Today is the last Sunday in the Church year; it is the feast of Christ the King (a red day!). So today, we turn our thoughts and worship particularly to the Christ who sits at God’s right hand on his glorious throne, in the heavenly realms.
Artists over the centuries have created many images of Christ the King. Some of you may recognise this 20th century image entitled Christ in Glory – it’s the tapestry by Graham Sutherland that hangs behind the altar in Coventry Cathedral. It’s a bit like marmite, you either love it or you hate it. Either way, it depicts Christ enthroned. (Notice too, St Michael defeating the devil.)
As you walk down the aisle of Coventry Cathedral, the image watches you. No matter where you stand inside the Cathedral’s nave, there’s no getting away from those eyes… Jesus on the throne, looking down. And as you walk down the aisle, you get a sense that here is Christ the King, preparing to judge the world, looking down at me. Deciding whether as you walk, you’re a sheep or a goat…
When I was ordained last year, a friend of mine gave me a present. A pair of socks! You might not be able to see from where you’re sitting, but there are goats on one sock and sheep on the other! Guess what feet I’m meant to wear them on? They are of course a reminder of this passage from Matthew’s Gospel we've just heard. Have you noticed over the last couple of weeks how the atmosphere in the Gospel readings has been building? Jesus is giving his disciples some instructions before he’s arrested. He tells them to be prepared for his return, even though they don’t know when that will be. He tells them to be watchful and to be ready, but he also says don’t just rest on your laurels, whilst you’re waiting, use the gifts God has given you to further the kingdom.
In our reading today, he comes to the crunch … the Last Judgement, when they will see him again. What's going through your mind when you think of that word ‘judgement’? It doesn’t rest easy with us does it? Does it make you feel scared or uncomfortable? Does it make you feel those eyes from on high, like the tapestry in the cathedral, are watching your every move? Maybe it offends your sense of freedom, after all, ‘judgement’ implies restriction and ‘towing’ the line … or else! Or, perhaps for you, it speaks of what Jesus says about judgement to us. In fact, he talks a lot about us not judging others and yet here he is, on his throne looking at us from on high.
When we read this passage, it is confusing. It seems to suggest that our salvation – how we are sorted into sheep and goats on that day of Judgement - is dependent on our goods works, on giving food, drink, a bed and clothes to the needy, and visiting prisoners. Notice though that in the parable neither of the groups of people know they are sheep or goats. The sheep people are totally surprised and have no idea they’re doing good works for others, “when did we see you..” they ask. Surely if they were trying to keep account, to earn their way into heaven, they’d have known! Instead, they’re just doing what comes naturally to them as people of faith. The goat people are also totally surprised! “When did we see you … and did not help you?” they ask. Maybe they imagine they’re doing all the right things – going to church, putting money in the collection box, doing the ‘religious’ things and they too are totally surprised! If this passage is not about earning our way into the Kingdom, how then are we to make sense of it?
Jesus is Christ the King – he is on that glorious throne! So let’s consider what it is to be a king. We probably all have some preconceptions about kingship and what a king does. Perhaps your perception is based on Fairy Tale characters; a king sits on a throne in a castle or palace, wearing a very weighty and jewel encrusted gold crown. He wears royal red or purple robes edged in ermine and he issues commands and receives courtiers. This image resonates with our perception of historical Kings too; warrior kings like William the Conqueror; power hungry kings like King John; controlling and murdering kings like Henry VIII.
The trouble is, all these things influence our thinking and so when we come to this difficult text, we have all these preconceptions influencing our thoughts about who Christ is! Somehow we think that Christ on the throne is similar to those kings in our imaginations and that image of him in Coventry Cathedral seems to confirm that he has all the hallmarks of kingship that we might imagine. He seems to be scrutinising us from on high; but if you look closely into his eyes in the image, you’ll notice a different side to this King, a side that Scripture makes clear.
Yes, Jesus has royal blood; he’s descended from the House of David, born in David’s royal city of Bethlehem, but for a start he has no royal palace and neither was he born in one! In fact the Wise Men who come to worship the new baby king go to Herod’s palace to find him, but he’s not there. This baby King is in the least likely of places – a stable. A place where there are none of the refinements, luxuries and opulence associated with royal courts. Later on, when he’s older, the crowds do shout as if he were a king ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ as he enters Jerusalem, but he’s riding on a donkey rather than in a regal camel cavalcade. When he’s arrested and comes before Pilate, he is crowned “King of the Jews”, but the soldiers don’t bow down to worship him; they bow down to mock him. They do clothe him in robes of royal colour, but then they spit at him and hit him. They do crown him, but his crown is made of twisted thorns, not of gold. Ultimately, this King’s victory is won not through a military campaign, but through what to the world looks like weakness and defeat, his death. This is not what you’d expect at all from a King. This king is a servant King, a suffering king – a king who sets aside his position, makes himself nothing and is obedient to his Father, even to death on a cross. Christ redefines what kingship is. His kingship is characterised not by intimidation, coercion or selfishness, but by humility and gentleness (Matthew 11:29, 21:5). That’s what you’ll see if you look into those eyes in that tapestry.
So, where does that leave us as followers of this Christ the King? Well, Christ the King may not have a palace or the possessions associated with royalty, but he does have a kingdom! But his kingdom is not what you might expect either. When Pilate asks him “are you the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11, John 18:33), Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) because like his kingship, his kingdom is upside down too. It’s a kingdom that’s already breaking through into the earthly realm. It’s a kingdom where the poor in spirit are blessed and the hungry and thirsty are filled, and that’s where we will find Jesus. We’ll find him with the “least” – with the hungry, with the thirsty, with the stranger or alien, with the naked, with the sick, with the prisoners. There he is… the King ... in the midst of them, with the oppressed, with the marginalised, with the forgotten. He’s with all those who wouldn’t be welcome in a palace. He’s with the homeless man who sleeps sometimes in our church porch, he’s with the teenagers trying to break free from drug addiction, he’s with the Ebola victims in West Africa and he’s with the lady suffering from dementia in a nearby nursing home.
If we believe Christ is King in our lives, if we are disciples, as he pours out his grace upon us, the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened. We will grow to see people as he sees them, to love them as he loves them. As a person of faith, don’t be surprised if you find yourself following him into places you never imagined you’d find yourself going. That’s what it means to be a disciple – following where he goes. Don’t be shocked when you suddenly realise what you’re doing is not at all like the old you. Don't be surprised that when you look into the eyes of the least, you see the eyes of the suffering servant king staring back at you. That’s what you can expect because what you do for the least, you do for him. That’s what life is like because Christ is King.
1. What do you find challenging about the reading? (Matthew 25:31-46)
2. Who is the “least of these” in our community and context?
3. What is your impression of how art conveys who Jesus is? Have you got any examples of pictures that you find comforting or disconcerting?
4. Have you ever experienced God leading you into “a place you never expected to go”?