Christ The King Sunday: Matthew 25:31-46
It is Christ the King Sunday, and I just finished listening to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a trilogy of books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) about a revolt against God (?) and The Church (a sort of conglomeration of the Catholic and Calvin-styled Protestantism) set in some sort of 19th (?) century version of Oxford and other multi-worlds and or parallel universes. Although its focus is on two twelve-year-olds, Lyra from one world and Will from another, the conclusion (if there is one) seems to be to replace “The Authority” (a rather decrepit angel on his last legs) and the Kingdom of God with a Republic of Heaven - presumably more of a representative democracy than a kingdom as we would think of it. Given Pullman’s stated atheism and disdain for organized religion, the Republic of Heaven sounds an awful much like the Anglican or Episcopal Churches which already exist! It is all a wonderfully riotous, gripping and engaging adventure which seeks to un-throne (no pun intended) the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter all at once.
Despite the all too expected criticism and warnings from certain quarters of, dare I say, Christendom, Pullman’s books raise a number of important ideas and questions, not the least of which ought to be just what do we mean by the Kingdom of God, and on the last Sunday of the Christian Year, what do we mean by Christ the King?
It’s all too easy to agree with what appears to be Pullman’s assertion that The Church (capital T, capital C) has got it all wrong – and we ought to agree that throughout its history The Church has done and/or allowed many awful, evil and horrendous things. Think The inquisition, pogroms, The Crusades, and the sexual abuse of children to just name a few. Although one ought to be intelligent enough by the 21st century to know that no institution can honestly be judged by the actions of a relative few individuals. And we may as well face it, the malcontent , evil and misguided individuals who do bad things in the name of religion are a minute minority of the billions of other people of faith who have made the world a better place whether they be Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian, Taoist, Jainist, Sikh, Yoruba, Shinto or any other of the many wonderful cultural variations of world religions and what is being called perennial philosophy and wisdom traditions.
Designating this Christ the King Sunday is rather recent. Pope Pius XI instituted the idea in 1925 and placing it on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time is even more recent. It strikes me as curious. Curious in that Jesus makes for a peculiar king – he who appears to have shunned all attempts at making him a king. Jesus, like the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Muhammad (to name just a few) wrote nothing down. No books, not treatises, no doctrines, no philosophy. He was a teacher who seems mostly to have traveled by foot with the lone attested depiction of him riding a donkey into Jerusalem on that fateful Passover week – an act which in itself appears to be some sort of ironic street theatre mockery of kingship, the Imperial Religion of Rome, and flies in the face of all authorities: here is a “king” who is close to the people, riding a humble beast of burden instead of a mighty steed of war, who welcomes prostitute, tax collector and sinners to sit with him at table as he hosts the blind, the lame, the outcast, soldier, foreigners, strangers, and quite honestly anyone and everyone who wishes to sit on his right and his left.
Jesus commanded no armies and specifically orders his disciples, that is, all those who would follow him in his way, to put down their swords and love their enemies. And he routinely calls people to follow him without any requirement of knowledge of the traditions, scriptures or beliefs of any sort. We are commanded quite simply to “follow” him. It continues to seem strange to me that Pullman, Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling and others all seem to feel that for the world to be put right requires some sort of cosmic warfare when those who call us to such a vision of shalom, peace and justice always employ peaceful, non-aggressive strategies of non-violent civil disobedience: think Palm Sunday, Ghandhi, Martin King, the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh and others.
And despite the indisputable fact that Jesus begins this vision of a great judgment at the end of the age with the Son of Man sitting on a throne, once again like Palm Sunday itself, he reinterprets the shape and meanings of “kingship” and “judgment” in radical new ways. For instance, those being judged judge themselves by their actions, and even more so by their non-actions: they welcome strangers, visit prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, offer relief to the thirsty and so forth, or they don’t. Note also that those who do these things are completely unaware that what they do is extraordinary and worthy of reward. And neither those who act not those who fail to act realize that the poor, sick, homeless strangers they do or do not respond to with compassion are the very embodiment of the “king,” the anointed one, the messiah, or are, quite simply, God in the flesh.
This is the scandal of Christianity – that our God sits not on a throne but walks the streets with the poorest of the poor like a Mother Theresa. That our God is the mother who lives on the streets with no place to lie her head let alone the heads of her starving children. Or, the veteran who after multiple tours of duty sees no way out short of leaving this world behind in hopes of a much better hereafter. Our God is a very strange “king’ after all.
I have no idea what Pius XI had in mind. Although I can hope that he wanted us to reflect on just what sort of “king” Jesus is, one suspects it was to shore up the authority of The Church on Earth. I am content to let the Philip Pullman’s of the world continue to fight that cosmic battle. As to the Kingdom of God, or even the Buddha’s nirvana, Jesus and the Buddha depict this notion of the Earth’s Shalom as a very real presence here and now, not some sort of life beyond the blue. Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism are insistent on the very real presence of the “kingdom” in our midst – in and amongst us all, in the very things that we do every day, things that we do not even recognize that we do them because to do them is quite simply the right thing to do. We just lay down our swords, open our hands and our hearts and offer healing, love and compassion to those in need, completely unaware that we serve our God, our Christ, our King in so doing. Amen.