The Last Sunday after Pentecost,
November 22, 2020
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
Four years ago I stood before you on this feast of Christ the King in the wake of the 2016 election, and reflected how in that moment I felt a particular resonance with the origins of this feast in the 1920s, during Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy. As fascism was in the ascendant, the Roman Catholic Church sought to remind the faithful that the rulers and leaders of this world are ultimately powerless in the face of the authority of our true King. They wanted to teach that the values of Christ the King were those we should emulate rather than those of the authoritarians and racists preaching in the public square. I think I said something to the effect that I was now, for the first time, embracing the feast “as if I were a biretta and fiddle back chasuble-wearing Roman Catholic cardinal in 1930s Rome.”
Four years later, these feelings are no less palpable, even though there is, perhaps, light on the horizon of the American political landscape. Nevertheless, no earthly ruler should be let off the hook, and we, as Christians, must reflect on, and embrace the model of leadership embodied by God, by Christ the King. For weeks now the Gospel has been offering us a wholehearted critique of earthly, self-interested, timid, craven, leaders who are constantly worried about the reaction of the mob. We have also been learning that all of us are called into the life of the Kingdom of God and that we must be prepared for the moment when that Kingdom breaks into this world. We are called to watch and wait for the coming of our true king and when the moment comes we are to engage fully, with our whole selves. It is a clarion call to a heightened state of awareness as we live in these days between the inauguration of the Kingdom and its fulfilment.
Today on this feast of Christ the King we are shown what true leadership looks like and are encouraged to embrace that model. Today is full of good news for all those who are open, willing, and able to engage the work of the Kingdom of God. We are given the vision that we have a part to play in helping God make this world a place full of justice, peace, and love, that we are, in fact, God’s body incarnating God’s way of leadership, incarnating the very love of God into this moment.
We have learnt that God’s way of leadership looks nothing like that exercised by the authorities of Jesus’ day, let alone what we have seen on display from those who have held the reigns of government in our nation in our day. To those leaders strength is equated with violence, looks like bullying, eschews tenderness, and scorns virtue. They equate their exercise of raw power with masculinity of the worst kind, and castigate as weak any nurturing instincts. Yet, over and over again Scripture has taught us that God works in different ways. We heard the God of Israel tell Ezekiel:
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.
The priorities of God are those of the shepherd: to tend and nurture, and to protect. The shepherd heals the sick, seeks the lost, nourishes those who are hungry. At the same time, the shepherd would never let anything happen to any of his flock and would protect each and every one, even unto death. So many places in scripture describe God as our shepherd, even the shepherd who knows what it is to be a lamb, vulnerable and weak, the one who is led to the slaughter. This is our king, and it is from this vantage point of empathy and compassion, that God shows what human leadership can be, what we should be doing now, not only at the moment when we are invited to the wedding feast, at the moment that the bridegroom arrives.
Nowhere in scripture is the example of what divine authority, divine kingship looks like clearer than in today’s Gospel from Matthew. It is the culmination of everything Matthew has been teaching his community about Jesus, and of all we have been hearing this fall. Here we are given a vision of the judgement that will come, a vision that calls us to account not only in the future, but now, here, in this moment.
And what do we find? Who is to be our judge? It is the shepherd:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.
We, each and every one of us, especially those entrusted with leading communities and nations, are judged, even now, even here. And what is the criteria on which we are and shall be judged?
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.’
I quote this passage at length; every time. We can not hear these words enough. The King in this tale praises those qualities we first heard enumerated in the beatitudes: mercy, peacemaking, purity of heart, hunger and thirst for righteousness. For loving neighbour, actively, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing those in need, visiting and healing the sick, showing mercy for the prisoner, these are the practical, human expressions of the shepherd’s work, and when we are enacting this work, we are expressing the love of God. To do this work requires strength and courage. It requires the ability to stand up to thugs and bullies. It necessitates caring for other people in a way that ultimately sees them as not only children of God, but as incarnations themselves of divine love.
The stakes are high, we are told, for those who fail to act in this way sentence themselves to an eternity of separation from divine love. It is something they have done to themselves and the “eternal punishment” to which they are condemned by the King is a consequence of continued blindness to the reality of who God truly is and the nature of the truth that sits at the heart of everything. Matthew’s gospel has been calling out to us clearly, giving us a warning, teaching us how we are to act, what we are to do. Most of all, it is teaching us whom to follow, what to make our priority, giving us courage and hope in the knowledge that way of love is the Way.
Christ the King is a moment, on the precipice of the Church year, when we look into the abyss, contemplate the time when God breaks into our world and ushers in the next phase of the Kingdom of God. What we see is not death and destruction, but a vision of that which is truly real: love made tangible. We shall be judged, we are being judged. But right now, in these in between times we have the chance to waken and engage the works of love described by, and directed towards our king and judge, as well as our neighbours. This is the call of the Advent into which we are entering; come, Emmanuel, and turn our hearts.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 21 November 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume