Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, which we celebrate today, is not like Christmas or Easter or Advent, an ancient celebration of the church. It is a very new festival, as it was only instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. The reason for its institution was not very ancient, either, as it was very much tied to the events of Pius’ own day. Pius meant it as a way of counteracting the growing nationalism that was then engulfing much of Europe to its great danger. He was particularly worried about the rabid Italian nationalism under the leadership of Mussolini. Pius’s point in declaring the Feast of Christ the King was thus to assert – and to celebrate – that Mussolini was not the one ultimately in charge, but Christ. This is a point, of course, that very quickly transcends the problem of Italian fascism. It is a point that is well taken in every other nation in the world, and in every arena of life to this day.
Protestants have always been more than a little wary of papal proclamations, especially those that come up with new holy days. This one, however, all mainline Protestant denominations have signed onto, and with good reasons. First off, the idea that Christ is king could not be more biblical. Christ has always been given a threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. He is the King of Jews according to Matthew, and he will come in glory, to sit on the throne of his glory according to today’s Gospel lesson. According to Revelations, he is the “King of the kings,” and “King of the nations.” St. Paul deemed him the “King of the ages,” and “King of kings and Lord of lords,” and told the church, that God has seated him at his right hand, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion...putting all things under his feet.”
So Pius was thoroughly biblical in his declaration. But, what also commands our respect is that he also had a really good and timely idea for our whole age. In establishing this day of celebration for the reasons that he did, he showed real insight into two of the greatest and most troubling issues of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. First is the question of “who’s in charge here, if anybody?” Second, is the question: “Is there even any sense to the universe at all? Does right or wrong really mean anything?” That second question arises whenever it seems that people like Mussolini are in charge, or if it turns out that nobody at all is in charge.
Those questions are very concrete and pressing in a very practical way. Pius, when he looked at Mussolini in 1925 in Italy knew that. Soon enough all of the world knew it, too, when it faced not only Mussolini but the even more dangerous Adolph Hitler, as Hitler very quickly showed how he answered the question of who is in charge. Once in power, he immediately established a German National Church that was subject to national authority and ideology, with bishops who were little more than Nazi functionaries. In short, he wanted at least to advise God, if not replace God.
Not everybody accepted his view of who is in charge, though. Immediately upon Hitler’s attempt to co-opt the church in 1934, a group of Lutheran and Reformed pastors condemned his national church as idolatrous; they refused to be embraced by it. Writing in the Theological Declaration of Barmen -- the only protest against the Nazis from within Germany and now a part of our Book of Confessions -- the great Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, flatly declared that these pastors rejected the false doctrine that there are areas of our lives in which we do not belong to Jesus Christ. They also rejected the false doctrine that the church has any other source of authority besides the Word of God. In short, they all said, we have no King but Christ.
As it has turned out, since 1934 those words have had to be cited time and time again. The fervent nationalisms of the early part of the twentieth century that created war upon war, in time, gave way to a Cold War of so-called super-powers. On one side was posed the Soviet Union and its proxies who flat-out dispensed with religion altogether as the opium of the people, and declared that matter was all that there is. Officially atheist, it was really a competing religion, an attempt to worship another king. Those words had to be uttered constantly against it.
There is still reason to utter those words even now, more than twenty-five years after the fall of Communism’s fiercely promethean atheism. The idols and the false kings may be different. But there are still plenty to go around. For example, today the claim that Christ is King has to be asserted against the idolatry of the free market and what it has become for us and much of the world. We treat it as if it were the giver of truth, never to be doubted or challenged. But, more importantly, the claim that Christ is King also has to be asserted against our underlying individualism of which the market is really, simply, the expression--the individualism that asserts that nothing, not even God himself, can trump the individual’s free choice. In the place of the would-be gods of nations, we have put ourselves.
Let me cite one example. A few years ago, I had occasion to address a meeting of the pastors of the Hungarian Reformed Church in America. I learned there a lot about the Hungarian Uprising in 1956; many were there when the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. But then I asked them how things had changed for the church since the fall of communism. The news was not good. In Hungary, the fall of Communism in 1989 was greeted with joy. However, it did not bring about a revival of the church or of religion. Instead, I was told that young Hungarians with their newfound freedom are far more interested in making money and in computers and in the markets than they are with the church or even with getting married or having children. Indeed, Hungary is currently facing a depopulation problem because of a disastrously low birthrate, the result of its young adults finding children a drag on their time and income. We can well ask here about who is in charge, and whether Christ is king.
