Several years ago I sent my then First Assistant Priest, Fr. Charleston Wilson, who is now the Rector of my former parish, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I wanted him to go because it enriches one’s ministry in countless ways. I have been blessed to go several times, taking a group of pilgrims each time.
When Fr. Charleston got back, he told me that a question he asked a Hasidic Jew was whether they have Jews from the Reform tradition of Judaism in Israel. Hasidic Jews are orthodox Jews to the Nth degree. The Hasidic Jew’s dismissive reply was, “Reform Jews are of no consequence. You know, they’re kind of like Episcopalians in the Christian faith. They don’t believe anything.”
Of course, he didn’t know he was talking to an Episcopalian. What an inaccurate picture of Episcopalians he had! Or did he? I cringe inside when someone calls us “Catholic Lite.” “Lite” is good when referring to calories; when speaking of our faith it’s a terrible indictment.
This is the last Sunday of the Church Year. On this day, the year comes to a dramatic close as we celebrate Christ as King. King of what? King of Christians? King of heaven? King of creation?—King of all that is or ever will be, King of the universe. King of kings and Lord of lords. I can’t ever hear that verse from Revelation without thinking of Handel’s immortal setting of that text: King of kings and Lord of lords.
The designation of Christ as King is a curious one for us Americans. Our picture of kings is not altogether flattering. One might even say that we have an innate distrust of kings. While we enjoy watching the royal family in England, a monarchy in America is unthinkable. Thomas Jefferson said of monarchy, “There’s not a single crowned head in Europe whose talents or merits would entitle him to be elected a vestryman by the people of any parish in America.” Jefferson was speaking of Episcopalians, by the way! Mark Twain expressed American distrust of monarchy even more concisely in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “All kings is mostly rapscallions.”
But the real problem lies not in the concept of kingship, but in the inability of most kings to be what a king should be. To quote another famous American, William Penn, “Kings…should imitate God; their mercy should be above all their works.” God is the model for kings, and Christ is King of kings.
In the today’s Gospel we have a vision of Christ coming in glory at the end of time. He’s seated on a glorious throne, surrounded by throngs of angels, and all people from throughout the ages, from every nation on earth, are gathered before him. It’s Judgment Day. He separates them into two groups, the sheep and the goats, the sheep destined for heaven, and the goats destined for everlasting punishment. Every time we say the Nicene Creed, we say Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Yet this picture of the King Jesus as a stern judge, actually sending some people to eternal punishment is unsettling. We want the Jesus who’s merciful, infinitely loving and forgiving. This picture of Jesus shows a point of no return, that what we do here on earth matters eternally.
What’s the criterion for deciding whether one is a sheep or a goat? The showing of mercy to those who come to us in need. Not only that, Jesus tells us that in showing mercy to the needy we’re actually showing mercy to him; and in withholding mercy to the needy, we withhold mercy to him. Even as you feed the least of the hungry, give drink to the least of the thirsty, visit the lowliest of prisoners, you’ve done it to Jesus.
It seems so simple. Our eternal destiny rests on such a simple thing. We’ve experienced mercy ourselves—our sins have been forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. St. Paul states that “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” We have accepted him as Savior and Lord. Now we must live our lives with mercy as our prime directive. Our lives are to show the love of Christ, and as we show that love of Christ we actually meet him.
St. Francis of Assisi was riding his horse on his way home one day. Struggling with God and the call on his life, yet still enjoying the benefits of being a rich man’s son, he felt his horse shy under him. He looked up to see the most feared sight in the 12th century world—a leper.
Fighting down his fear and loathing, Francis dismounted, went to the leper, and put some money in his hand. Then, impelled by what he regarded as the unseen power of Christ, he took the leper’s hand and kissed it, putting his lips to the leper’s rotting flesh. The leper took hold of him and gave him the kiss of peace in return. Francis reciprocated, then got back on his horse and rode home.
From that day he began to visit the lepers, bringing them gifts and kissing their hands. In his will, Francis wrote, “The Lord led me among them, and I showed mercy to them, and when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of body and soul.
As this Christian Year comes to a close, we do well to reflect on what we mean when we call Christ King. Let this part of the Episcopal Church, the only part that we can really influence, be known for our great faithfulness, our devotion to following our Lord Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords, our generosity to the mission of Christ in this place, and our devotion to serving the poor.