is holding up for us a pattern of practical, Calvary-like love lived out in faith for us to follow in our own little neck of the woods and warning us that we too will be judged by how we treat the poor, the least, and the lost, just like those not of the faith will be judged for their treatment of us. This is how we are Jesus’ salt and light to the world. This is how we are called to embody his love and presence in our lives, to respond with compassion to human despair. And of course we find one of the best examples of this kind of faithful, sacrificial love in John Wesley, an Anglican priest whose Methodist movement arguably saved 18th-century England from social revolution.
So how is Jesus calling you to respond to his command to bring his healing love to the world, both as individuals and as part of his body, the Church here at FUMC? What we do with this question will be determined in large part by whether we really do believe that we are loved and claimed by Jesus from all eternity and whether we think he is both present to us in the power of the Spirit and is Lord of all creation, both now and in the future. To believe this takes great faith and trust, a faith and trust that can only come from having a lively and intimate relationship with the living Lord through prayer, worship, study of Scripture, and fellowship. This knowledge produces godly wisdom and a deep desire to please this God who has rescued us from the gates of hell itself, and this in turn will produce sheep-like behavior (in the best sense of our gospel lesson) in response to our knowledge that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.