Today is the last Sunday before Advent, and therefore the final Sunday of the Western Christian calendar, known as Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s fitting that the Church sets apart this day of endings and beginnings — the fulfillment and fruition of the whole year from Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost — to commemorate the Reign of Christ. In a sense it’s a big “And, therefore, in light of all of this, we must conclude that Jesus is the King” to the Church year. And yet, there is no triumphalism in the readings appointed for today. The readings are challenging and sobering. They aren’t a celebration of Christ the King as much as they are a reminder of what the King expects from the Kingdom’s citizens.
The reading from the Prophet Ezekiel (34.11-16, 20-24) starts off as a beautiful expression of God’s tender love. It portrays God as a Shepherd going to the ends of the earth to find his lost sheep and bring them to safe and plentiful pasture, binding the wounds of the injured, and giving the flock rest.
But the tone quickly shifts to one of judgment:
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.
Wait; what? God will bring back the lost and heal the injured, but destroy the healthy sheep?
The prophet explains:
Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
It’s interesting: Elsewhere, the Scriptures contrast sheep with wolves — easily recognizable predators — and goats — creatures who might blend in with a flock of sheep to the untrained eye, but whose behaviour marks them as not belonging. (The goats come up in the Gospel reading today.) But here, the contrast is between sheep and other sheep of the same flock. It’s a good reminder that the greatest threats to our safety and well-being are not outsiders at all, but the people closest to us, the ones who should be safe but turn our homes into places of hurt and trauma. The strong sheep are strong because they bullied and abused the others, and kept them from the best grass. And this God’s justice cannot abide. In order for the flock to be safe, such violent, ostracizing, and hoarding behaviour must end.
This is a hard message — especially to those of us who live in comfort within an economy that rewards the already wealthy and punishes the poor for their poverty.
The Gospel reading (Matthew 25.31-46) presents a similar message. Jesus describes a vision of the Day of the LORD in which the Son of Man (an apocalyptic figure often identified as Jesus in the Gospels) separates the sheep from the goats. He addresses the sheep saying:
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
He then has the same conversation with the goats, only they did not do these things.
The sheep — the faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom — are marked by their generosity, grace, compassion and love. They’ve fed the hungry, welcomed strangers, tended to the sick and the lonely. In short, they are marked as God’s own because they care about the things God cares about and do the things God would do. By contrast, the goats are identifiable because they do not do these things: their lack of concern for others — for “the least of these” with whom the King identifies — marks them as not belonging to the Kingdom.
Stories like these make us uncomfortable. First, they challenge us and shake us from any complacency we might have about our belonging in God’s Kingdom. And this is especially true for those of us living in our urbanized and impersonal world in which it is so easy, even necessary, to shut out the needs around us because they seem so overwhelming. But secondly, they challenge many of us — particularly those of us who have grown up in the Protestant tradition or the more Augustinian end of Roman Catholicism — theologically. After all, what is Jesus describing here if not a “works” salvation? Where is grace here?
I would argue that the whole reason why these ideas of judgment are possible is because grace abounds. Grace is a gift but it isn’t a gift that we open and stash away in a vault. Those of us who have genuinely received God’s grace will share it with others. Not because we’re special or because we have to, but because that’s how grace works.
If we receive this grace, we will extend grace to others. If we don’t, then we haven’t really received it. This is why we are judged by the standards by which we judge others (Mt 7.2) and are forgiven as we forgive others (Mt 5.12). If we truly accept grace then we become gracious. Full stop.
I can think of no better way of explaining this than to return to that old Christian teaching I love so much: We become by grace all that Jesus is by nature. Grace transforms us to be like Christ — again that’s what “Christian” means: “little christ.”
Christ is the light of the world (Jn 8:12), but we too are the light of the world (Mt 5.14), and we are called to let our light shine for all the world to see, like a lamp on a table or a city set high on a hill. Christ is anointed with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1.10), but we too are anointed with that same Holy Spirit that comes like flames of fire (Acts 2.3), and we are called to spread that fire to the ends of the earth, and to, in the words of the Desert Father Abba Joseph, “Become all flame.”
He is the Vine, and we are the branches. This means that he is the source of our nourishment and life and identity.
He is the Body, and we are his limbs. This means that we will walk his path and do his works.
This is the mystery at the heart of the Sacraments: we receive and participate in order to become. We’ve been baptized, but are our lives living water in a parched world? We’ve received the bread of life, but are we food for a hungry world? We’ve been anointed with oil, but can the world see that we are shiny and new?
We believe, but have our hearts and minds been renewed and transformed?
All this is to say that teachings like we have today on this Sunday of the Reign of Christ are not intended to frighten us and are certainly not a rejection of the teaching of grace. Rather, they remind us to become and to be what we already are by grace.
God doesn’t expect anything shocking of us. God simply expects lamps to shine, salt to be salty, water to refresh. God simply expects sheep to be sheep.
This is the King’s justice.
Thanks be to God.