Lessons for the Last Sunday after Pentecost (Christ the King): Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
I’m a fan of the late Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Universe, a comic science fiction novel about the end of the world, other intelligent life in the universe, and ultimate answers. A few weeks ago we were listening to Stephen Fry read the chapters where the book actually provides the Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything – thanks to the universe’s most powerful computer: Deep Thought.
After seven and a half million years of calculation, Deep Thought reveals that the answer that sentient beings have pursued with all their hearts and minds is “42”. And then, to those baffled folks wondering what they can possibly do with that answer, Deep Thought suggests that maybe the problem is that they’ve never really thought through what the ultimate question is.
When we come to this climactic passage from the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew, a lesson that actually seems to be an Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, I fear it is too easy to accept that this is the answer we want-and to not really have thought through what the question is. Is the question how do we gain everlasting life or go to Heaven when we die? Is it what are we supposed to be doing right now?
When we’re seeking Ultimate Answers, how we understand the question matters.
Today we are celebrating the feast day of Christ the King, the last Sunday before Advent and a new liturgical year, and this significant symbolic placement was chosen by Pope Paul the Sixth to emphasize the game-changing dimension of what it means to call Jesus Christ King. In Jesus’s own lifetime and in the generations immediately following, to call Jesus Lord was to say that the Roman emperor was not the great authority over human lives; it was to honor what Jesus called in Matthew 16 the counter-cultural and spiritual dimension of life.
Our gospel lesson for today comes late in Matthew’s gospel-just before the Passion of Christ. Some scholars call it the Judgment of the Pagans, and others refer to it as the Last Judgment. In our reading, Jesus is seen separating sheep and goats, described as a king on his throne, rewarding his subjects according to their adherence to his great ethical commandment of compassion. The passage comes in the last great teaching discourse in Matthew, a long section about the end of the world and the time of completion, it follows numerous parables about being ready for whatever is coming, whenever it gets here. A thief in the night. A slave and a master. Foolish bridesmaids who are unprepared. Slaves given trust over small things while the master is away. Apocalyptic stories about judgment and being prepared.
I must confess that I am always personally uncomfortable with biblical passages that seem to be about judgment. I was raised in a Christian tradition that was built almost exclusively around the notions of my overwhelming sin and impending judgment, and I spent my early years in a panic I’ve never quite gotten over-even by leaving Christian faith for a couple of decades. I would love to be able to pretend that this gospel reading is not in some way about judgment, but that would be neither true to the text, nor true to our need to wrestle with it, like Jacob wrestled with that angel, hoping for a blessing. If we’re given an answer here, it is this: Jesus singles out those who treated others with compassion, who served those who were in need, alone, despised.
So what is the question?
Is this passage about believing in God so you go to Heaven when you die? Although some Christians talk about little else, and eagerly come to the Bible in general and this passage in particular posing that question, the Bible in general and Matthew in particular don’t seem to be that interested in Heaven and Hell, whatever those might be. Nor are many of the great biblical scholars. In the 1500 pages of the Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin devotes only a couple of passages to Heaven, and one paragraph to Hell. More recently N.T. Wright notes that there is almost no talk in the Bible about going to live in Heaven when you die, and less still about Hell. He also reminds us that the continuous talk about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s gospel is not about a place-Heaven-but about something else entirely, God’s sovereign rule breaking through into the earthly realm. (Surprised by Hope, 18)
The Bible’s central message is not about believing in God so you go to Heaven when you die, or whenever it is that things go all cosmic apocalypse on us. In fact, in Matthew, belief in and of itself is not sufficient for disciples. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laments that many people will call him Lord, but only those who act upon his ethical teachings can be his true followers. And in the so-called Great Commission, coming at the end of this gospel, Jesus doesn’t say to form disciples who believe that he is the Messiah; he says, teach them to observe every ethical teaching I have commanded of you.
If you think the question is Am I going to Heaven? Will I be saved? Am I a sheep or a goat? Matthew suggests that you have missed the point. And anyway, if you are listening to this sermon today, chances are that you are less concerned about the End of the World than you are about the End of the Month. What you’re seeking is probably not pie in the sky, but, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, pie in the here and now. (Rainbow People of God, 29) Strength for the journey. A nudge–or a jolt from a spiritual cattle prod–that will help you struggle up the path that awaits you this week.
So maybe the question rightly asked is not what happens at the end of things, but more like what am I supposed to be doing right now? What does Jesus want me to do? To be? How will my life be different if Christ is King?
The conflict over who is lord is acted out in our lives today even though Rome is long gone. The world still wants us to worship all that is Not-God, and the culture rewards us when we do. But this conflict between the two Kingdoms, one of this world, one of the divine realm, becomes clearly delineated in the life of Christ. Jesus tells us and shows us that the usual things people elevate as gods-temporal power, wealth, celebrity and fame-are subsumed in the Kingdom of God by the supreme values of service, love, self-sacrifice, and faithful community.
Life in God’s Kingdom is not about self-aggrandizement, it’s about renunciation. It’s not about big words, it’s about powerful actions. Life in God’s Kingdom is not about what you have or who you are, it’s about what you do. It’s not about what the world values, but what God values.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about how when she was in seminary she wanted God to tell her what she was supposed to do with herself. She prayed hard, she asked often, and the result, she says was this: God told her, Do anything that pleases you-and belong to me. (An Altar in the World, 109-10) Like Augustine’s similar spiritual prescription, “Love God, and do what you will!,” this could be read by a selfish person as a license to print money. Do anything that pleases you. Do what you will. Have a party. Knock yourself out. Except, pretty clearly, that’s not what God was saying to-and through-Barbara Taylor and Saint Augustine.
The takeaway from these pronouncements is absolutely not “Believe in me, and act like a goat.” Instead, the message is this: if you love God, if your values are God-values instead of the world’s values, if Christ actually is King, then you will love as God loves, give as God gives, forgive as God forgives. If your values are God-values, you can’t help but live as Christ taught.
Preaching in front of the Ebenezer Baptist congregation he loved just a couple of miles from where we are taping this morning in Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told them–just two months before his untimely funeral–how he would like to be remembered, and in doing so, he zeroed in on that ultimate question:
“If Christ is King, what does that mean? If Christ is ruler over our lives, Dr. King told them, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine’s “Man of the Year” is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being.”
How are things going to end? What happens after we die? I don’t know, and neither do you. But we do know the shape of the story a loving God is writing: If Christ is King, we know Jesus waits at the end of that story, that he will see us, and know us, and that if we have done what he taught us, he will claim us as his own.
And, I have to say, that is question and answer enough for me.