Fr. Terry Gatwood: Christ the King and We His Beloved Subjects

Sermon delivered on Christ the King Sunday A, November 26, 2017. at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. You’ll feel like royalty after you read today’s sermon.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46.

>“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

There may be no more awesome or terrifying passage in all of Holy Scripture than the picture of the last judgment found in Matthew 25. No words of our Lord are more direct and uncompromising in their meaning; no image of our Lord is more unsettling than this picture of Christ the King, the final Judge over all nations and all people. Our gospel does not pretend to tell us when this final judgment of the world will take place, only that it will take place; and that on that day there will be no escape from the piercing judgment of the King who sees every life and every heart in all its fullness.

What does it mean for us—this picture of judgment, this vision of a shepherd separating sheep from goats? What is it that the Lord expects and wants of us?

Looking at the parable we hear the absolute simplicity of what Jesus requires of us. So often we look at problems in our world and want to throw up our hands in despair. There is so much need in the world, and here we are, feeling inadequate. And we can use those feelings of helplessness as an excuse for doing nothing.

But note well! The servants of Jesus Christ are not called upon to fix all the evils in the world. We don’t have the power or authority to do everything by ourselves. But we are called to do simple things that have great impact! “I was sick”–says the Lord—and what did the righteous do? Did they heal the sick. Did they work great miracles with the sick and completely restore them to perfect health? No. The Lord doesn’t ask us to do things we have no power to do. The righteous are blessed, not because they healed the sick but because they visited the sick. A simple action, one requiring no skill, no money, no political strategy—just compassion. Healing may come as a result of the visit, but only because the Lord has done it.

“I was in prison”—says the Lord—and what did the righteous do? Did they set the prisoner free? No. The Lord doesn’t ask us to do things we have no power or authority to do. The righteous are blessed because they simply visited the prisoner, befriended, loved the imprisoned, the outcast. A simple action, requiring no great effort, no particular power—just compassion.

There comes a moment, you see, when we must learn the rather unsettling truth: that what Christ asks of us in terms of “social involvement” begins with the very simplest of actions—actions that don’t require anything of us but some time and some personal care. Actions so simple that when we fail to do them, there is just no real good excuse.

We also must note that all the deeds for which the righteous are blessed in this passage are deeds done very close to home. There is great work to be done worldwide for sure, but here we understand the righteous are not the ones who searched the world over, looking for good deeds to do—they are those who ministered to people in need right in their own situation, on a day to day basis. Some of you may remember the old Audrey Hepburn movie called “The Nun’s Story.” Hepburn played a nun whose life-long ambition is to work in the Congo as a missionary nurse. She finds her dream disappointed, time after time. She is assigned to a mental hospital, then to a European hospital in Africa. Her dream of working out in the bush eludes her. And what she never really understands is that she can serve God and meet human need right where she is.

But the righteous, you see, are not those who have gone on exciting adventures in search of some exotic mission, but those who have served right where they are. That’s where it begins. The moment comes when we face the unsettling truth: that the compassion Christ requires of us doesn’t depend on some special situation or unusual opportunity. It is compassion that is shown now, today, to those in need who are all around us.

And then again, we must be aware that whatever we do in Christ’s name, it is to be done without expectation of reward. Often this passage is interpreted as evidence for salvation by works. Doesn’t it demonstrate that we are saved by what we do? Doesn’t that conflict with our understanding of salvation by grace through faith? But the key here is that in this story, the righteous are every bit as surprised as the unrighteous at the judgment of Christ. They have done these good works, not for the purpose of pleasing God, but simply out of the compassion of their hearts. “Lord,” they protest, “when did we see you hungry…?” Their kind deeds were so much a part of their ordinary lives that it never occurred to them that they had done anything very great or significant. They were simply following, acting like, Christ the Good King.

Francis of Assisi, the great saint of the 11th century, was born into a rich and well-placed family. He spent his life preparing to be a knight, a noble soldier; but he felt his life had an emptiness to it. One day he was out riding and he saw a leper, a poor man in rags whose body was ravaged by that terrible disease. On impulse, Francis dismounted and embraced the man—and there, before his eyes, the poor leper turned into a vision of Christ. From that day on, Francis gave up his wealth and devoted his life to loving and caring for the least of these. He made his life a gift to Christ by giving his life to those in need.

What gifts have we given lately to Christ the King? The gifts he wants are so simple. They are to feed the hungry and clothe the naked—not just on the other side of the world, but here, in our own midst. They are to visit the sick and befriend the imprisoned—here, in our own midst. They are to treat every person—even the least, even the one that seems most useless and unimportant—as if he were Christ himself. For inasmuch as we give something or refuse something to one of the least of these, we give or refuse it to Christ himself. There is no one, you see, who is not important to him. The tramp on the street. The little old lady who lies alone and near death in the convalescent home. The rather nerdy kid at school who is always by himself. The prisoner at the county jail. They are all among his brethren, as useless and as unimportant as they may seem to us. And what this passage finally means, you see, is that we will one day be held accountable for how we have treated or mistreated all of these little ones.

This is part of following Christ our King, and being his ministers, each and every one of us. What it is you have been called to do by Christ here may not be a Hallmark quality touching moment. It may not do anything for you to get those warm fuzzies welling up inside. In fact, it may be something quite messy and uncomfortable. Engaging in the lives of others, especially those in great need or pain, always comes with great risks. Sometimes the desired end may not be realized after all our best efforts. Yet, we press on in doing these things, presenting them to the Lord as if we were serving him directly, because in the end we are.

Caring for these little ones—it is part of the commission we were given in our baptism. I love the moment in the rite of confirmation when the confirmands state their intention to continue to live in their baptismal covenant, including their lifelong intentions. From our formative 1662 prayer book, here is a question and answer that is part of that confirmation liturgy concerning those coming forward for Holy Communion:

Quest. What is required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper? Answer. To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.

That is a tall order. “…Steadfastly purposing to lead a new life,” and to “have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.” It is something of which all of us need continually to be reminded, that we are called to live the life of our faith in Christ the King, to trust him and follow, to be thankful every day for what he has done in his sacrifice, and to live in charity with all people. Most of us don’t do it that well all of the time. We are like those in Jesus’ parable who would say with astonishment, “Who, me? When did I ever fail to feed you, and clothe you, and serve you, Lord?” We tremble to think of the answer: “Inasmuch as you failed to do it to the least of these, you failed to do it to me.”

The Christian life is not just about going to church and reading your Bible, as vitally important as those things are. It is about living your faith. It is about serving Christ every day, in every person you meet. Yes, that is a tall order. But I have good news for you. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on this passage, reminds us that Christ is always working in us, helping us learn how to be compassionate, teaching us that we must look away from ourselves, away from our own works, and simply trust in him. In spite of this note of judgment, Bonhoeffer says, “the Christian life is not one of gloom, but of ever increasing joy in the Lord. God alone knows our good works, all we know is his good work. We can do no more than hearken to his commandment, carry on and rely on his grace, walk in his commandments, and—sin!” Because, let’s be honest, that is still a problem with even us who have followed after him for many years, and a problem which the Lord is still helping us to deal with and overcome. Bonhoeffer continues, “But we believe, and are well assured, ‘that he which began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.’” The good news is God the Holy Spirit will not leave us unchanged, but daily will continue his good work begun in us at the baptismal font, and continues when we receive him at the Lord’s table.

May he do so even in us this day and evermore! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen