Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father… (Read the whole passage)
The end has finally come.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year. And since last Christ the King, we have waited for Jesus in Advent, sung with the Angels at Christmas, marked ourselves with ash and wandered the wilderness in Lent, walked the way of the cross in Holy Week, and been terrified by the empty tomb with the women on Easter morning. We have heard Jesus preach, and teach, and heal, and exorcize demons. We have commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, remembered the saints and all along the way we have listened for God at work through prophets and parables, psalmists and songs, the voices of young and old.
And so, finally, on this last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate Christ the King. Only Jesus is not the type of king we expect, or anticipate. Jesus does not look, or act, like any king we know. Christ the King rules in a way completely opposite what is known.
Christ the King Sunday points us to the end. To the end of time and all things when Jesus will return in order to reconcile all of creation back to God.
Jesus is wrapping up after spending time teaching the crowds and he finishes with a scene from the end times, something that sounds like the final judgment: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another… the sheep from the goats”.
For Jesus’ audience this would sound like pretty radical stuff. All these texts that we have been listening to these last weeks, in particular the parables Jesus has been telling since the triumphal entry: the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the wicked tenants, the talents, the wedding banquet, have been leading up to this moment. Jesus has been provoking the crowds and the temple authorities, who just a few days ago were shouting “Hosanna, son of David” as he rode into Jerusalem. Today, Jesus gives them the last straw: Jesus preaches this judgment scene which sounds like pretty standard fare to our modern, Christian ears: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and those imprisoned. But to his audience, in particular to the religious authorities, this would not have sounded like the route that they were taught would obtain righteousness and salvation. In fact, Jesus seems to have gotten everything upside down.
According to the laws of Israel, in particular to the temple cult of Jesus’ day, righteousness and salvation were not earned in the way that Jesus describes. Righteousness was obtained by keeping the law, staying ritually clean, and making sacrifice in the temple. Whereas, what Jesus describes does the exact opposite of that.
Food was one of the primary ways you could become unclean. So sharing a drink or food with someone who is thirsty or hungry presumably poor and unclean, is a quick way to become unclean yourself.
Naked people are unclean.
Strangers, for example foreigners or Gentiles, unclean.
The sick, unclean.
Prisoners (debtors or sinners), unclean.
Getting too involved in the affairs of your neighbours was one of the quickest ways to become unclean and therefore unacceptable to God.
That’s not to say people didn’t look after the poor. Levitical law required the giving of alms, but putting some money in the box for the poor at the temple was a little different than what Jesus was suggesting – getting down and dirty with your neighbour.
So when Jesus describes what it looks like to be righteous, what it looks like to get into heaven, his audience would not have heard it as a list of good works, but as a complete undoing of what they knew and understood about salvation.
Fast forward 2000 years. We are not that different than Jesus’ audience. We might have a different list than the people of ancient Israel, but we still have a list. It just so happens that our list of good works sounds a little but closer to the list Jesus provides.
Our sacrifices might not be animals in the temple, but we give up our Sunday mornings and money into the offering plate.
We might not worry about ritual cleanliness, but we certainly worry about looking like good Christians to the rest of the world.
We might not worry about keeping the law, but we certainly worry about whether our kids and grandkids are keeping the faith.
There is a whole list of things that we have, whether it’s praying enough, reading the bible enough, serving at the soup kitchen or knitting enough mittens for the mitten tree or quilting quilts for CLWR, or mowing the cemetery lawn. with all of these good works that we spend a lifetime trying to pile up, one of our biggest concerns is the person who lives a fast and loose life before having a deathbed conversion and cheating their way into heaven after we did all this work. Like the people of Jesus’ day, we are still experts at making salvation into some kind of checklist or point system that we can achieve on our own.
Jesus isn’t proposing some kind of bait and switch for “things that get us into heaven” but the thing that Jesus is getting at is who it is that is working out our salvation.
As Jesus describes this scene of the end times, there are a couple of key details that would have jumped out to his audience: The first is the whole group of people who are gathered before the king: good and bad, sheep and goats. But for Jesus’ audience, righteousness was something that was worked out here on earth, not something that was determined at the pearly gates. The second detail, was that Jesus’ criteria had everything to do with our relationship to our neighbour, but the Israelites knew that righteousness had everything to do with your relationship to God. It’s almost as though Jesus was saying everything they knew about righteousness is upside down, that God is the one working out our salvation.
Jesus’ version of the end of time is a completely new understanding of our relationship to and with God. Because if God is working out our salvation, that means we don’t have to. But it also means it’s not up to us. As freeing as it is for God to be the one doing the work, it is also terrifying that we aren’t. And that we have no control.
Even though the religious authorities and crowds won’t respond all that well to Jesus’ suggestion that God is the one doing all the saving, God keeps at it anyway. God continues God’s work of reconciliation and redemption.
And it isn’t long after this, that Jesus will end up on the cross. The cross, which is Christ the King’s throne. And the foot of the cross is the place where all people, good and bad, sheep and goats are gathered. The judgment that Christ provides from that throne cross is neither about who’s in and who’s out, but a judgement that declares that we are forgiven and free from our sins, that we are given resurrection and new life.
And despite all of our doing and trying, our checklists and point systems, Christ the King is gathering us up too at the foot of the throne cross.
And for all the sacrifices that we think we make and offer up to God, God is the one offering God’s self to us in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
For all our attempts at keeping the faith in this generation and the next, God’s faithfulness has already been given to us and proclaimed to us in the word from generation to generation.
For all our attempts at looking like good little Christians, God names us and claims us God’s own in the waters of baptism.
Every Sunday, God gathers us at the throne cross, we who are thirsty and hungry, we who are sick and imprisoned, strangers in need of mercy and says to us, “Come and inherit the kingdom”.
This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker
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