We might be condescending about this. But it is we that they are emulating; our side won and they want to be on this side. So, let me be frank, and let me cut directly to the chase. The greatest threat to the Christian faith, especially in the countries of the North Atlantic, is not really political, nor is it ideological or even intellectual, although it faces challenges in these areas. Far deeper, it is that folks see giving their wills and allegiance to anybody else, including the God of love, as repugnant, although they are willing to give their allegiance to authoritarian demagogues who promise to give them what they want. Most people do not refuse belief because of the problem of evil, or because they think there is a lack of evidence for the claims of faith. They are content to repeat worn clichés on these things, without insight or originality. Instead, in pretty much every conversation I have had with folk who do not believe – and with a number who say they do -- I have found that their real, deep-down resistance to faith is almost always resistance to the suggestion that they are not totally in charge of their own lives, and that life is fulfilled in giving of oneself. The idea of losing one’s life for Christ’s sake in order to find life, or taking up one’s cross, many find inconvenient and utterly antithetical to how they think life ought to be lived.
That is what is at stake when one says that Christ is King. To say that Christ is King today is therefore neither insignificant nor merely symbolic. To say that Christ is King is to claim and to celebrate that life, that the universe makes sense; it is to say that Christ is lord over all, even in the face of counterclaims and in the face of all the other would-be kings of life – nations, economies, selfishness. It is to say that, in the end, love and purpose wins, not selfishness or senselessness. It is to say that if we want to be masters, then we had better learn to be the servant of all. But if that is what it means to say that Christ is King, then we also need to ask how it is possible to make this claim in our time. The problem is, as we all know only too well, that in the competition with all the other would-be kings of life, it is not at all clear that Christ really is in charge, and that all things have been put under his feet. It is not at all clear that love wins. Read any newspaper.
It is to this question that the parable of the sheep and the goats speaks, because it is about the fact that, in the end, love wins. John Calvin, in commenting on this parable, suggests this when he says that the point of the parable is to encourage believers, lest they be discouraged by Christ’s long delay. He is quite right. This parable, although it speaks about judgment, is a positive one. In separating the sheep and the goats, and rewarding the one and dismissing the other, the king is saying above all that indifference and selfishness don’t win in the end, love does.
In times such as ours when it is not at all obvious that love does win, encouragement is much needed. We can take encouragement because this is a promise of Christ himself. But I think that we can take encouragement in the fact that, even right now, when indifference and selfishness do seem to have the upper hand, that the parable lays out the surprising truth that they really don’t win, even now. The great encouragement of the parable is the truth that it reveals about divine love and about selfishness, a truth that may only be fulfilled in the future but which can be seen even now.
Take, in the first place, the truth it shows about the goats. They are not caricatures. They are not made to look like demons. They are pretty normal people. They think like a lot of normal people. They are simply a bit self-centered, self-satisfied, and smug; they are worldly, and worldly-wise, all like a lot of normal people. This is seen by the fact that when they are excluded from the kingdom for their indifference, they protest their innocence quite ingenuously by asking “when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked or in prison and did not take care of you?” This may imply that they never saw Christ in such a condition; it may also imply that every time they saw Christ in such straits, or were told it was Christ, they reacted properly. It doesn’t matter which way you read it, though. The problem is that, if they did react, they reacted only when they thought that there was something in it for them. If they thought they saw Christ in the hungry, the sick and all those in need, they still didn’t actually see the hungry, thirsty, naked or imprisoned. But that is because, in fact, they didn’t really see Christ either. They really only saw themselves – they saw themselves doing the right thing, they saw themselves as generous, they above all saw themselves as rewarded. That is the true and subtle picture of self-interest, for that is the picture of the left hand being far too well aware of what the right hand is doing.
On the other hand, the sheep also aren’t caricatures. They are a very realistic picture of what all-conquering goodness looks like in a world that the goats seem to be running. The sheep undoubtedly are well aware of the goats, and the goatish way of doing things. They are probably aware that there may even be more goats than sheep, and they may wonder if the king really is in charge. But no matter, when they see the hungry they feed them; when they see the naked they clothe them; when they see the imprisoned or sick they visit them. Now, the miracle of this is that at the very time that everybody thinks that being goat-like is the moral truth of the world, and that the goats are running things, there is evidence that indicates that they don’t really. There is evidence in the actions of the sheep that love is not ever conquered and that love wins.
You can probably pick the goats in life out for yourselves. Sometimes it is a lot harder to see the sheep. But they are here. For example, they are in the deacons and those who work through the prayer list praying for others or who volunteer for the shelter or shelter dinner. I don’t know if they think they are going to change anything; I suspect, though, that it doesn’t matter. Love demands this and they do it. They are in all of you out there who give of yourselves with time, and with talent. They are here in those who give of their resources in such a way that they are not just giving what is left over after first taking care of themselves. For the sheep are always here when there are people who, when they give, do not think about themselves, but only about what love demands. Because there are such people in a world of goats, because there have always been such people, there is good reason to think that Christ’s love wins, and that Christ is King, indeed.