Parish Eucharist 26th November 2017
Christ the King
Year A, Next before Advent, Christ the King
OT Lesson : Ezekiel 34. 11-16, 20-24
NT Lesson : Ephesians 1.15-end
Gospel : Matthew 25.31-end
On the last Sunday of the Christian year, our thoughts turn to the end not just of one more year, but of all years. In the Feast of Christ the King we celebrate our conviction that our Saviour Jesus Christ has triumphed by his life and death over all that is evil, and now reigns supreme with his Father in heaven. That gives us confidence and hope for the future of our troubled world. But there is a second strand, which has its roots in Jesus’ own teaching. In that great day of light and truth, each and every one of us will face judgment, and we had better be ready for it. The early church clearly expected Christ to return within a generation or so, and that lent great urgency to their appeal. With the passage of time the church has necessarily had to come to terms with the realisation that the end of the world, the day of final triumph as well as the Day of Judgment, is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Meanwhile, Paul’s breath-taking vision of Christ in glory leaves us both awe-struck and mystified. What does it mean to assert that the risen Christ has indeed been raised ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion’? (vv 20-21). And then how are we supposed to see such overwhelming power expressed through the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all? (vv 22-23). It all seems highly improbable. Even if we believe that the power of Christ the King will ultimately triumph, it’s hard to see any evidence that the ups and downs of history are tending towards any such conclusion. It’s even harder to see the church as the embodiment of such over-arching power, even potentially. One wonders how the little church at Ephesus reacted to such an enormous challenge.
These are big questions, but I want to start with something small. Some two or three years ago, I was out for a walk when one of my grandchildren, then aged two or three, decided to assert herself. When told not to cross the road without permission, she did precisely that. Since the challenge was absolutely deliberate, I would have been quite cross, but her daddy was patient. Taking her gently but firmly by the hand, he made it clear that her behaviour was both dangerous and disobedient. What he said was: I’m very disappointed in you. She didn’t say anything, but you could read the reckoning in her face, as she faced her little day of judgment. I’m pleased to report that the little girl in question has by no means lost her independence of spirit, but she is very good about crossing roads!
All this month we have been reading the sayings and parables about the Day of Judgment which Matthew collected together. Chapter 24 opens with the disciples inviting Jesus to admire the great temple which Herod had rebuilt, but instead he prophesies that not one stone will be left upon another. Not only that, but there will be all kinds of natural and man-made disaster, everything will be turned upside down. This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place, he says. but even he does not know exactly when it will all happen. Only the Word of God will be left standing. Starting from that blend of certainty about the event, but uncertainty about its timing, we have in chapter 25 the parables which suggest how we should prepare: the ten bridesmaids - be ready at any moment; the ten talents - be diligent in serving the Master who has entrusted you with responsibilities, large or small; and finally this week the sheep and the goats - show your love for one another in simple deeds of kindness.
Notice how the message of the parables takes on progressively the features of Christ himself, alert and ready, tireless in putting to good use his special gifts as teacher and healer, and finally expressing His Father’s love in acts of unselfconscious generosity, which indeed reach their culmination in the two chapters of the Passion narrative which follow without a break.
Last Sunday Jan was talking about the use of hyperbole in Jesus’ teaching about the day of judgment. His judgment parables were intended to shock, but I wonder whether the reality may not be more like my story. Sharp reproof and painful correction there will be, but all within the context of a loving relationship. This morning’s story suggests that there may even be a smile and a word of thanks for some kindness we hadn’t even remembered. Almost certainly a bit of both. It may be as we come face to face with our Lord’s searching gaze of approval or disappointment, praise or shame, in that moment of truth we shall know and feel the difference between heaven and hell.
What then of the big questions from which we started. There’s no denying the fact that the gentle rule of the Prince of Peace is still a very long way off, and the recent resurgence of nationalist and populist narratives of power is unlikely to bring it any closer. But then there is no reason why Jesus’ stories should lead us to expect any such utopian progression. Rather he seems to anticipate descent into some cataclysmic event to precipitate the day of glory and judgment. Arguably that is exactly what happened when Jesus’ own life ended in crucifixion and resurrection. And the church which is his body is part of that experience, forever mocked, dismissed, persecuted, even crucified, but still forever growing and spreading. Jesus promises that the good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations. Only then will the end come (Matt 24.13-14).
The printing press, worldwide travel, successive revolutions in the means of communication are all bringing nearer the day when everyone will know the truth about God. But I’m not going to make foolish predictions. None of us knows when that day will come for ourselves, much less for the whole world. But come it will in some way, and our challenge is to be ready at any moment – alert, engaged and compassionate - as our Gospel readings this month have taught us.