“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25: 40
Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we begin the Advent Season. Today the Church celebrates the image of Christ as the King.
The celebration of Christ the King Sunday arose when Pope Pius XI found that the increasing atheism and secularism of modern society was eroding people’s faith. This was in 1925, and the Fascists under Mussolini were making their presence felt in Italy. Pope Pius thought it was necessary to remind the faithful that whatever political powers might hold sway, ultimately, it is Christ who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
What does it mean to affirm that Christ is King? What are we celebrating? How is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ part of the Good News?
A quick peek at the headlines raises some questions:
- If Christ is King, why is there so much violence and unrest in the world?
- If Christ is King, why are there children dying of malnutrition in refugee camps? Why are so many hungry on our own city streets?
- If Christ is King, why did we experience such devastating tornadoes across Illinois this past Sunday as well as the recent disastrous typhoon in the Philippines?
- If Christ is King, why are we humans continuing to make choices that endanger the environment and even destroy other species who share with us “this fragile earth, our island home”?
Either Christ is not king, or he’s a neglectful king; or we are talking about a reality that is hidden behind the everyday reality we read about in the news.
Today’s gospel suggests that there is a hidden quality we don’t see. Look at the surprise of those who meet the one seated on the throne: “When was it, Lord that we saw you hungry and did not feed you?”
The Gospel of Matthew points over and over to the kingdom of God as a hidden reality obscured by the world of human endeavor, a reality that peeks out occasionally, when Jesus does what Jesus does:
- He heals people; He feeds people;
- He meets and loves people on the margins.
In Matthew, Jesus says over and over that the kingdom is visible and available to his followers. We experience and see his kingdom:
- When we behave as citizens of that kingdom;
- When we serve the least;
- When we feed the hungry;
- When we give drink to the thirsty;
- When we visit the sick, and perhaps, above all,
- When we emulate Jesus as he speaks God’s truth to the powers that be.
There is, further, a subversive quality to the reality of the kingdom, a sense that those who see and understand it are quite often from the margins of society rather than from the powerful and content center.
In Matthew, the list of those who see and accept what Jesus has to offer includes a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman, and Matthew, a despised tax collector.
The disciples themselves are hardly the elite of Jerusalem; they are country bumpkins from the provinces, hardly the sort to set the world on fire. Yet all these people listen to Jesus and follow him, perhaps because the status quo has not given them very much.
While the world has changed over and over in the years since the Gospel of Matthew was written, the list of the vulnerable in today’s gospel has only grown.
“The hungry” now means a billion people who go to bed every night with little or no food.
“The thirsty,” means millions of people worldwide dealing with severe drought along with those who lack safe and clean drinking water.
“The sick,” includes millions of people infected with the most difficult and deadly illnesses, including AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.
And the United States leads the world in its share of “those in prison.”
It is harder than ever to see the reality of God’s kingdom and the Lordship of Christ behind these devastating everyday realities. But it is easier than ever to see those on the margins whose needs are overwhelming.
The call of Jesus to his disciples has not changed. As followers of Jesus, we are called to behave as citizens of the kingdom by demonstrating our love of the King.
The notion of the kingship of Christ, over against the reality in which we live, begs the question: Are we behaving like citizens of the kingdom?
Are the hungry and thirsty, the poor and neglected better off because of us?
Is the reality of the expansive, all-encompassing love of God visible in what we do? In the end, this gospel message is what matters in human existence.
When we make choices about where to spend our time, our money, our energy, and our best gifts, we are making choices that build up the kingdom of God.
We are called by today’s gospel to understand ourselves as those who are called to embody the kingdom in the here and now, so that it can come in its fullness, and Christ will be king – because we choose to dwell in that kingdom.
What this Sunday affirms is twofold:
That Christ is King, all evidence in the current time to the contrary; and that what we do, the choices we make, matter very, very much.
You have heard the story of Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who left Germany to escape Hitler. He moved to New York City where he was a guest lecturer at Union Theological Seminary, but while there he wrestled with himself.
What good was his faith if he could live safely in New York City while his parishioners could be killed at home in Germany for theirs? So he returned to Germany to be with his people and to speak out and fight against Hitler and the evils of the Nazi regime.
Eventually Bonheoffer was arrested for plotting to overthrow Hitler and while he was sitting in a Nazi prison, toward the end of his life, he imagined the future of the church. Bonheoffer intended the words he was writing to serve as the climax of a book he hoped to write. The words survived, even though the Nazis hanged Bonheoffer. He wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” The church, he continued, must tell people everywhere:
“What it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil.”
It seems that these words are even truer today! The vice of hubris, (otherwise known as arrogance), the vices of power-worship, envy and humbug have a sure grip on our churches!
Bonheoffer was arrested and murdered. But they could not kill the ray of light that he introduced into the darkness.
That is what the Kingdom of Christ means: It is otherworldly, and yet it is quite this-worldly. It is here and now, it is light in the darkness.
The light shone, and the darkness could not comprehend it, could not extinguish it.
This Christ the King Sunday as we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, receiving the bread of life and the cup of salvation; as we pledge our commitment to the church’s mission and ministry this stewardship season; and as we sit at table with family and friends this Thanksgiving Day, grateful for all that we have received and been blest with; let us remember that:
“The church is the church only when it exists for others.”
And that we are called to fight against the vice of hubris (otherwise known as arrogance), the vices of power-worship, envy, and humbug, seeing them as roots of evil.
And we are to do so by answering the call of Christ the King.
“Then the King will say to those on his right,
‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’
Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’