Christ the King Sunday: Sheep and Goats

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday in the year according to our church calendar, and it’s the day we celebrate Christ as Lord of the entire cosmos, of all that is.  It is a feast with fairly recent origins. The first part of the twentieth century was marked by a rise in dictators—such as Mussolini and Stalin—and many European Christians pledged loyalty to these leaders. So in 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King as a way to remind the Church that our ultimate allegiance belongs only to God, not to whatever nation we live in or to the charismatic, iron-fisted leaders that spring up from time to time.

Initially Christ the King Sunday was celebrated in Roman Catholic churches on the last Sunday of October—where it pointed towards All Saints’ Day and, as some more skeptical historians say, where it competed with the popularity of Reformation Sunday among Lutheran and other churches. In 1969, the feast was moved to the last Sunday of the church year—a time that emphasizes the fulfillment of history when the kingdom of heaven will come in all its fullness, and Christ is all in all. So that’s the history behind this day in the church calendar.

But still the fact remains that this is a feast day with which many Episcopalians are a little uncomfortable. How do we celebrate this feast day without advocating a Christianity that is the very type of domination that Christ sought to overcome?  How do we celebrate this day without ascribing to God the characteristics of human kings and dictators? How do we celebrate this day while still acknowledging that when Christ gathers all things up into himself, the richness and diversity of this world won’t be erased, but instead will be embraced?

At first glance, our gospel reading for today doesn’t seem to help us very much with these questions.  It’s a scene of judgment.  All the nations gather before the throne of the Son of Man, and people are separated like a shepherd separates goats from sheep.  Up until now the goats and the sheep have lived side-by-side—interwoven such that it has often been difficult to tell one from the other.  But finally the identity of each is revealed, and ultimately the only kingdom will be the kingdom of heaven.

This is not a particularly helpful image in a world where intolerance and division has left thousands dead as a result of ethnic wars, religious intolerance, and cultural domination.  The inclination to separate people into one group or another is alive and healthy in the world today, and it’s alive and healthy in the Church, too.  We in the Church have spent lots of time hypothesizing about how the lines of division will be drawn on a future judgment day, about what will separate the goats from the sheep.  We’ve worn ourselves out perseverating on the differences between liberals and conservatives, fundamentalists and progressives, orthodoxy and heresy, Protestant and Catholic, East and West—all lines drawn based on dogma, culture, and worship.

But if we look closely at the text of this passage from Matthew, we find that what separates the sheep and the goats is not what they believe, how they worship, or what they call themselves.     What it means to be truly faithful to Christ is much simpler than all that.  What it looks like to be faithful to Christ is this:  Did you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison? At the end of the day this passage tells us less about what happens on some future judgment day than it does about what it looks like to follow Jesus in the here and now.  This parable doesn’t say very much about what it will be like to see Jesus face-to-face on the last day; it has a lot to say about what it’s like to meet Christ, to see Christ, every single day here on earth.

Let’s face it, we want to see Jesus.  In fact, we spend a lot of time talking about where it is exactly that we find Jesus—the bread and the wine, the scripture, the community we experience in this place.  It’s true—we do find Jesus in all these places.  And we look for him in other places as well—in our hearts, in the quiet of prayer, in the stained glass windows, in the exercises that open us up to experience afresh the presence of God.  And this is all true and good.

But where does Jesus tell his followers they will meet him?  Not in the safety of any insular community, and not in peaceful solitude.   “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  What’s interesting in this parable is that where Jesus is found comes as a surprise to both groups—the sheep and the goats.  For even the righteous say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Peter Storey, a former Methodist bishop from South Africa, wrote the following words:  “In the Kingdom, the humble are lifted high and the most vulnerable have pride of place.  That is why you cannot ask Jesus into your heart alone.  He will ask, ‘Can I bring my friends?’  You will look at his friends and they will consist of the poor and marginalized and oppressed, and you will hesitate.  But Jesus is clear:  ‘Only if I can bring my friends.’ ”[1]  If we want to find Jesus, we just look for his friends.

The problem is that we often have a predetermined image of who Jesus’ friends ought to be, and so we want to add something to these words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.  We want to qualify them.  If it were up to many of us, we might prefer Jesus to say:  “I was hungry through no fault of my own.  I hadn’t spent any money on alcohol; I physically couldn’t work; I was very appreciative and polite; I was truly ‘deserving.’  And so you gave me something to eat and some clothes to wear.  I was sick and could prove it, with doctors’ bills in hand and a brand new surgical scar marking my right side.  And you took care of me.  I was in prison for something I hadn’t done, or I had absolutely repented of my wrongdoing and claimed a totally new way of life.  And so you visited me.”  But that’s not what Jesus said.  We are to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison—period.  Not because each person fits what we consider to be the picture of  a wonderful human being—I suspect some do, and some do not.  That’s not the point.  The point is that we can find Jesus in each one of them. And we should live in such a way that they see Jesus in each of us as well.

The kingdom where Christ is King is unlike any earthly kingdom we know, because the reign of Christ is marked by a respect for every human being—as well as for all creation. It crosses all dividing lines based on national identity, economic systems, ethnic distinctions, political parties, assigned roles, or belief systems. Our loyalty belongs to this kingdom. Our loyalty belongs to this king—the one who would lay down his own life for his friends (and we are all his friends).

I think it’s fitting that our Stewardship In-gathering falls on this Sunday, on Christ the King Sunday. After all, we have been entrusted with our money, our time, and our many gifts—with our little piece of the world—so  that we can make this kingdom a reality here, in this place. The question we ask ourselves is this: Will we live into the reality of Christ’s kingdom, or will we allow ourselves to be ruled by the many other things of this world that demand our loyalty?

[1] “Let God Be God!” in With God in the Crucible, Abingdon Press, p.154.