Matthew 25:31-end; Ephesians 1:15-end
Christ the King Sunday
St Barbara’s; 26.11.2023
Rev Jeremy Bevan
A good opening illustration: it’s what every preacher aims and hopes for. And on this Christ the King Sunday, help is at hand. Back in May, pomp, pageantry and Penny Mordaunt holding that sword of state stock still for nearly two hours dominated our television screens. As I thought about king Jesus, the subject of today’s Bible readings, I saw points both of comparison and of contrast with Charles III. Three things stand out for me about this Jesus – and happily, they all start with the letter i: he’s incognito, in-between – and incomplete without us. Let me say a bit more about each of those descriptions of him.
Wherever he goes, Charles III is, it seems, impossible to ignore. Even for visiting South Korean dignitaries and popstars this week, he is recognised, the focus of attention. King Jesus, according to Matthew 25, is unrecognised, and easily overlooked, though present among us in those he calls “the least of these who are members of my family”, or “my brothers and sisters”: the last people we might expect to see in the company of a king, still less somehow embodying him.
Who are these “least of my brothers and sisters”? “My brothers and sisters” is a term Jesus uses in the gospels for his followers. So in Matthew 25, “the least of my brothers and sisters” may describe poor, persecuted or suffering Christians: the judgment scene, then, encourages followers of Jesus who have the means to care for such people to do so, honouring them as if they were Jesus himself. That message would be highly relevant in a city like Antioch, Syria, with its sharp socio-economic divides in ancient times – and quite possibly the city in which the gospel of Matthew was written.
The book of Acts and the letters of the New Testament clearly testify to the early Jesus movement as very mixed: slaves rubbed shoulders with masters, wealthy with poor, and so on. But any impulse to be preoccupied solely with their own, as that reading of Matthew 25 I’ve just given might suggest, soon gives way to a wider concern for all in need. Before long, Christians were known for rescuing strangers’ babies (usually girls) who had been left exposed on city rubbish tips to die; when plague struck, they stood their ground in the cities, and set up hospitals as others headed for the hills, literally in some cases. In the 4th century, the emperor Julian sought to stem the tide of Christian faith and practice inundating the empire, saying to his pagan priests words along the lines of, ”It’s shameful these Christians are caring for our poor: get out there and do it yourselves.”
It’s not my role this morning to suggest where you might go looking for our incognito king Jesus. The whole point, after all, is that none of us knows for sure until that last day in whom he may be found. One of the things that strikes me about St. Barbara’s, though, is how many of you here pick up clues about this from Jesus’ life. You volunteer with Good Neighbours, work in partnership with St. John the Divine Willenhall, give to Tear Fund, food banks, clothes banks. Where is our surprisingly incognito king? I suspect many of you have met him in various guises: be encouraged. And keep hold of that willingness you have to encounter him – in surprising people and places.
Second i: in-between. Charles III became king the moment his mother died. But he had to wait nearly eight months for his coronation, till he was fully acknowledged as ruler. Like Charles, Jesus was born to be king, though few acknowledged his rule during his earthly life. That Ephesians reading declares he is now ruling, seated at God’s right hand. But not all things are, in practice, yet under his sway. As Matthew’s gospel sees it, the full effect of Jesus’ rule will be seen when he judges the nations as sheep or goats, according to how they responded to him in that in-between time, in the guise of the needy. Between Charles III’s accession and coronation, no-one doubted he was in fact the king. Nor should we doubt, in this in-between time, that our incognito king Jesus is out there somewhere, embodied in the least of his brothers and sisters, awaiting us.
Third i: perhaps most startlingly, Jesus is a king incomplete without us. Charles III doesn’t need any of us, his subjects (whether we accept that description of ourselves or not), in order to be who he is. By contrast, Jesus does. Jesus fills the church, our Ephesians passage says, in order that it – the church – may be all that he himself is, he who fills the universe in all its parts. As we serve him in the needy, he becomes fully himself. John Calvin, the French Reformation pastor, put it like this: “Until united to us, Jesus the Son of God reckons himself imperfect. Not until we are in his presence does he possess all his parts, or does he wish to be regarded as complete.” That’s quite something.
In his presence. That draws us back to the judgment scene in Matthew 25. In it, the sheep enter into their inheritance, and rule with him (and with those least of his brothers and sisters) over his kingdom. It has been readied for them since the beginning of time, indicating God’s confidence from the start that at least some would see and serve king Jesus in the needy. But what about the others, the goats? What about that punishment of fire? Well, Matthew says it’s been prepared, not for them, but for the devil and his angels. Perhaps then, the punishment of fire is not where God desires any of his creatures to end up: it’s not their inheritance. Perhaps God longs rather for many to be ‘sheep’, to be an example to all nations, to recognise and go on recognising king Jesus in the lives of “these the least of my brothers and sisters”. May we serve our incognito king here in this ‘in-between’ time, a king who is incomplete without us. And may we find ourselves pleasantly surprised when he comes in glory, and all his angels with him.