Sermons

Sun, Nov 26, 2017

A fraught concept

Sermon for 'Christ the King'
Series:Sermons

What do you think of when you hear the word, "King"?

 

Personally...

it's not a word to which I relate positively, at all.

It probably won't come as a shock to many of you, but I'm an ardent republican--

I have been for as long as I can remember...

certainly all of my adult life.

And that conviction goes deeper than the usual superficial arguments--

namely-- 

that we're a grown up country...

not a colony any more...

and we really ought to have our own head of state.

Rather, for me, it's much more ideological.

I object to the very notion of monarchy.

I do not believe, simply by accident of birth, that someone has the right to govern...

or to hold sway over the lives of others--

even in the somewhat minimalist sense in which most of us experience that these days.

It's an affront to my democratic and egalitarian sensibilities.

It's anathema to how I understand us as people and a society.

More than that...

when I think of royalty...

the sorts of words or images that come to my mind are:

obscenely wealthy...

pompous, patronising, and privileged...

stiff and unapproachable...

haughty...

arrogant and aloof.

And, in the case of certain examples, the word "buffoon" also comes to mind.

Beyond that...

from the realms of film and literature--

especially in the case of kings who weren't just figureheads...

but who exercised real power and control--

words like cruel, tyrannical, and fickle also come to mind.

Now, I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

And even for those who admire the current monarch of Britain...

and the stability of our political system...

I would hope that they could appreciate how fraught the concept of 'king' is...

within the context of our contemporary world.

All of which makes this day in the church's calendar--

the celebration of "Christ the King"-- 

somewhat fraught as well.

Of course, such a notion made a lot of sense in the life of the earliest Christians.

For them, it was an important political affirmation.

Through this image and this celebration...

literally, they were declaring that Christ is Lord, not the Emperor...

and they were affirming the hope that... 

one day... 

he will rule the world with justice and equity...

and then they won't experience the sort of suffering, oppression, and persecution...

that they were enduring presently.

It was an image...

a concept...

that made much sense in the ancient world...

and filled their precarious experience with a deep sense of hope.

And yet, so often, even for them...

it was a rather ambiguous concept.

So often, their experience of suffering infused the image with a sense of judgment and retribution.

In other words...

what they were really saying is,

"when Christ is finally and fully made King...

and he's exercising power over the whole world...

then we will be vindicated...

and"--

whether it is stated overtly or simply implied--

"the rest of 'you' will get your just rewards".

And we get something of that sense in our reading from Matthew's Gospel this morning--

in the so-called 'Parable of the Sheep and the Goats'.

Here, the author imagines Christ as an Oriental Potentate...

in all his glory...

sitting upon his throne...

sitting in judgment...

and those who have not been obedient subjects...

those who have displeased him...

are banished to eternal punishment.

This image of Christ as King...

is really no different in manner, behaviour, or outlook...

than that of the Caesars and Emperors that he has superseded.

Frankly, it's a very harsh and frightful image--

not at all keeping with what we know of the historical Jesus...

or the God of whom he spoke...

or the God whom he embodied.

True, the basis on which he passes judgment here--

the way in which people have exercised compassion and care...

in particular, towards the poor...

the sick...

the immigrant and refugee...

and the prisoner--

is consistent with what we know of the historical Jesus...

and of the God whom we encounter throughout the Bible.

But it's a distortion.

It's a theological distortion shaped by suffering... 

and the desire, or need, for vengeance.

 

So, then, what are we to do with this parable?

Is there anything, here, that is useful or helpful?

 

First of all, let's leave aside the author's unhelpful language of fire-and-brimstone--

sadly, that's a penchant that's unique to this particular Gospel writer.

Second, it's important to note that this is not an image of an individualised 'last judgment'...

complete with the rewarding or punishment of humankind as individuals.

Despite some ambiguity in most English translations...

the Greek is quite clear:

it's nations that are being judged--

not individuals--

based on the treatment of the most vulnerable among them;

it's nations that are being rewarded or punished.

And yet, in the end, that's probably not much of an improvement.

Such a notion presupposes an absolute collectivism that is unhelpful for us today.

And while it's important that nations...

and their governments...

ought to be held accountable for how they treat the suffering and the vulnerable--

the poor, the sick, the refugee, and the imprisoned--

to shift the responsibility and the accountability for that... 

to the cosmic and apocalyptic realm... 

is playing with fire!

It simply perpetuates the old pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die theology--

a theology that has traditionally encouraged a conservative social quietism.

 

Instead...

one commentator has suggested that the parable should be seen as a warning...

that those communities that neglect the needy are sowing the seeds of their own violent destruction.

You can't continue to denigrate and dehumanise people with impunity.

Ultimately, there will be consequences.

Because people without hope have nothing to lose.

And while that makes sense politically and sociologically--

and even theologically--

it's something of a twisting of the parable itself.

 

Perhaps, in the end, the point of the parable is much simpler.

Perhaps... 

for us, today...

the parable is a clear and unambiguous affirmation of the intimacy of the incarnation. 

It's affirming an integral connection between Christ and the marginalised...

between Christ and the disenfranchised.

Perhaps, in a sense, it's affirming that Christ is something of an anti-king:

Christ... 

as 'king'... 

is not pompous or patronising...

nor arrogant and aloof.

Far from it!

Christ, as 'king', is intimately involved.

He identifies completely and fully with the suffering and the vulnerable.

Anything that we do to them, we do to him.

Anything that we don't do for them, we don't do for him.

Sadly, that so infrequently informs our thinking...

or our living.

 

So, today, on this celebration...

or commemoration...

of Christ as 'King'...

this parable stands as a salutary reminder to us.

We can't speak of Christ as King...

or proclaim 'Jesus as Lord'...

or declare that we are his followers...

or anticipate the coming of his kingdom...

or think that we are worshipping the God whom he claims to manifest and incarnate...

if we treat the suffering...

the marginalised...

and the oppressed...

with apathy or disdain.

According to this parable...

that simply is not an option.

 

 
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