Christ the King
God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.
Today is the final Sunday of the church year; this is New Year’s Eve! Happy New Year!
This Sunday is a hinge that helps us to look in both directions: firstly pointing to the end of time when the kingdom of Jesus will be established in all its fullness to the ends of the earth. Secondly, it points us to the immediate season of Advent, the beautiful time of expectation and preparation as we look ahead to celebrating the birth of Jesus. In both directions we are reminded that Jesus is King.
Christ the King is a recent addition (1925 so very new) to the church calendar and a Roman Catholic one at that! Pope Pius XI instituted this Sunday in response to issues he was facing in the Catholic church and in the civic life of Rome as secularism was growing in wider society after World War 1.
There was an enormous crisis of faith and many people left the Church (both Catholic & Protestant) in Europe in the wake of the First World War. The men had left for war and they did not come back; and the women left the church and God. This context led the Pope to establish Christ the King Sunday as a reminder of Jesus’ power and authority above all else.
The Bible is full of reference to kingship. In the Old Testament, God warned the Israelites about the dangers of a human king but they insisted. God yielded and Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel. In the New Testament, the earliest followers of Jesus were looking for him to be a king who would smite their enemies and bring Israel back to prosperity. Again a need for a very human king.
However, both the Old & New Testaments offer a vision of a king like a shepherd. The sheep are a metaphor to represent the people of Israel. They are God’s flock and they are a mix of strong and weak sheep.
Sheep are not the brightest animals in creation, they are not able to take care of themselves the way other animals can, you cannot teach them tricks, they need a lot of care and attention and they need to be guided. Hence the need for shepherds.
God acts as the shepherd for his people; he will search and seek out the lost, the lonely and the oppressed. He brings back the strays, strengthens the weak, binds up the injured. He feeds them, he will make them lie down – 23rd Psalm anyone? This is a picture of a King who gets deeply involved with his mixed flock of strong and weak out of deep love and concern.
Both readings present a King who judges as there is inequality in the flock. There are both strong and weak sheep living together. The strong are not looking after the weak the way that they should. The fat sheep are the ones who butted the weaker animals, took their food, and tread down the pastures for their own gain. The fat took advantage of the lean by mistreating them and will be punished for this.
Regarding judgement, we need to hold on to some important truths: God does not judge the same way we do. I am very glad of that. God judges out of love; not hate or pride or envy. For this King love and judgement go together. We need to remember that we will be judged by the same standards that we judge others.
We all make judgements every day. I also know that the standards that I hold myself to are far less than the standards I hold other people to.
We do need a God of judgement; otherwise He quickly becomes ineffectual and untrustworthy. If God did not judge between the two what is He saying?
To the fat sheep: you can do whatever you like to serve yourself without consequence. I do not love you so I will ignore what you do.
To the lean sheep: you are not worthy of help. I do not love you enough to want to help you. You are on your own.
This is similar to the picture of judgement in Matthew’s Gospel. The separation of sheep and goats seems to emphasise that ultimately every person on earth will be called to account for the use of the opportunities to serve others. It also suggests that there will be some surprises. People who did kind things for ‘insignificant people’ will find that what they did was done to God himself. Other people will be punished for failing to make use of opportunities to serve the lowly and thereby failing to serve God.
The world does not operate as it should. It does not take much imagination to work this out. We do not treat people as we should; whether that is the people next door or the people on the other side of the world. The injustice in the world is rampant: socially, politically, and economically. We have active global examples at present.
It is not all bad news though.
It might be helpful to hold that this is not the full picture of judgement. This passage only deals with works not grace, faith or the atoning work of Christ.
Works are the evidence on which people will be judged here, not the cause of salvation or damnation. It is common to all of scripture that we are saved by grace and judged by works. The works we do are the evidence of either the grace of God at work in us or of our rejection of that grace.
Out of love God wants the fat sheep to care for the lean sheep; to share food, protect them as he does. Love your neighbour as yourself! We will be judged on this. We have a King of love and of judgement. Whatever season of life we are in, we have a King who loves us and will defend us. This will come to pass at the end of time.
As we look ahead to the imminent Advent season, we celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the Son of God. Who was born into the world as both God and man, died so that our sins may be forgiven and rose again so that we may live with him forever. We also look forward to his glorious return at the end of time. Advent helps us to remember that God is present in the world today.
The Advent season falls at the darkest time of the year, and the natural symbols of darkness and light are powerfully at work throughout Advent and Christmas. We may live in dark times but the light of Christ will show us the way.
But we do have to wait. Wait with expectation and anticipation. We wait in the light of new hope. The King is Coming.