Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Today we celebrate one of the metaphors for Jesus that has stuck with us most strongly: the image of Christ the King. Even in a world where the only kings we know are either figureheads with no real power or ruthless dictators, we hold onto this metaphor and treasure it as a hope for the future. We call this the festival of the Reign of Christ (or Christ the King Sunday) because today we celebrate the fact that it will be Jesus—our teacher, the one whom we follow—who will be the one to preside over that final judgment. This year, we celebrate it by telling this uncomfortable story.
What happened to “saved by grace alone through faith alone,” the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation? According to a recent Pew study, 52% of American Protestants believe that good behavior influences whether we get into heaven. After reading this story, it’s not hard to understand why. There’s clearly something deeper going on in this story. I think that this something deeper has to do the root of this whole king metaphor itself.
It’s important for us to remember that “king” and “kingdom” are metaphors. Jesus only ever speaks of God and God’s kingdom in metaphors. He always says “the kingdom of God is like…” or “the kingdom of God may be compared to…” or “the kingdom of God is as if…” This king metaphor stuck because, to his original audience, this story made perfect sense: obviously, a king would sit on a throne and mete out reward and punishment—that’s what kings do! The king is the legislative, executive and judicial branches all rolled into one: he makes the laws, he enacts them, and he punishes those who do not obey.
The surprising thing in the story is not what happens to the righteous and the unrighteous, but rather the criteria for judging righteousness at all. It’s not that kindness is surprising; anyone who has read the bible knows that God cares deeply for the underprivileged and vulnerable. What is surprising is that the king in our time now identifies not with those seated on thrones like we would expect, but rather with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the imprisoned. The shocking truth of this story is that God’s power does not look like we expect it to; that God’s king doesn’t look like a king at all.
There is one thing in scripture which is not a metaphor for God, which reveals God to us directly. It’s not a story or an image or a rule or a book—it’s a person: Jesus. Only he shows us directly who God is. As he tells Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.9) If we want to know who God really is, we need look no further than Jesus; and Jesus himself identifies with the sick, naked, imprisoned, stranger, hungry, thirsty. If we want to see God right now, today, in our own back yard, that is where we will find God; not in the halls of power, not seated on a throne or in a board room or living in a white house; not dictating laws or making treaties. God is with the lowest, least, little, last, lost.
What bothers us so much about this story is not the way the king judges his subjects (something that is taken for granted), but simply the image of Jesus as a king. We actually fought a war against the abuses of monarchy. That’s why this story really gets under our skin: the God we know doesn’t behave like a king. And you know what? That is exactly the point of this story. We expect kings to be seated on thrones in glory, and instead the story tells us that our “king” identifies more with the poor and oppressed. We almost always use this day to celebrate the idea that Jesus is king over all creation, but I can’t help but wonder if what this festival really celebrates is that Jesus isn’t a king at all.
Maybe it’s time for us to find another metaphor, one that takes what we know to be true about God—what Jesus has revealed to us—and puts it terms we can understand and communicate. Perhaps rather than the “kingdom of God,” the “society of God” works better; a society which is ordered not around power and wealth, but around compassion and generosity. Perhaps instead of understanding the torment of the “wicked” as punishment consciously inflicted on them by a “loving” God for a higher purpose, it makes more sense to realize that it is rather the stress and agony of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. The message of the gospel is that by living as members of God’s society now, before it fully arrives, we will not only find ourselves in “heaven” when it comes, we will find a sense of peace and satisfaction in this life that “passes all understanding” as we live the lives that God has intended us from the foundation of the world. When we live the lives God intends for us even in spite of all the resistance the world will put up against us as it tries to conform us to itself, then we are experiencing heaven right here, right now; even as we wait for its fulfillment.
This is what the story today is telling us: not how to be judged righteous or what it takes to get into heaven, but where we will unexpectedly find the one who shows us how to experience life in the society of God right now. He is not ruling from on high, but lifted up on a cross. He is not wielding a gun or a sword; instead he has a wound in his side and nail holes in his hands and feet, but he is full of life—life that cannot be extinguished by guns or swords. He is not powerful, but weak; and yet, this is our “king,” the one who will ultimately be presented not as a ruler, but as the archetype of what is desirable and good and virtuous in the world. He will not judge who gets into heaven and who gets relegated to hell, but those who trust him and his teaching will find themselves celebrating his return, while those who refuse him and choose instead to rely on guns and swords and bombs and money for power will find themselves hating every minute of heaven on earth—agonizing for eternity because the powers they worship are gone.
The society of God is not something we can create, not something we can legislate or regulate or control. We can and should strive for it, and we ought to seek to make laws that reflect it, but ultimately, it will not be any action of ours that brings about the fullness of God’s will on earth: it will be Christ’s return. He will not return to be our king or our president or our premier or any other kind of ruler we can imagine. Christ will return to be our brother and partner, walking with us like a shepherd, showing us how to live as God’s people.
Until that day we will not see God’s perfection; but we are on the way. We trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit as she leads us along Jesus’ path. We continue to wash ourselves in his death and feed on his life, so that we might experience the joy of God’s society even in the midst of this one. We continue the work that he began—and we continue it faithfully—trusting that when he does come again, he will complete it.