A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard on the Last Sunday after Pentecost ("Christ the King")
This fall over four sessions in Adult Forum, we’ve been looking together at what goes into vibrant church life. I’ve done some teaching on four areas of Christian life that all need to be functioning well, and functioning such that they are integrated, in order for a church to be a healthy manifestation of the Body of Christ for its own place and time. And then I’ve been hearing from parishioners about their own experience of all four.
The four areas we’ve talked about are Community, Formation, Worship, and Mission. We looked at Biblical and theological foundations in each of those four areas, studying key passages of Scripture and considering quotes from a few writers. And in each area we also talked about what happens when churches skip the process of fostering these four building blocks of Christian life and instead substitute things that seem similar but have different results. ...
For example, when we dealt with Community, we looked at how Christian community is united by Jesus Christ as the common thread. The Bible uses some great images for this: a vine through which the life of Jesus is flowing, for example, or a human body in which every cell in the body is working as part of the whole system, doing exactly what it has evolved to do best. And we contrasted that robust and distinctively Christian vision with the kind of things churches can sometimes substitute for it: relationships based on just liking each other on a human level, or connections rooted in age or class or taste, as if the church were one among many volunteer non-profit organizations.
We did the same thing with Formation and Worship that we did with Community. We talked about how distinctive and transformative real whole-life formation for living and thinking as a Christian is -- and how churches can end up substituting abstract learning or scattershot events for it. And then we talked about worship as a manifestation of the Kingdom, something God gives to reorient us week by week to the way he sees things -- and how churches can substitute entertainment or aesthetics for that.
And so last week we dealt with Mission. Mission comes from the word to send, and mission is what happens when a group of Christians are living together in robust and integrated community, formation, and worship: God’s love is alive enough there that it sends itself outward. One of the theologians we looked at, David Bosch, simply says, “To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.”
In many of the sessions, I took whatever area of Christian life we were discussing, community, formation, worship, asked for examples of how people had lived this out and gave a few from my own experience, since people here are still getting to know me. And so I did this for Mission, as well. I won’t share anyone else’s stories because I haven’t asked permission, but when I gave an example from my life of being sent as part of the movement of God’s love toward people, I was delighted by the conversation that ensued.
The example I gave was when a church that I was part of, on a hot summer evening, took a team of parishioners and gave away free water at an outdoor concert in our town’s downtown area. I commented that what struck me most about that experience of mission was that people couldn’t believe that a church would do something kind for them without a catch. Most people assume that when a church approaches you, they want something: either they’re looking for a donation, or they’re trying to get new members, or something. "It can’t just be a free gift! There’s no such thing, right?"
(Which, by the way, is exactly how most of us respond to God’s grace in Christ. "It can’t be free. Surely I’ve got to be able to do something to pay for this.")
So I told that little story at Adult Forum and the very interesting conversation that ensued centered on this question: Does that count? Is a church that is giving away free water on a summer night in Jesus’ name, as a pure act of blessing, no questions asked, doing Christian mission, or should we principally have been trying to recruit or evangelize?
Or should we perhaps have limited our generosity only to people who qualified as needy? Is it Christian only if it’s helping those whom the world would label “less fortunate” (although I have to say at this church, several people on the team that was giving the water away were folks whom the world would label as “less fortunate.”) Does what we did count?
Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which is commonly called the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the final Sunday of the liturgical year, a day that celebrates the universal rule of Jesus Christ over all dimensions of existence: inanimate creation, the plant and animal kingdoms, space and time, the past present and future, and all aspects of human life and endeavor. The collect for this day begins with one of the most breathtakingly bold phrases in the Prayer Book, although like many breathtakingly bold phrases in the Prayer Book it actually comes from the Bible.
Almighty God, it says, whose will it is to restore all things in your well beloved Son… So what is God’s will, there? To restore all things. Not just some things, not just things related to religion. Not just individual people, not just churches. All things and not one whit less than all of them. No place is excluded, no time is excluded, no domain of human endeavor is excluded. God’s will is to restore all things in his well beloved Son Jesus Christ.
And the Gospel today pictures how that plays out. Jesus is on the throne, his true status as King of the Universe has gone public, and the nations are assembled before him. And he pulls off the blinders from people’s eyes and reveals to them: it was Me all along. In every act of restoration you did or failed to do, in every motion of love you made or failed to make, in every moment of generosity or self-protection, whomever you thought it was directed at, you were actually dealing with Me.
Those people, he says, that you labeled "less fortunate"? They were really your Lord, your infinite superior. That weakness in yourself you refused to admit? I was in there, waiting for you. Whether you knew it or not, it was always Me.
If this Gospel can be trusted, Christ is present all the time everywhere. He embodies God’s will to restore all things everywhere. When that will moves forward in any specific local situation, say through the gift of cold water or the welcoming of a stranger, it is moving forward in Christ. When it fails to happen in any specific local situation because you or I say no, that failure is experienced by and mourned in Christ.
Whatever it is, Jesus is already there, embodying God’s will to restore all things -- because after all, he is God, and it is his will too. And if he is already there, already at work, any time and any way we join him counts. It all counts, positive or negative. We don’t have to bring him into situations; he’s there already. He is on the other end of the transaction every time, across the counter at the bank, on the corner waiting for the light to change, at the table this Thanksgiving with your family, in the Pilates class or the training seminar or the voting booth. What we do there counts. What we do everywhere counts. We may be aware of that, says today’s Gospel, or we may not. But our awareness doesn’t change the truth: in every situation, it’s actually Jesus we’re dealing with. He was involved before we got there.
I said that I found the claim in the collect that God’s will is to restore all things in Christ breathtaking, and I find the corollary in the Gospel, that Christ is already present in all things, suffering when God’s will is frustrated and benefiting when it’s moved forward, breathtaking too.
This is really, really big stuff. It’s so infinitely big that it’s also infinitely small. There is nothing so trivial, so “least of these,” so minor, that God isn’t already including it in his will to restore all things in Christ. There is no nanosecond in our lives that doesn’t count. And at the same time, there is nothing bigger than God’s will to restore all things in Christ. There is nothing that surpasses it, that relativizes it, that it has to answer to. From meta-galactic space down to the cellular level, whatever it is, big or small, Jesus is already there.
I know that it stretches the mind to think this way. But it’s worth it, on Christ the King Sunday. And after all, to paraphrase St. Augustine: if it doesn’t stretch your mind, it’s probably not God. May he be blessed, praised, worshiped and adored now and always, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.