“If Christ Is King, What Does That Mean?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
with content by Greg Garrett
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 26, 2017: Christ The King Sunday
Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Universe is a comic science fiction novel about the end of the world, other intelligent life in the universe, and ultimate answers. The most powerful moment in the book comes when the most intelligent computer in the universe provides the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The computer is named Deep Thought, and after seven and a half million years of calculation, Deep Thought reveals that the answer to everything is 42. Yes, the number 42. Obviously people are baffled. To those folks, Deep Thought suggests that the problem isn’t the answer, but that they haven’t really thought about what the ultimate question is.
When we come to the passage we’ve heard today from the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew, it seems that we have come to an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, about heaven and hell and what is to come. But what question does this passage answer for us? Is the question, “How do we gain everlasting life and go to heaven when we die?” or is the question, “What we are supposed to be doing right now?”. When we’re seeking ultimate answers, how we understand the question really matters.
Today we are celebrating the holy-day of Christ the King. Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday before Advent and the start of our journey to Bethlehem. This holy-day was put into place by Pope Paul VI as a way to emphasize the game-changing dimension of what it means to call Jesus Christ king. Shortly we’ll celebrate Christ’s birth, and the prophet Isaiah said that he will be King of Kings. In Jesus’ own lifetime and in the generations immediately following, to call Jesus Christ king was to say that the Roman emperor was not the greatest authority over human lives. When we bow before Christ as King, at the manger or at the cross, we are entering into the counter-cultural revolution that Jesus came to begin.
Our gospel lesson today comes late in Matthew’s gospel, just before Christ’s trail and execution. In our reading, Jesus is enthroned as king, separating sheep from goats, giving to each a reward. The sheep at Christ’s right hand are welcomed into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundations of the earth, because just as they did to the least members of Christ family, they did it to him. The goats at Christ’s left hand, they are put away into eternal punishment. This parable of sorts is just one in a long sermon Jesus gives before the events of Holy Week. Everything Jesus says in this sermon is about the end of all things. He describes it as a thief in the night, as a master and his slaves, as foolish bridesmaids who are unprepared. It is all very apocalyptic and dangerous and full of fear.
These stories about The End have a real knack for making folks uncomfortable. None of us like to think about judgment, about the end of the world and whatever happens when Christ comes back. This is particularly true if you have ever been exposed for long periods of time to Christians traditions that are built on extreme guilt and fear. These traditions drill into you that you need to spend your whole life getting right with God, or at your death you will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone. It is a very manipulative expression of Christianity, which damages Christ’s followers in an irreparable way. The gospel lesson today is one that these traditions cling to as evidence for their psychologically damaging and theologically flawed beliefs. They would have you believe that your whole life should be spent making sure you are a sheep, because Lord help you if you’re a goat.
But, again, what is the question this story is trying to answer? Is the question about believing in God so you go to heaven when you die? Although some Christians talk about little else, and pick and chose passages from the Bible to support their ideas, the Bible and the Gospel of Matthew aren’t particularly concerned with heaven and hell. Scholars of Christianity and the Bible haven’t really been concerned with heaven and hell, either. In the 1500 pages of Jean Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, one of the founding documents of our tradition, Calvin only devotes a few paragraphs to heaven and about 150 words to hell. More recently, British biblical scholar N.T. Wright points out that there is almost no talk in the Bible about living in heaven when you die, and even less still about hell. He reminds us that the continuous talk about the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels is not about a place far off in the sky, but about God’s sovereign rule breaking through into the earthly realm.
The Bible’s central message is not about believing in God so you can go to heaven when you die. In fact, in the gospel of Matthew, belief in and of itself is not sufficient. At the end of the Sermon on The Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus laments that many people will call him Lord, many will believe in him, but only those who act upon his ethical teachings can be his true followers. In the so-called Great Commission, which comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to go and form more disciples who think he is the Messiah. No, he says, “…go and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Belief for the Gospel writers, and for Jesus, is shown in how we act on what Jesus taught us.
So the question this passage seeks to answer is not how to get into heaven when we die, or how to avoid fire and brimstone, or how to get right with God in this life, as if that is something we are capable of doing. Rather this passage teaches us what we should be doing right now. What does Jesus want me to do with the life I have been given? How will my life be different if Christ is King?
The conflict over who is lord and King is acted out in our daily lives even though Rome is long gone. The world still wants us to worship all that is not god, and the culture rewards us when we do. Many churches love to be called Christian, but are more concerned with membership numbers than doing the things of Jesus. Many Christians want their churches to stand for and believe the same things they do, but turn tail and run when the church does something Jesus would do. There are many kings and queens in this world who want our allegiance. But Jesus tells us and shows us that the usual things we elevate as gods—power, wealth, celebrity, fame, partisanship, self-righteousness, racial superiority, misogyny—all of them disappoint, destroy, and deny the activity and presence of God. When we declare Christ as King, though, all of this is consumed and destroyed in the Kingdom of God by the supreme values of service, love, self-sacrifice, and faithful community. Life in God’s kingdom is not about self-promotion and climbing the ladder—its about turning from those things. It is not about big words, it is about powerful actions. In God’s kingdom you are not defined by what you have or who people think you are, but by the truth that you bear in your body the sacred image of God. In God’s kingdom, God’s values reign, not the world’s, and God’s values are life, love, peace, mercy, justice, forgiveness, and wholeness. In God’s Kingdom, under Christ’s rule, all y’all have life—everyone of y’all—because that is just how generous and unconditional God is.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal Priest who teaches at Piedmont College in Georgia, writes in her first book about how when she was in seminary, she wanted God to tell her what to do with her life. She prayed hard, asked often, and the result, she said, was this: God told her, “Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me.” Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me. This could easily be taken as divine permission to counterfeit money or sell drugs or run a Ponzi Scheme. Do anything that pleases you. Do what you will. Have a party. Knock yourself out. Except, that is not what God was saying to Taylor or to any of us. Jesus did not tell us, “Believe in me and you can still act like a goat.” No, his message is this: if you love God, if your values are God’s values, if Christ is really king, then you will love as God loves, give as God gives, forgive as God forgives. If your values are God’s values, you can’t help but live as Christ taught you to live.
Preaching in front of his beloved congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr., told them how he would like to be remembered—it was just two months before he was assassinated—and in doing so he zeroed in on the question for us all. He said, “If Christ is King, what does that mean? If Christ is ruler over our lives, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than me feeding the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than every visit I made to those in prison. If Christ is King, then being TIME magazine’s “Man of the Year” is less important than how I loved extravagantly and dangerously with all my being.”
How are things going to end? What happens after we die? I don’t know, and neither do you. But we do know the shape of the story our loving God is writing. If Christ is King, we need not worry about the end. If Christ is King, we need not worry about heaven and hell. If Christ is King, we need not be in the business of counting sins or trying to erase each one with a good deed. Christ is King, and that means that whatever happens at the end, whenever the end comes, Christ is there, waiting to welcome us into the kingdom that was prepared for us from the foundations of the world. Christ is King, and he has taught us how to be his followers. Christ is King, and he has left us with lots of work to do and everything we need to do it. Christ is King, and this King calls us each by name and claims us as his own. That is question and answer enough for us all. Amen.