The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King (Proper 29A)
23 November 2014
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
You hear it said all the time that Christianity is a “religion of the book.” It’s an idea that comes from the Muslim notion of respect for other faith traditions whom they consider “Peoples of the Book.” On the face of it, it sounds quite reasonable and has created ground for interfaith dialogue and ways in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims (and sometimes others, like Hindus) can relate to one another productively. Furthermore, many Christians, especially from Protestant traditions that place high, or even absolute value on the primacy of scripture buy into the notion whole heartedly. It is too bad, then, that this concept does not hold up to scrutiny and needs to be rejected when coming to an understanding of the essential nature of our Christian faith and the lives to which we are called.
Christianity is not a religion about a book. As I’ve often quipped, it’s a religion about a guy. That “guy,” we assert, was none other than God incarnate, the very Word of God made flesh, God’s self expression into time and space, Love actualised into the here and now and made available to all of us. And this changes everything. Long before there was a Christian Bible, Jesus sat with his disciples at that last meal he shared with them and gave them the command to gather together around a table to take, bless, and share bread and wine that will be for them his very body and blood. In doing this in remembrance of him, the powerful remembrance that brings the past into the present moment, they will be united with him for ever. The early Church took this command very seriously and, in a variety of ways according to local customs, did just that. They gathered to hear the stories of the Hebrew prophets, hear stories about Jesus, respond to them in prayer, and then share in that meal that turned all those assembled into the very body of Christ.
The book, the Christian book, took shape slowly over time as authorities across the various communities discerned the kernel of the Gospels and Paul’s letters and then hashed out what else was in and what was out: Hebrews in, Shepherd of Hermas out, for example. What drove that formation of the Christian Biblical canon, what drove the assembly of texts that told differing and often contradictory accounts of Jesus origins, life and ministry, and death, was an underlying notion that there was a Gospel, that there was Good News that transcended the variations. At its core there was an understanding that something seismic had taken place and that the world was for ever changed. Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection had accomplished something: God had defeated the powers of death through the power of Love and this alters the way we live our lives.
We are not a religion of the Book. We are a religion of the Gospel, the Good News that love beats death every time and that we are called to cooperate with God in this work. If there is any passage in scripture that sums up for me the meaning, the very core of the Gospel, the Good news that Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection put the power of love, divine love in our hands, it is the one we heard a few minutes ago. It is one of the few passages I can quote chapter and verse! You have heard me talk about it time and time again, even when it hasn’t been our lesson for the day. It is the heart of what it means to be a Christian in the world today and tells us exactly how we can live our lives as Christians in the world. There are many mysteries in our world, beautiful, wonderful mysteries, but the nature of the Christian life and one of the principle ways in which we encounter God in our daily lives are not two of them.
Matthew describes a vision of judgement at the end of time:
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
Here before us is the essence of the Gospel, the truth that lies at the very centre of our Christian faith and life, the essence of what we carry out with us each Sunday when we leave this place, nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ, become one with his body. We, the bearers of the Body of Christ into the world encounter others in the world and we see God in Christ in them. We treat each person we encounter as Jesus’ very self, love incarnate, and we do our best to love them and minister to them according to their needs.
Each person we encounter on the street, on the subway, at work, in class, sitting in the pew next to us right now, is a beloved child of God in whom we see the face of Jesus, of Love incarnate. We are called to be open to others in each encounter, open to connecting with them in a profound way, open to their needs, their pain, as well as their ability to love and share their experience with us. How we treat our neighbours—even our stranger neighbours—is the mark of how we treat God.
Now, I’m not saying for a moment that our openness and love will always be met with like openness and love. Sometimes, and perhaps more often than not, it won't be. Just this past Monday I had two fairly ugly encounters out and about with folks who were clearly not open and receptive to seeing the face of God in those whom they encountered. While such moments can be disheartening, these brief exchanges, one in Chelsea Market and another on the uptown 3 train between Times Square and 72nd Street, did not for a moment, however, deter me from continuing on the path that Jesus tells us is the way of the Gospel, the way of Love. In a funny way, the anger the woman on the train expressed towards me was so strong that it caught the attention of others in the car and I ended up having a wonderful conversation with two people all the rest of the way to 96th Street, creating a little community of understanding and compassion.
Life in the City can be discouraging, it can seem alienating, and keeping ourselves open to our neighbours can be a challenge. And this is what we are here for every Sunday, every day. This community and the Sacrament we celebrate give us strength, help us better understand our work, help keep us from being discouraged and can encourage us to keep at this hard work of neighbour love, giving ourselves, opening ourselves to others, especially others in need.
On this Sunday when we mark Christ’s sovereignty, the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Love over the powers of the world that conspire against it, let us commit ourselves as subjects of that Kingdom. Let us commit ourselves to being beautiful, individual, unique, loved subjects (not objects....) of the Kingdom of Love in which the hungry are fed, the thirsty are satiated, the sick are healed, the prisoners and captives are set free, and all are enveloped in the Divine Love that sits at the centre of the Cosmos.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
20 November 2014
© 2014 Andrew Charles Blume