Christ the King
November 29th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Although I did not grow up in the 60s, the shadow of the Beatles still loomed heavily over much of my high school experience.
Maybe that is because Wisconsin was always seemingly 10 years behind the rest of the world, or maybe it had to do with the sheer amount of Baby Boomers in the 90’s who were reaching for something musically to hold on to in a world of Vanilla Ice and New Kids on the Block.
Whatever the reason, when I listened to the Beatles catalogue as a teeneager, I felt like I was entering into a sacred space that was part musical time machine and part counter cultural fortification.
The cultural impact the Beatles made on the second half of the 20th century, in terms of validating Eastern religious practice, questioning Western cultural assumptions, and imparting a love based ethics that existed beyond the confines of any one religion had profound effects, to say nothing about the musical revolution their music initiated.
Near the conclusion of Abbey Road, which many consider to be the Beatles last true studio album, comes a song which embodies their “theological stance” in one single lyric.
On The End, Paul McCartney’s voice rings out on the track “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
The only other words heard on the final version of Abbey Road are from the hidden track, Her Majesty, which was originally supposed to be part of the long medley that culminates in The End.
That track takes a light-hearted view of the monarchy in England, a quick escape after the depth of the capstone song The End.
So it seems fitting on this Christ the King Sunday, in which we come to the End of the Church Year, and wrestle with the peculiar nature of the King of Kings, that these final offerings of the Beatles come to mind.
Today is a day to wrestle with monarchy and the end of all things.
Like many of you, my religious upbringing was steeped in this scene from the 25th chapter of Matthew, popularly deemed “The Sheep and the Goats.”
Its logic is sharp, and the scene of judgment is one that resonates with those of us who long for a final accounting of justice which is measured according to a divine standard, rather than a human one.
We see the sheep and the goats, the bestial representatives of both those who have fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited those in prison, and their counterparts who have not.
Neither group has had any clue that the actions and ministries they chose to pursue had anything to do with serving the King of Kings, and yet, Jesus reveals to them that what they choose to do or not do was done to the “least of these” as if it was done directly to him.
And because of their actions, each group is sent either into their rest, or into the torment of everlasting fire…a stark division that can be very difficult for our contemporary hearts to handle.
That final phrase on The End keeps ringing in my ear “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”
For most of my life, I viewed this final judgement scene as a judgment of the faithful…as a final sorting between believers who merely said they followed Jesus, and those whose actions proved it to be the case.
After all, isn’t that what being sheep of the Good Shepherd is all about?
However, Matthew, whose gospel we have been mining for spiritual guidance over the course of the last year, does not envision this scene in that way.
In fact, both the sheep and the goats are members of what he calls, “The Nations,” which is code speak in the Jewish world of 2000 years ago for “Gentiles.”
Since all those who followed Jesus in the beginning, the disciples especially, were Jews, this distinction is important.
Matthew 25’s judgment scene is not about separating members of the beloved community, but rather a scene about what happens to all those on the fringes of it.
The sheep and the goats are unsuspecting Gentiles whose actions have proven to be in line with the reign of God or opposed to it.
Neither have any clue that what they are doing is done unto the King of Kings.
But even though they did not profess the name of Jesus, nor follow him as the disciples did, those whose actions bend toward the law of love are brought into the kingdom, while those whose neglect dominated their decisions are consigned to eternal torment.
“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
While the Beatles last serious offering to the world is devoid of the attending punishment of Matthew 25, it’s not far off from the general theme.
But where does that leave us… followers of Christ through the power of baptism… insiders who are not “the nations” but who have been “grafted” into the body of Christ and are one with the true vine?
What message is there for us in this apocalyptic judgement of those whom the theologian Karl Rahner called “anonymous Christians?”
I think a large part of it has to do with the same dynamic that was at play in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard that we heard earlier this year.
It has to do with knowing that you have been hired for the usual daily wage, and the gift is that when payment comes, when the final reckoning begins, you get to witness it unfolding.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
We followers of the King of Kings know what the shape and strength of the kingdom of God looks like already, because we have witnessed the power of God at work in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We do not ask, “When was it Lord that you were hungry, or sick, or thirsty, or in prison,” because we are already convinced that what we do to one another is the same as doing it to Jesus, and because we sense and experience the King already in community as part of the mystical Body of Christ.
Sometimes we need to be reminded of that fact, but the truth is that once we are baptized into this Body, our fundamental understanding of how the world works (or at least how it should work), is changed.
Our work, our ministry, and hopefully our great joy, is in seeing that kingdom gain more and more of a foothold in this shifting and difficult world.
By doing the things the sheep do to alleviate suffering and promote the good, but also by naming the fact that in all the little places of our lives…in the conversations with concerned neighbors…in the interactions with those who beg on the street…in the daily ministry of the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center…in the way we treat our bosses and coworkers and family members…we proclaim Jesus as King of Kings by our love, and expect the final establishment of God’s reign by our faithful action.
In the end, the love we take is equal to the love we make…but we Christians also know that the Grace of God that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ enables us, and others, to make more love, sow more seeds of hope, and anticipate our future reality while we inhabit this fragile earth, our island home.
And it also helps us distinguish and decry all pseudo forms of Christianity that abandon such a standard for political gain or power.
Such shadow effigies of the reign of God may lift up the King of King in name, but will ultimately go the way of the goats, for they have given their allegiance to lesser reigns and dominions in exchange for security, stability, and idolatry.
But “we know the way” and it is our great honor and calling to walk in it.
For in the end, we not only know that the love we take is equal to the love we make, but also that the King of Kings has already gone before to prepare a place for us.
Be ardent in acts of love dear people of God.
Lift high the cross and proclaim the all-encompassing love of Christ.
And at the end of the age may we rejoice with sisters and brothers of every race and generation, and enter the gate that leads to eternal life.