“When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.”
Today marks the end of the liturgical year; next week we start anew with the season of Advent. Today, the last Sunday after Pentecost, is better known as the feast of “Christ the King”. There are a few symbols of this feast around our church, some in the stained glass and some in the wood, so for the children among us, I encourage you to seek and find them. There is the cross, the symbol of agonizing death, of total vulnerability, with a crown, the symbol of great power, around it. A cross and a crown, vulnerability and power, both are symbols of Jesus. From this symbol and this feast we are reminded that the king we have in Jesus Christ is very different from the kind of king the Hebrews expected their Messiah to be.
This feast of Christ the King is actually relatively new in the church calendar, although the Biblical references to Christ as king are many. Pope Pius XI instituted this day as a feast in 1925. Think about what was happening in Europe at that time. The leaders on the rise were dictators, Mussolini and Hitler. The Kingship of Jesus was in direct contrast to their world view. Jesus’ dominion is and always has been based on love and service to others. Today’s lessons aid in describing the kind of king Jesus is and what his kingdom is like.
In particular, the scriptures use the metaphor of sheep, somewhat clueless and vulnerable animals, for the people of God’s kingdom. And God is the shepherd who cares for them. In the Epistle these sheep, the people of God’s kingdom, are named collectively as the church, Christ’s body in the world. How we behave as Christ’s body on earth is carried on in the gospel where again the people of God are named as sheep.
Another theme throughout the lessons today is judgement at the last day. We are told that the one who is the king, the one who loves us, who has compassion for us, will also be our judge.
When Matthew wrote today’s gospel there was a clear understanding among the Pharisees and really all the Hebrews there would be a time of universal judgment. What is new from Matthew is that the one who will do the judging is the same one who has compassion on us, Jesus, who is the Christ, and who is our king.
I want to take some time with the gospel this morning which speaks of acts of mercy very specifically. First, though, I want to tell you a story about this particular passage. Some almost 25 years ago when I was first going through the discernment process in the diocese, I met with the commission on ministry. This is a group composed of both lay people and clergy. Those who are discerning a call to ordained ministry meet with the commission several times throughout the process. At this first meeting I was, understandably, more than a bit nervous. I did not know what to expect.
I knew that I would be asked questions and would respond about my beliefs and why I was meeting with them. It was a lengthy interview with all sorts of questions about my life from early childhood on. Most in the group seemed friendly, nodding and smiling as we talked. There was one man, though, who stayed silent and who did not react to me. (I had heard from others that he could be a bit of a bully on occasion, so I was glad that he was quiet.)
As I thought the interview was ending that same man said I have a question for you. He then took a Bible from behind his back, pushed it across the table at me and asked that I find the passage in scripture that I took as the definition of my call. He asked me to read it to the group and then to explain its meaning.
His face was stern and deliberate. My heart rate leapt. And then as I took the Bible from the table I began to be a little angry. I quickly turned to Matthew chapter 25 beginning at verse 31 and I read the gospel from this morning. As I read my voice got clearer and more distinct. My fear and anger were gone. When I finished I looked straight into the eyes of that man and said, in a calm way, “Do I need to explain it?”
I still am very fond of this gospel passage and do not think it needs much explanation, though after years of reflection I do have a few things to say. Jesus is quite clear in this scripture of how we who follow him, who collectively are his body, are to respond to those who are in need, who are vulnerable. He tells us that whenever we do an act of mercy to others, we are in reality serving Him.
Much of Jesus’ ministry consisted of healing the sick and having compassion for those who are on the margins of life. In this last section of Matthew chapter 25, Jesus identifies himself with those who are ill and those who are in prison, who have no clothing or place to rest, or food or drink. He tells us, anytime we do service to others, we are doing it personally to him. His example leads us to care for the hungry and so on without regard of their status in life or even their belief in God. With this passage, Jesus ensures that the work of his ministry will carry on with his followers. This part of the lesson is straight-forward; we help others in need, with compassion, because this is how Jesus did it.
As a side note here I want you to notice that nowhere in the passage did Jesus say only give to those who are verifiably in need. It is not up to us to do that judgment. Nor did Jesus say give money to those who ask for money. Clothing, food, hospitality, and so on, yes, but money is not mentioned. Yet, in today’s world that often seems what we are asked for.
Rather what Jesus tells us is to respond to a need by providing it. If someone is hungry, feed them. If someone is thirsty, give them something to drink. In all honesty we may or may not be able to do that at any given moment, perhaps we can, but maybe not. If not, then we can certainly point the person to where they can get that help. And perhaps we can give our money to support those places.
Regardless of whether we give aid or not, what we can do is stop, open our eyes and see the human being that is right in front of us. We can look at these who are vulnerable with compassion.
And when you think about it, those who show us their vulnerability in reality give us that as their gift. We may think that only we are the givers but that is not so. Our ability to be givers requires that there is someone to give to.
Really as I have come to think more about this passage I think what Jesus wants for us all, is to draw nearer to him, for in giving or in receiving to see His face in the interaction. Our attitude and intention behind what we do is what matters. Seeing the other person as a child of God, precious in Jesus’ sight, is what matters.
Notice in the story we heard that both groups, the sheep and the goats, seem to be clueless when the king tells them why they are separated in the one group instead of the other. The righteous sheep ask him when did we see you hungry and give you food? The ones that were the accursed goats asked the same thing. When did we not do this to you? Both were confused. And yet the king was not. Those that were in relationship with him, who wanted to be more like him were able to respond with compassion to a need for help. They had received an understanding of what their King, their Christ, was like. And they wanted to follow His leadership.
The power of Christ’s reign is eternal and is based on love. And his kingdom is open to all who receive that love and seek to learn to respond to others with that same love. We grow in our relationship with Christ whenever we look to see His face in others. Our king is present in our brothers and sisters, especially those who are vulnerable.
Today we celebrate the depth of God’s love for us and we consciously honor Jesus as our Christ and as our King. He is the one we follow; he is the one we obey; he is the one to whom we entrust our lives; and he is the one we emulate.
In medieval times to show allegiance, a soldier would remove his weapons and armor and kneel before the monarch. The king or queen would hold a sword and the soldier would be completely vulnerable before them. The monarch could then either cut off his head, if he did not accept him, or lightly touch each shoulder of the kneeling man to make him a knight in his service.
We emulate this action today, each time we genuflect or bow to the altar. We demonstrate our choice of Jesus as our king by kneeling to him. We indicate the kingdom we belong to through this action. We choose Jesus; we trust him and we want to be like him. The king we choose to follow uses the power of love.
Jesus said, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.”
A cross and a crown, compassion expressed in vulnerability and power. Celebrate Christ as our King today and every day.