In a year of such struggle and suffering how strange to celebrate the Kingship of Christ. And yet if we can understand that the suffering servant is sovereign and will be our judge we may find hope and life in some of the dark and dismal situations we find ourselves and our world in. (RCL Matthew 25:31-46)
Many of us have some reservations about the language of kingship in any area of life including a discomfort with that title for Jesus. Others of us have great joy in proclaiming the risen Christ as the sovereign ruler of all. And so as we prepare to celebrate Christ as King we proclaim and struggle to understand that the Jesus who we celebrate week by week as broken for us, and who soon we will celebrate as human infant so tender and mild, is also the Lord of all things, places and time.
It is a huge claim – that the one who was fully human, who did not abhor the virgin’s womb, nor avoid the cup of suffering unto death, both is and will be the Lord of all. That just as we try to comprehend that the one who was fully human was also fully divine we are saying that the one who was humble and who sort out the lost and the least is also the one who will judge all. We need to be careful to not be claiming that our Jesus is better than your Jesus. Ridiculous of course. And yet that is what we do when we think judgement is about dogma and belief. For our gospel reading uncompromisingly says this week that come judgement it is our actions and relationships which will be judged not our theology or high morals.
Before we go any further let us reflect for a moment about what judgement is and isn’t. For some of us judgement is synonymous with a court room drama in which evidence of goodness or badness is gathered and weighed up with a verdict of in or out. Maybe. But I think judgement is more like the discernment of a surgeon as to what is healthy and what is diseased. Or the sorting of a farmer as to which sheep to keep and which to let go of, or of goats from sheep. Or of which fish out of the net to keep and which ones to throw back. These are all examples of judgement that are biblical and are about sorting out what is desirable from what is not desirable.
And Jesus makes it clear that what is desirable is that we should have love for our neighbour, especially our neighbour who is struggling. But Jesus doesn’t simply say that we should be nice to people worse off than ourselves because being nice is a good thing to do. He says that when we engage with those on the edge, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsty then we are ministering to him – to him not simply for him! Why might he have said that?
Well I think it is a very strong way of saying that everything and everyone is valued by Jesus, is part of God and God is in everything and everyone, so that whenever we engage with anyone rich or poor, wise or foolish, worthy or unworthy then we are engaging with a part of God’s precious creation.
And there is this reoccurring theme of the preference for the poor. If Jesus did have this preference for the poor why would that be? Possibly because Jesus has compassion for those who hunger and thirst and are imprisoned. And I am sure he does. But possibly also because the poor – the lost and the least – are more likely to want a change to happen, are less likely to be committed to the status quo, are more likely to be desperate for the reign of God to come because they know in their very flesh and everyday life that the present order is not the kingdom of God!
Which is maybe why we are being asked to understand being in solidarity, in relationship, with the imprisoned, the hungry and the thirsty is not only morally good but spiritually important. Because we are brought into a profound encounter with why the reign of God is needed, why we pray for the kingdom of God to come and be on earth as it is in heaven, why Jesus needs to be Lord as well as brother and travelling companion in life.
I suspect it is only when we are hungry, thirsty, feel imprisoned by bars or ideas or feelings or addictions that we are ready to desperately long for the reign of God instead of think the kingdom sounds like an ethical place someday sometime someplace else.
For when we still feel separate (and let’s face it better than) those who hunger and thirst, those who are imprisoned, when we still think they are “others” whom we lean down to in our niceness and goodness, then we are not yet ready to know that Jesus came so that all the world might be drawn into the fullness of salvation and life abundant.
Proclaiming Jesus as King is to dethrone our ego, our plans, our self importance, our particular fears and anxiety for a while and to glimpse the interconnected beauty and power and vulnerable truth that all has value to God, that all belongs.
In some ways those of us who live the religious life are worse at this than those who come to Jesus straight off the street. Because we have invested a lot of genuinely hard work – blood, sweat and tears – in coming to our various understandings about Jesus and how we are meant to live. And the truth is we have also invested a lot of subtle tricks to keep as much control of our lives as we can under the guise of righteousness. It is what Jesus kept picking up on in the religious of his day. It is very hard not to!
I, like everyone else, from time to time need to allow that wilful, educated, self selecting part of me to know that not only do I have great compassion for those who are hungry, thirsty or imprisoned but that I am desperately hungry, thirsty and imprisoned and that I long for reign of God in my heart instead of being president of my own little feudal state of ideas and preferences and certainties.
Sometimes we need to acknowledge how broken we are so that we will get down on our knees and give up the struggle to be in charge of our own little kingdom and to allow the kingdom of God to reign. In the practical and life saving spirituality of the 12 steps of AA the first step is to admit that we are powerless over ... alcohol or whatever controls us. (And that can include the need to always be right!) St Paul said that he was powerless to do the good that he would rather than what he did not want to do. It is the ancient and central dilemma of being human. We know, or think we know, what is needed but seem powerless to do or be what is required.
Before we become enlightened, Scripture, such as this morning’s gospel, must humble us. Before we are healed we need to experience and confess our brokenness and our need. Before the kingdom of God is established on earth we need to desire renewal more than we enjoy the small safety and security of imaging we are in charge. When we declare Christ to be King we celebrate not only the cosmic out there reality but the needed inside truth that the suffering servant needs to be the King, the Lord, the Sovereign of our hearts and passions – our destination and our home.
We are called to finish the church year broken open and emptied out so that we can make room for the one who is to be born – the child who is also king. Again and again. Year after year. Moment by moment.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come reign over me.