Scriptures for November 20: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Reign of Christ Sunday is the final Sunday before the beginning of Advent, and thus the new lectionary year. So perhaps it’s fitting to cap off Year A with one of the most direct and challenging passages in the gospel, if not in the whole Bible.
Most of the time when we talk about Jesus reigning in our lives, we talk about it in terms of individual, personal salvation. “Have you, as an individual, accepted Jesus?” we ask. I’ve seen a tract illustrating the two types of lives one can lead: one drawing had the individual sitting on the throne of his or her life, the other had Jesus on the throne and the person bowing down. All you had to do to move from the former to the latter was pray a prayer. It was as simple as that!
The thing is, though, that this is hardly the biblical picture of what it is to have Jesus reigning in our lives. When Jesus talks about how the sheep and the goats will be separated out in the final judgment, he doesn’t tell the sheep they prayed the right prayer, and the goats that they drank too much and watched too many R-rated movies.
The essential difference between the sheep and the goats is the care they showed for other people, especially those the world considers “the least of these.” How did they react when they saw those to whom they owed nothing, according to the world’s standards? Did they step over the homeless person and tell them to get a job? Did they tell the person dying of AIDS that they were paying the price for their sins? Did they insist that those in jail deserved to live in cruel and inhumane conditions because of their crimes? Or did they look at each of these people and see not a drag on society or someone who hadn’t made something of themselves, but a precious child of God in need of care and compassion?
Whenever someone preaches about Matthew 25 as if it is Jesus’ actual criteria for being a Christian, most Protestants get nervous because it starts to sound like works righteousness. It kind of sounds like we’re saying that you can earn your way into Heaven with enough good works. It can be very easy to sound that way, but it misses the essential point of what Jesus is talking about.
For a moment let’s set aside the “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” language and assume for a moment that Heaven and Hell are not the issues here (even though they may well be). The sheep are receiving their reward because they have been participating in the reality of the Kingdom of God all along. They have lived by the rules of the Kingdom that says that no one is beneath anyone else, and that everyone gets a seat at the table. So now that this Kingdom of God is fully consummated, they are able to fully see that in which they have trusted even though the rest of the world has been operating by a different set of rules. The goats, on the other hand, are so fully committed to the system that has been phased out, their lives are so oriented around the idea of scarcity and endless consumption that living in a Kingdom where the rules are fundamentally at odds with what they’re used to that they’re miserable. In other words, Heaven is wonderful for the sheep, but it’s hellish for the goats.
On Reign of Christ Sunday, as on most Sundays, there are lots of churches that end their services with invitations to come up to the front and accept Jesus in to your heart, to let Christ reign in your life. If your church is one of those churches, consider setting that aside for this one Sunday. Instead of inviting people forward to accept Jesus, invite them to head out the door and look for Jesus everywhere they go. Is Jesus holding a cardboard sign by the freeway exit? Is Jesus all alone in a run down nursing home? Is Jesus right in front of their face, but they’ve grown so desensitized that they stare straight through him?
If Christ really does reign in our hearts, then let us go out to love him and serve him wherever he may be.