Recently we had a visitor here at the Church of the Advent who told me his family was used to attending a Unitarian Church. I think he could tell this would be a little different from their usual experience. But he seemed to strike a reassuring note when he said at the Unitarian church “the teachings of Jesus are respected.”
I am sure that is true. I too think Jesus’s teachings should be respected and that that is better than being disrespected.
But today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. When we acknowledge the reality of the kingship of Christ we declare a profound truth; those who call Christ a king are different from those who simply respect the teachings of Jesus.
Because a king does not teach exactly. A king gives orders.
And a king does not expect to be respected. A king expects to be obeyed.
Throughout the Bible, to worship someone is to fall at their feet and thus to place oneself at their disposal. To worship Christ as king therefore is to be ready to do what he commands. It is to make yourself available for his service.
We learn this from our Gospel reading today from Matthew 25. This memorable vignette, in which Christ foretells his eventual judgment of all nations is also the end of all his teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. This is the last thing that Jesus has to say to his disciples before his trial and death, so it bears our close attention.
Jesus, here at the very end of his teaching ministry, presents himself as the fulfillment of the eschatological promise of Ezekiel, which we also read today. As in the prophet’s vision, the king who appears at the end of time in Matthew 25 is also a shepherd and a judge.
And what is the basis of his judgment? What is the criterion by which he separates the blessed from the condemned? The entire basis of the judgment of Christ consists in who did or did not do practical, tangible acts of mercy for the least among us. At the end of time and the judgment of all nations Jesus Christ says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
It is just the opposite with the unrighteous: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Here’s the incredible thing: Both groups—both the righteous and the unrighteous—are surprised. Both are shocked to learn that their acts of attention or inattention are acts done to Jesus.
Yet this identification between a deity and the deity’s followers is quite common in the ancient world. To stick only with the biblical record, think of what Jesus says to Saul on the road to Damascus. A blinding light appears, and Saul is knocked from his horse, and he hears a loud voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul of course says, “Who are you?” and the voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul is actually persecuting the church, the new community of those who believe in Jesus as Messiah. But Jesus himself says that to persecute the church is to persecute him, to persecute the followers of Christ is to persecute Christ himself.
If this is true, then Jesus Christ is indeed king. But he is also a hidden king.
If we saw Jesus himself all the time in his glory, if we encountered him as he is in his royal splendor, then it would be easy to acknowledge him as king and to present ourselves to him, ready for service.
But his kingdom is not of this world, which means he is in a way everywhere and at the same time nowhere in particular, and we glimpse him only underneath the auspices of our fellow men and women.
Until he comes again in glory, the king is in disguise. And because he is in disguise, both those who do him service and those who decline to do him service, are both equally surprised at the judgment of Christ to find that their simple, concrete acts of kindness are done (or not done) to Jesus himself.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Providence with my family for a short vacation. At dinner time at a restaurant near the hotel my son Tristan ordered something for himself but immediately felt sick and refused to touch his food. Rather than waste the dinner we had the waitress pack it up and started off for the hotel to put Tristan, who really felt sick, back to bed as soon as possible.
On the way out of the restaurant a homeless man with a walker tried to get my attention. “Excuse me. Excuse me sir. Sir. Sir.” Guess what I did. I ignored him. I was worried about Tristan and thought we should get him back to the hotel as soon as possible to rest. And he was really sick. But once we got him comfortable in the room I realized that there was no sense at all to my keeping the dinner he had ordered at the restaurant.
So I went back and talked to the homeless man outside. He said he was just looking for something to eat for dinner. So I gave him what we had ordered for Tristan, which he had not eaten and would do us no good at all.
I don’t tell this story to toot my own horn. Quite the opposite. Because the point of my experience was not that I managed to do something commendable in the end. The point of the story is to ask why it took me so long.
Because here at the Church of the Advent we are very good at acknowledging the kingship of Jesus Christ inside the church. When the cross passes we bow our heads, when the name of Jesus Christ is mentioned we bow our heads, when the Gospel book passes by we bow our heads, when a priest passes we bow our heads, when we pray the prayer of consecration we fall to our knees—and all that is great, and I approve of it, and I want us to do all that, because Jesus is the king of the universe, and when he is present to us we should fall to our knees and make ourselves ready to do his bidding.
But what did our king do throughout his earthly ministry? Think of what he says in Matthew 25: Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned. That’s exactly what Jesus himself did when he was among us. The king of the universe sought out and served the least of his brothers and sisters. This is what he did all the time, and it’s what he commands us to do.
Our falling to our knees inside the church, before Christ the king, is meant to be practice for how we act outside the church. We practice very well falling to our knees before Christ the King in here.
But shouldn’t I just as readily fall to my knees before Christ the King out there, in front of my brother, standing in the cold on Fountain Street in Providence, Rhode Island?
The point of practicing falling on our knees before Christ the King in here is to help us be ready to fall on our knees before Christ the King out there.
If the practice in here is not helping us out there, then something has gone wrong.
To celebrate the kingship of Christ is to remind ourselves that the king has left us with orders. If he is truly our king, then those orders must be obeyed.
Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. In a sense these are little things. They are so little that the ones who have done them don’t notice they have been done.
On the other hand, they are so little that those who have ignored them are surprised to find that they are condemned for their failure in such little things. The condemned in Matthew 25 are not epic sinners. Like us, they are not super-villains or mass murderers. But they don’t have to be to be condemned. It’s enough that we just ignore the everyday pedestrian needs before us.
This is the last Sunday of the church year. As we enter a new year, let’s think about how we can serve and obey our king. It is probably not something terribly grandiose. It may be simply to connect what we do here inside church with what you do outside church a little more closely. It may be simply to here and there where you can show a small, tangible act of consideration to a brother or sister in need.
If Jesus Christ is really our king, then we will do what he commands us to do. And we will do it not because we simply respect his teachings but because he is the king of the universe, and we are ready to obey him—not just here but everywhere and wherever we encounter the hidden king. For while he is hidden now, when his kingship is made plain to all, he will reward those who have been faithful in the little things. What we do now, whether we know it or not, we do in service to the king, we for the king’s glory, and to our eternal reward. Amen.