Lessons for the Feast of Christ the King: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; and, Matthew 25:31-46.
The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the season after Pentecost is coming to a close. It is the longest season of the church year, marking the time by reminding us what it means to live as a disciple, be good stewards of what we have been given, and how to grow in relationship with our God. The church calendar isn’t a normal, linear calendar. Instead, it is circular, beginning with Advent and ending with this day, the last Sunday after Pentecost. “Always, we begin again,” as the Benedictine saying goes.
Many of the church’s yearly celebrations have gone on for centuries, with over a millennium of tradition and history enriching them. They mark the events of Jesus’ life: his birth, his journey to the cross, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit to remain with us. We tell these stories in our church calendar, year after year. They shape us in a multitude of ways as we become part of the stories—and they become part of us.
Now, here we are, at Christ the King Sunday, the feast day that dates back all the way to…1925. Yes! This tradition is not even 100 years old, yet it came at a time in the world when God seemed to be losing ground. As explained on churchyear.net, the devastating First World War had been fought, and the powers of nationalism and secularism were rising. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King to lend courage to Christians whose faith might be flagging, to remind nations that the Church has a right to freedom and immunity from the state, and in hopes that leaders and nations would be bound to give respect to Christ.
Initially, the feast was celebrated on the last Sunday of October but was then moved in 1969 to its current place in the liturgical calendar to be a vision of Christ to which the rest of the year points. And what a vision it is! The scriptures today help us understand the shape of what the Messiah is to be and it’s not quite what we expect.
The focus of today’s scriptures is not on what Jesus as the great judge looks like, but on how we, as followers of Jesus, have responded to God’s call in our lives. This is the last Sunday after the Pentecost—the end of the intentional time in our lectionary of exploring what it means to be a disciple. This is about discipleship and so it is about us.
The author of the Ephesians epistle has been impressed by the word-of-mouth reputation that the community has for having faith in the Lord Jesus and demonstrating that faith in love. They don’t just get together to do nice things for other people and talk about Jesus on occasion. Instead, they believe that Jesus is risen and sits at the right hand of God and they have experienced God’s power in their lives. They have been changed. They have been transformed. This transformation informs every single thing they do, individually and as a community.
The Order of the Society of Jesus has a motto that I think reflects well what this Feast of Christ the King – and the lessons that we here this day – represent. The Jesuits want to live “contemplation in action.” It’s an understanding about the Christian life that grounds and centers one’s life in the faith of Jesus so that we would know where God was calling us to action in the world around us. It starts with this notion of contemplation – about learning how to be and surrendering our very being to God’s grace. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Before I can act, I need to know that it is good simply to be myself before God, loved as a person with both gifts and faults. Yet we often wonder: does God want this quality of mine or that desire? Does God love my beauty and my mess? Fr. Walter Burghardt, SJ, said that contemplation is taking a “long, loving look at the real.” Contemplation is about learning how to see, being attentive and present to the possibility of grace wherever I am and whatever I am doing.
Contemplation moves into action when we learn how to love. We are asked to love those who are poor, hungry, sick, in prison, lonely, or marginalized in any way. Love, however, is more than a feeling. Love needs to be grounded in reality. When I know that I am loved unconditionally, I am freer to give away that love to others. When I take the time to see and to listen, then I am better prepared to act with a love that is genuinely responsive. Contemplation in action brings together our being, seeing, and loving—as people who were first made, seen, and loved by God.
Our Gospel of Matthew story of the sheep and the goats asks us a searching question that can be difficult to bear: are we admirers of Jesus or are we followers? The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes the difference like this: “The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.” Becoming a disciple of Jesus is no easy task. Many throughout the ages have admired Jesus, but far fewer have chosen the sacrifice of following.
There is a sign in a church that has gone around on Facebook for the past few years and it says, “Sometimes I want to ask God why [God] allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when [God] could do something about it, but I’m afraid [God] might just ask me the same question.” As Christians, we believe that God has full claim on our lives. We are coming into the season of Advent next week and are reminded that God loved us so much that God would become human—become one of us—so that we would fully understand what that claim was and how deep the love goes. How do we translate this love to others? Jesus tells us in our Gospel today that when we feed or welcome or give clothing or visit the sick or those in prison that we are, in turn, feeding, welcoming, clothing, and visiting him. When people respond to human need—or fail to respond—they are responding or failing to respond to Jesus himself.
Through our belief in Jesus, we have the power to heal other people’s lives, just by our presence in theirs. We are called to be healers. We receive our strength, not from ourselves, but from God. On this Christ the King Sunday, our scriptures are clear about the “immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” As we complete another turning of the wheel of liturgical time, may we renew our commitment to be grounded in this power to seek Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as ourselves, even though we may look foolish to the world for loving so lavishly, and we may fail. With God’s help, we can also, thankfully, begin again.