Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2011
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Matthew 25:32-33
Oh, brother, Jesus is at it again, except now he’s moved from paradoxical parable to apocalyptic language and imagery. This is the end, my friends, and here’s how it’s going to go down. Instead of Judge Judy we have Judge Jesus coming in full-blown apocalyptic glory. The big question I’ve been wrestling with this week is how are we to understand and respond to this scenario?
Common sense and a graduate degree in English remind me that the kind of language in this text is more evocative than concrete; it is language that engages the mind and heart and senses rather than merely serving as some heavenly garment tag offering Christian eternal care instructions. Apocalyptic writing as a literary genre is designed to bring hope to the oppressed and encouragement to the persecuted. Jesus’ disciples were certainly going to know something about being persecuted and oppressed for their faith, so these words would have served as soothing balm and rejuvenating fuel to keep the faith, to continue steadfast in discipleship and ministry.
Today, we tend to focus on the separation of sheep and goats, with the goats herded into eternal punishment and the sheep trotting merrily into eternal life. It fits our human need to have clear division between who’s in and who’s out. Of course, with such division one must then determine where he or she falls on the in/out scale. In this case, no one wants to be a goat. That’s baaaaaaad news indeed. We want, or clearly imagine ourselves, to be sheep. We’re the good guys, right?
Most of us have never experienced anything like what Jesus’ first century followers did. Instead of getting kicked out of our worshipping community, we’re much more likely to leave if we get a little miffed about something. Rather than face ridicule for our faith, contemporary Christians are more likely to blend in with the secular landscape, choosing to exercise faith when it’s convenient rather than as a counter-cultural lifestyle. I’m really not trying to sound harsh. According to the Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, one in four adults ages 18-29 claims no religious affiliation, and only 51% of Americans claim to be Protestant (only 18.1% mainline). At the rate we’re going, perhaps it won’t be terribly long until we do understand something of the state of the world for Jesus’ earliest followers, but I digress.
Are you goat or sheep? Doomed or saved? Do-gooder or not? My own understanding is that I’m a goat. There is nothing I can do to earn my way into heaven or save myself from the black hole of separation from God. Thanks to Jesus, God made flesh, I can be a goat in sheep’s clothing. I am an adopted child of God. Does looking at Jesus’ words from this perspective change anything? Yes and no.
The words are still there as they were recorded by the faithful followers of our Lord–enigmatic and ripe for faulty interpretation. One thing is certain; no matter who is a goat and who is a sheep what Jesus is most interested in is finding out is how we care for one another here on earth, particularly those on the margins. Even more important, it seems that this caring is so much a part of the disciple’s lifestyle that one is not even conscious of doing anything extraordinary. Disciples are even too busy looking for King Jesus to see him in the face and needs of their fellow humans.
Our king looks nothing like the world’s idea of a king. This lesson illumines that fact by depicting a king that fits our human notions of how things should be. Yet buried in and woven through this story is the identity of the king of kings. Yes, our king is found in and with the least of our sisters and brothers. Our king walks with us, loves us lavishly, saves us, and invites us to be an active part of his reign in the already and the not yet. People get ready…it’s the end of the church year, but it’s the beginning of a new day, too. Come with open hands, hearts, and minds to Christ’s table. Goats and sheep–all are welcome.
Blessings on your preaching and teaching.
Why not construct a PowerPoint presentation set to “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Choose visuals that support the gospel lesson–feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, clothing those who have none. Intersperse these images with pictures from your own worshiping community. Here’s a link to a YouTube version recorded by Seal and one of Mayfield with a fine group of musicians.
Consider this quote by Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread and Jesus Freak:
“But the Christianity that called to me, through the stories I read in the Bible, scattered the proud and rebuked the powerful. It was a religion in which divinity was revealed by scars on flesh. It was an upside-down-world in which treasure, as the prophet said, was found in darkness; in which the hungry were filled with good things, and the rich sent out empty; in which new life was manifested through a humiliated, hungry woman and en empty, tortured man.”
How does Miles’ observation square with this week’s gospel lesson? What do you think about sheep and goats and Jesus as king? How do we make service to others and love of neighbors as much a part of our lives as breathing?
Please, please don’t use Burger King paper crowns for your Children’s Sermon this year! Let’s work on the idea of Jesus as servant king. An excellent book is The Children of the King by Max Lucado. This delightful tale has a group of children preparing to meet the king. All but one of them is so involved in being ready, that they miss his unheralded and quiet arrival.
If you can’t locate a copy of that book, consider using Teresa of Avila’s famous poem “Christ has no Body” to help children understand that they carry Christ into the world and see Christ in their neighbor, too.