Grace Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2020, Reign of Christ A
This has been a year in which it has seemingly become impossible to keep track of the passage of time.
Days stream by without any seeming differentiation. Weeks feel like months, months like years. Our calendar says it’s November 22nd, but honestly it feels like the calendar never has flipped and today is actually March 267th. It feels as though Covid-19 has been spreading forever (the satirical website The Onion refers to its “first 15,000 years of coronavirus coverage), but in fact the first known case was diagnosed only a year ago this past week.
Within the life of the church this same sense of disorientation can be found. Do you remember we were just a short time into Lent when the first shutdowns were put in place? The church made it through Lent and Holy Week and Easter mostly online (with a few foolhardy churches meeting in person and spreading the virus even more), and then came the season of Easter and then Pentecost and finally the long, winding stretch of what it just seems wrong to call “ordinary time.”
Finally we approach the end of that stretch; having observed All Saints’ Day three weeks ago, we have finally arrived at the final Sunday of the liturgical year. Yes, next Sunday really will be the first week of Advent, with purple vestments and Advent wreaths and all that. But for today we observe the final Sunday of Year A of the three-year cycle known as the Revised Common Lectionary. And as with all three years of that lectionary, the scriptures appointed for the occasion point us toward not an event in the annals of scripture or the history of the church, but to a particular tenet of the church’s belief: the exaltation of the resurrected Jesus as the ruler of all, for all eternity.
For decades, even centuries, this date has been known as Christ the King Sunday, which is a logical enough and seemingly straightforward name. You can read the concluding verses of today’s reading from the epistle to the Ephesians, as it practically sings of how God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” and it makes pretty good sense to speak of Christ the King.
Recent years, though, have seen a move toward a slightly different label for the day. In some resources you will see the day labeled as “Reign of Christ” Sunday. For some folks this probably sounds like some kind of political correctness run amok, but I’ve frankly come to believe that the change of label is probably a good idea.
One reason is this: we human beings do terrible things to the whole idea of having a king. To be specific, we humanize it, in the worst sense of that word.
Take the image that crops up towards the end of that passage, describing how God “has put all things under his (that is, Christ’s) feet.” In its context it’s a vivid enough metaphor for the way in which Christ is installed by God above any authority humanity can muster. We, however, are prone to ramp up the violence inherent in such an image, real or potential. We imagine those feet crushing those under it.
Furthermore, we also presume ourselves somehow worthy to decide exactly who they are who are placed under the feet of Christ. As Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor has observed, “many of the people who need saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way as they do.” We get ourselves excited about the idea that King Jesus is gonna crush those … well, frankly, whoever we don’t like. Jesus the King basically becomes our revenge machine, allowing us to fantasize about all those people we imagine have slighted us or belittled us or mocked us for our faith being routed and ruined the way the villain in an action movie might ultimately be vanquished. Even worse, that revenge fantasy can be awfully prone to getting mixed up in not only professed religious beliefs, but into our civic and social and even political life as well, with disastrous and even deadly results.
That second reason for preferring “Reign of Christ” as a title for the day follows from this first reason somewhat. To put it bluntly, very few people really have a grasp of what the Reign of Christ really looks like, and that’s sadly true of an awful lot of the “good church folk” even more than those outside the church. Maybe we really need to use the energy of such a day to remind ourselves of what that reign really does look like, and our other two readings address this pretty well.
The famous “parable of the sheep and goats” points to exactly how the reign of Christ, the one who will “sit on his throne in glory,” will not conform to our human, power-happy conceptions of kingship. The ones favored by this king are not the powerful, the wealthy, the influential, the important; indeed, none of these even factors into this account at all. The only division between the welcomed and the banished in this parable is how they behaved toward “the least of these,” the ones the king calls “members of my family.” Those who cared for “the least of these” are welcomed; those who didn’t are not. And there’s no indication that our opinion of either group is at all relevant to the judgment of the king here.
The oracle from the prophet Ezekiel puts a different spin on the role of the king. Following a longstanding prophetic tradition, Ezekiel identifies the role of “king” with the work of a shepherd, one who gathers up the scattered sheep, brings them to good pastures and places of safety. That’s familiar enough territory – you can get that out of Psalm 23 – but there’s also this discourse about lean and fat sheep that suggests how this king-shepherd will not only care for, but also judge the sheep as well; those who foul the waters and tread under the grasses of the pasture will be judged, and it’s pretty clear the judgment won’t be kind. Here more than just direct interaction or care for “the least of these” is invoked; the ones who make life unlivable for “the least of these” are under judgment as well.
In short, the Reign of Christ demands a world in which we not only care for one another in the form of direct help to “the least of these”; the Reign of Christ demands that we live with and among one another in such a way that “the least of these” are not dragged down into poverty or hunger or thirst or sickness or homelessness or imprisonment; the Reign of Christ demands that we live in the world without ruining it for others. If we can’t live in such a way, we are not living in the Reign of Christ.
We are living in a world where plenty of the louder Christians are quite willing to scream and holler about Christ the King but show absolutely no awareness of what the Reign of Christ actually looks like. Maybe that itself is a good reason to take this day to reflect upon the alternate name, and to make it our calling to live into it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #363, Rejoice! The Lord is King; #268, Crown Him With Many Crowns