Sunday, November 23, 2014

The least of these

A Sermon preached on November 23rd (Christ the King) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. I apologize if you’ve heard this before, but Christ the King is not an ancient feast of the Church. It was originally instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to the big secular ideologies of his day, Fascism and Communism, both of which tried to command full and complete and exclusive allegiance from their members and eventually from the populations of the countries in which they ruled. Pope Pius’ intention was to remind Christians that their primary allegiance was to their spiritual ruler in heaven, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21), rather than to some pretty ugly earthly rulers like Mussolini. In 1969 another Pope, Paul VI, moved it to its current date: The last Sunday in the liturgical year, before our new year begins with the First Sunday in Advent. You won’t find the feast of Christ the King in our 1979 BCP but over the last 20 years most Anglican churches have adopted it as a major feast. Which is I suppose also a bit ironic considering that the supreme governor of our mother church, the Church of England, is a monarch!

Some people do not like the idea of calling Christ a king – and so some churches now call this the feast of the Reign of Christ. These are often also churches and pastors who are reluctant to use the term "lord" to describe God or God’s Son.  Lord and king are seen as standing for something oppressive and they are also exclusively male terms. So in the newer prayer books of other denominations and in our alternative liturgies we find “God be with you” instead of “the Lord be with you,” and instead of the “peace of the Lord” it is the “peace of Christ” that we exchange with one another. I agree fully with the need to watch our use of language and to make sure that it is inclusive. God is not male – or female for that matter, God is God. But God’s son Jesus Christ was incarnated as a male human being and so I have no objection to using male descriptors when referring to him. What about the term “king?” Is that really a problem? That will depend on what sort of king Christ is. What do our readings tell us?

Let’s start with the passage from Ezekiel, which seems to be all about sheep and shepherds. Israel was an agrarian society and so a figure like the shepherd was often used as a metaphor for the king of for others in authority. And of course Israel’s second, and first great king, David, was a shepherd before Samuel anointed him on God’s behalf. A shepherd looks after all the sheep’s needs – he finds them water and a place to feed, he makes sure they stay together and don’t get lost, and he also protects them from danger: if he is a good shepherd, that is. Shepherds are also hired hands, their authority comes from the owner of the flock who they serve. All this was supposed to apply to the kings and rulers of Israel: they were acting on God’s behalf, not for their own gain or benefit and their role was to look after their people, all their people, especially the weak and those in need. I say “supposed to,” because they mostly failed to live up to this ideal, as was the case when Ezekiel was a prophet. In verses 1-10 of chapter 34 God has told Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel because they have allowed the people to become a prey, and because the shepherds have fed themselves, and not fed God’s sheep. (34:8)

In fact the earthly rulers have made such a bad job that God now says: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34:15) Later in the passage God goes on to promise that God will set up a new shepherd, a new David. For Christians this points of course to Jesus Christ – who often applied the image of Good Shepherd to himself. The Good Shepherd, reversing all that the bad human shepherds had done, will seek the lost, will bring back the strayed, will bind up the injured, and will strengthen the weak. (34:16)  So the shepherd’s, that is king’s role is to defend the weak and to uphold justice. There was no separation of powers in those days and so the king was also always a judge and final arbiter. 

When Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, it’s very likely that he is referring to this passage from Ezekiel and to the verse in in which God says: “I will judge between sheep and sheep.” (34:22) Sheep and goats were not easy to tell apart in those days. Israel hoped for a day when God would judge the nations based on how they had treated Israel – but in Jesus’ version of the judgment of the nations, Israel will be judged too along with all the other nations based on how they treated those people Jesus calls the least of them: the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the stranger, and the lonely. If Jesus is king, then this is the King’s Speech or the State of the Nation address – the speech that describes his program, his expectations for his kingdom and for all those who consider themselves citizens of this kingdom. Caring for the needy is at the core of our faith, and service to the needy is the expression of the love of Christ and the acknowledgement that the other, even the least of them, is also made in God’s image. This is not just a requirement for us as individuals, this is what we are supposed to try and make the societies we are a part of become like; this is the program for our political choices and actions; this is justice in action. 

In Ezekiel God promises both to be the shepherd of his sheep and to send a new shepherd, “my servant David.” In the Incarnation, that great feast that we will celebrate in just one month’s time, God became one of us and shared in our humanity. So Jesus is both: God and the new shepherd. Athanasius of Alexandria, a 4th century early Christian theologian, is famous among other things for having written about the Incarnation that it meant that “he (Jesus) was made man that we might be made God." This idea of us striving to become more like God is a theological concept Anglicans share with our Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Methodist brothers and sisters. And this passage in Matthew’s Gospel tells that one sign of whether we are on the way to that goal is how we treat the least of them and that in some way Christ is still especially incarnated in the poor and the needy. 

So what sort of a king is Christ? Earthly kings and rulers far too often just want to be served, enjoy abundance for themselves and strive for personal glory. But Christ the King “came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28) and he expects his subjects to be servants too. Christ the King wants us to share our abundance with those who have too little. And for Christ the King, to be glorified was to die on the cross and to give “his life a ransom for many.” I know that in the Letter to the Ephesians, Christ is described as being seated at God the Father’s right hand in the heavenly places. But at least at first this [cross behind the pulpit] was his throne.  

Actually I don’t really mind whether we use the term King or Lord for Christ or not, as long as the alternatives make very clear what it means to be his follower and that our love for him is always also expressed in our love for and service to others. I think the pastor who was recently arrested in Florida for feeding the hungry and the homeless, despite a city ordinance to the contrary, understands this. I think that Pope Francis who as I recently read in the paper is now encouraging the churches in Rome to install wash rooms and showers for the homeless understands this. I think this church understands this too, although we can do more, and I was encouraged during the series of small group meetings I organized last month that one of the stories many of you tell about St. Augustine’s is of a church that is open and accepting to all people, including those with problems and issues and special needs. I dream of the day when we tithe not just 10% of our fundraising income for outreach, but 10% of all our income. 

Serving Christ in others is not optional, but not out of a sense of duty or out of fear of judgment, but simply out of the joy of knowing that we will see our King, our Lord, Jesus in the face of our neighbors and in the face of our brothers and sisters: and especially in the "least of these".  

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