Christ the King
Matthew 25:31-46 preached by
Let us mentally escape from the cold and damp of a November morning and pretend for a minute that we are in Greece. . .
. . .we are in a dusty landscape, with ancient olive groves around us and the bright heat of the Mediterranean sun is beating down on our backs. . .
. . .we go into a modest-sized church, shaped like an old fashioned beehive with thick white walls. . .
. . .our eyes take a minute to adjust to the gloom after the bright sun outside. .
. . .then as we move to the East end of the church, looming above us, is a huge image of Christ as King. . .
. . .He is seated on a throne, holding a book. . .
. . .the figure is three times life-size, made out of gold and coloured mosaic - it seems to shimmer in the candlelight. . .
. . .the Lord's huge dark eyes are kind and wise. . .
. . .His pose is Lordly and overpowering. . .
What we are visualising is an image of Christ as Pantocrator, King of the World, King of all things and all people.
It is an unfamiliar image in the Western church. When we visualize Jesus it is more often in his earthly life, working in the carpenters shop, walking beside the lake, eating and talking with his friends.
If we try and visualize Him in his Heavenly self, it is more than likely as a Good Shepherd or the Light of the World, influenced by Victorian paintings we have seen.
What we find more difficult to conjure is Jesus' theological significance as all powerful God, ruling in majesty. This may be because kingship and its images have become debased in our time.
In the years after the Great War of 1914-18, three quarters of the monarchs in Europe were toppled from their thrones. Monarchs have been forced to make themselves modern and appealing to the public in order to survive. Although as Hello! magazine proves, royals are still fascinating, they have lost their mystique and grandeur. Kingship now conjures up men in grey suits shaking hands with rock stars, cruising on yachts or even Elvis Presley, rather than divinely inspired greatness.
This Sunday is specially set aside to consider Jesus as Christ the King. It is a fairly new inclusion in the Church calendar, having been initiated by the Pope in 1925, and brought into the Anglican year only recently. But it provides us with a welcome chance to ask ourselves what we mean by the Kingship of Christ, and what sort of King is Jesus ?
The reading from St Matthew is about Jesus as King and Judge. We are given the image of Jesus seated on a royal throne, with all the people of the earth standing before him waiting for judgement.
To the ancient Jews the understanding of Kingship would have been different from our own. For them kingship was very much about taking the responsibility for the whole of people upon the king's shoulders. The king's function was to maintain order and above all administer justice.
The two readings we have heard today, from St Matthews Gospel and Ezekiel, both conjure up a king who judges not a small local kingdom, but the whole world.
In both readings the familiar metaphor of humanity as sheep is brought into play. I know we always think of the New Testament as having more gentle, reconciling language, but here in St Matthew the choices are much more starkly presented. Humanity will be divided into sheep and goats: the saved and the lost. The way humans live out their lives will determine which category they fall into.
The ways of earning God's grace must have seemed unexpected to those who first heard Jesus' words. There is no mention of following rules. There isn't any contract or mention of respect for authority. On the contrary the things we must do to gain salvation are so simple that you can't help wondering why we fail to do them. The task is at the same time amazingly clear, quite simple and terribly difficult. Jesus speaks only about care for the least important in the community, for the hungry, for the itinerant, for the homeless and imprisoned.
The price of failing to obey Jesus' words is frighteningly high.
In the Old Testament reading we gain a more reassuring insight into God's loving concern for humanity. The prophet Ezekiel offers, if you like, a qualification to the tough line offered in Matthew. Perhaps we will be given chances to repent and amend our ways? We are told that, as the shepherd seeks out the scattered members of his flock, so the Lord will rescue his sheep from all places. The king will not only be a judge but will nurture and protect the flock.
The readings today and the life of Jesus as a whole presents a challenging model of leadership and power. It is one which is as foreign to the powerful of today as it was to the rich and great in Jesus' own times.
Although all power was lodged in Jesus, He used it only to restore, to give life and renew. In the garden of Gethsemane, when one of His followers struck off the ear of one of the High Priest's slaves, Jesus chose to use his power to heal. He never chose the path of retaliation or revenge. Even in the extreme moment of His agony on the Cross, Jesus was gracious and merciful, praying for those who tormented him, saving the soul of the thief who begged for salvation.
Jesus had a radical view of kingship which he passed on to His disciples. His words are recorded in the 22 chapter of the gospel according to St Luke.
"The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship, …rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves."
This notion of power turns the conventions of the world on its head. If those in authority genuinely sought to serve the people over whom they had power, the exploitation of the poor and helpless would end. If the mighty really became as servants, they would oversee a fairer share of the world's resources.
In Jesus' life and self-sacrifice for us on the Cross, he established a pattern of kingship based on self-giving, of spiritual inspiration rather than bullying or dominance.
As we contemplate the kingship of Christ we get a tantalising glimpse of what His kingdom will be, where love, self-denial and gentleness outweigh the petty tyrannies and concerns of this world. When all people in authority put the good of the people before their own power, popularity and wealth, we will know that Christ's Kingdom has finally dawned. And we pray eagerly for that day. Amen
Bible Readings and Notes for 24th November 2002