A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 26th November 2023
This Sunday the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and other churches celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Despite the medieval-sounding name, this feast was only introduced in the 20th century. In 1970 its celebration was settled as being on the last Sunday before Advent.
Although the feast is a recent innovation, applying the title of King to Christ has Biblical roots. In Luke, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her son Jesus will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, “and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The First Epistle to Timothy applies the phrase of “king of kings and lord of lords” to Jesus Christ. In Revelation the seventh angel proclaimed that “Sovereignty over the world has passed to our Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign for ever.”
This year we had the coronation of our new king. I don’t know about you, but I am still finding it rather strange to say ‘God save the King’ after having a Queen for most of my life. But what the Biblical writers had in mind by the word ‘king’ was very different from our constitutional monarch. King David, who Gabriel calls the ‘father’ of the child Mary is to bear, was primarily a military leader who had nearly absolute power over the lives of his subjects. Remember the story of his seduction of Bathsheba and his organising the death in battle of her husband. We see his son, Solomon, gathering great wealth and building a magnificent temple – as well as judging a dispute between two prostitutes over a baby.
What sort of king is Jesus? Clearly, not a military leader: in his exchange with Pilate in John’s Gospel, Jesus said “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If it did, my followers would be fighting to save me from the clutches of the Jews.” All four Gospels record that when Pilate asked Jesus if he was king of the Jews, Jesus did not accept that title. The passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we heard read shows that Christ was given kingly power only after he had been raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. He was certainly not rich in his earthly life, and his wealth now is not in money or lands but in the love, gratitude and praise of his people.
Another major role of kings in David’s line was to be lawgivers and judges. At the beginning of his reign, Solomon had a dream in which God offered to give him whatever he asked; Solomon asked for “a heart with skill to listen, so that [I] may judge your people justly and distinguish good from evil”, which greatly pleased God (1 Kings 3:9). Today’s Old Testament reading from Ezekiel tells us that God judges his flock. Justice is central to God’s kingdom. Going back to the Coronation, as part of the Coronation Oath King Charles promised to cause ‘Law and Justice, in Mercy’, to be executed in all his judgements. Our judges are known as His Majesty’s Judges and our main court building on Fleet Street is called ‘The Royal Courts of Justice’. Justice is essential to good government.
This brings us to today’s Gospel reading, the division into two of those standing before the throne of judgment, like sheep and goats. This is one of the Biblical images which really came to life for me when I was living in the Middle East. When travelling in Jordan, I saw a typical mixed flock of sheep and goats grazing on a distant hillside; the white dots which were sheep were clearly differentiated from the black dots, the goats.
Why are the goats the bad guys? Jesus’ hearers may have made the connection with the scape-goat in Leviticus 16. Two male goats were taken and lots cast over them. One was destined to be sacrificed on the altar of the temple, but the high priest was to lay hands on the other goat and confess all the sins of Israel. That goat was then to be driven into the wilderness carrying all these sins with it. Even the man who led it into the wilderness had to go through an elaborate purification ceremony before he could return to the camp. However, some commentators do not think that particular significance should be given to Jesus’ use of sheep and goats, it was simply a way of illustrating a clear divide. What was important was the placing on the right hand (positive) and the left hand (negative). Later Jewish tradition placed Gehenna, hell, to the left of God’s throne. This tradition carried on into Christian art: in the famous Last Judgment by Michelangelo on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel, the saved ascend to heaven on Christ’s right, while the damned are thrust down to hell on Christ’s left.
This story comes immediately after the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and that of the servants entrusted with the master’s capital in his absence, which David preached about last Sunday, They are about how we should behave while we wait for our Lord’s return. This passage is about what will happen when he does return.
In this parable Jesus first talks of the Son of Man, a title he often uses for himself in the Gospels, coming to judge the nations. After the division, Jesus says that “the king” will address the sheep on his right; he must be taking the title king for himself. As king, he now fulfils this central role as judge.
How does he judge between those on his right hand and those on his left? – by what they did or did not do. I would draw your attention to two things about this story. First, that the entry to God’s kingdom depended on acts of mercy to the needy; the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the prisoner. Many of you will have learned at some time that the Reformation was started when Martin Luther proclaimed that salvation was by faith and the grace of God alone, and not by good works. Don’t worry, I am not going into the lengthy and complex theological arguments on this, nor the vast literature written over the last 500 years. Instead, I will take the practical approach in the Letter of James. Salvation is offered to us by God as a free gift of grace, but we have to accept it. And what shows we have accepted it? – we start to act as Jesus did. As James says: “What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it?” We all know what damage has been done to our and other churches by the revelations of immoral and abusive behaviour by those in positions of religious authority, whose actions have contradicted their public statements of belief.
The other thing I would point out is that those who helped the needy did not seem to have any ulterior motive, and were surprised when they were told that what they did was done to Christ. They reached out in spontaneous care and generosity to those they saw needed help. Again, they acted as Jesus would have done in the situation. This brings me back to something I talked about last time I preached: the wedding garment and the need to wear it at the wedding feast in God’s kingdom. I suggested that this relates to what Paul says about the need for Christians to “put on Christ”. Faith is not just about turning up at church and reciting the Creed. It is about showing the love and compassion of Christ to the world every day. Can I remind you of David’s words last week: “ [God] wants to wake us up to the truth that our life and everyone else’s life, is given to us by the God who loves us. Everything we do is shot through with something of that divine glory. It is in us and in others.”
A final return to the theme of Christ the King. There is a common human tendency to look for a “strong man” (they have almost always been male) to follow, who, in return for absolute power, will take care of everything. Looking around the world today, we can see contemporary examples of this kind of leader. To their followers they are incapable of fault, but they ruthlessly silence any who oppose them. This, most emphatically, is not the kind of king that Jesus is. Although God is almighty, he does not use his power to compel everyone do his will; instead, he loves us into loving and serving others. Into becoming the sheep on Christ’s right hand.
In conclusion: faith is not mentally assenting to the right ideas but physically living the right life. Being, not believing. Loving, not excluding. May we all be counted with the sheep at Jesus’ right hand when he comes in glory. Amen