Eph 1:15-end; Mt 25:31-end
Sun of Christ the king
St Barbara’s 23.11.14
I wonder how you celebrate New Year’s Eve?
For some, its the biggest night of the year. People hold huge parties; let off fireworks; pop champagne.
For others, its a somewhat quieter affair. Staying up later than normal with a cup of cocoa in front of the tele, waiting for the Big Ben chimes.
And for others, its a normal early night, not quite sure what all the fuss is about.
But however you celebrate or not, New Year’s Eve does prompt in most of us a certain degree of reflection on the year that’s gone – the events and experiences of the year, the ups and downs, the joys and the struggles. New Year’s Eve may also prompt us to look ahead too – to wonder what the coming year may have in store.
Well today is the Church’s equivalent of New Year’s Eve. Today is the last Sunday in the Church’s year, before we start a new Church year with the beginning of Advent. And its a day that the church calls the feast of Christ the King.
For the last twelve months we have been journeying through the Christian story. We began in December last year preparing ourselves for the celebration of the most extraordinary event – the coming of God’s Son among us in the form of a vulnerable human baby. Into Epiphany, after Christmas, we began to see God revealing Christ to us through the early stages of his ministry. And then through Lent, we travel with Christ through his temptations in the wilderness as we prepare for his trials and death on the cross, before bursting into resurrection life, and the birth of the church and the giving of his spirit in Pentecost. For the last few months, we have immersed ourselves in the teaching and miracles of Jesus, as week on week we have heard the gospel read.
Well, today is in many respects the culmination of that journey, before we ready ourselves to travel that road again. Today we remind ourselves of who Christ is, who is the one at the heart of this story, who is the one at the centre of our lives.
Our first reading, from the letter to the Ephesians, gets us started.
For Christ is the one who is raised from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly realms. Christ is the one who died but rose from the grave.
Death is the one final experience that is unavoidable and common to all. Death spells the end of dreams, achievements and hopes. It is the thing that most people fear above all else, the thing we spend so much of our lives trying to deny, and yet we seem to have so little control over it. We have made extraordinary advances in medicine and technology in recent times. We can even land rockets on comets 4 billion miles away from us. But we are no nearer to holding back the inevitability of death.
And yet Christ changes all that. From death, he comes through to resurrected new life. Death cannot hold him. His body, seemingly destined to rot, is transformed into a glorious and wonderful heavenly body. He is alive in an even more vibrant, real, invigorated way than even before his death. It is a transformation as hard for us to grasp as it is for a caterpillar to grasp that one day it will be transformed into a butterfly. The same living being, but transformed beyond description, into something beautiful and even more alive.
At this culmination of the Church’s year, we remind ourselves that Christ is the risen one, the conqueror of death. That he has made a way open for us beyond death to life eternal. That death is no longer the final word, but merely the doorway through which we discover life in all its fulness. This is a work that only he could accomplish, and so rightly, we worship him as Lord, as King.
Secondly, the letter to the Ephesians reminds us that Christ is ruler, lord, king, of all things. For he is “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”
Paul, in writing to the Ephesian church, was all too aware that their city, Ephesus, in the heart of modern-day Turkey, was a place of power. In social and political terms, it was one of the key centres of Roman imperial influence, a place from which the Romans exerted control over the rest of that eastern province. But it was a place of power in religious terms too. Many religions and cults emanated from Ephesus, with a focus on power. Promising power to make things happen in the world, to influence people and events, to gain wealth or health or influence for yourself or to bring about the downfall of your enemies. The world of the Ephesians was dominated by the “principalities and powers”, the various levels of rulers and authorities from local magistrates all the way up to gods and goddesses, and everything in between.
And so for Paul to claim that Christ was far above all these other sources of power is quite some claim. It is not an easy thing to hold when we look at a world ravaged by the effects of human sin, when we see the effects of the abuse of power by rogue states and oppressive regimes. That Christ’s power is greater than those who would persecute the church, or those who govern the nations.
But it is a claim that Paul and we as the church can make for we look at the world through a different lens. We can see the world not as it presently is, but as it will be.
Sarah and I have different approaches to watching films and TV serials. I like to remain ignorant of the story-line and the ultimate ending, allowing it to unfold as I watch. Sarah, on the other hand, likes to know in advance how things will end, to know if ultimately everything will end OK, with the goodies winning through, despite the horrendous odds. Knowing the ending, she can then find the courage to watch the bits that she would otherwise find too scary.
In Christ, the Church has been assured of how the story ends. Despite all the threats and terrible events, the disasters and crimes of inhumanity, we know that Christ will ultimately redeem the world. A day will come when evil will be defeated, sin will be vanquished, and hope and light and love will triumph. A day when Christ’s rule will fully come. A day when Christ will be fully recognised as King. In proclaiming Christ as King we look forward to the end of the story, to the point where Christ’s rule is recognised by all. And that should give us courage not only to hold on to hope, but to get actively involved in God’s work now.
And thirdly, on this day of Christ the King, we remind ourselves of the kind of King Christ is. The saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is not true of Him. For Christ as king wields a very different kind of power, a power of love, of sacrifice, of humility and grace. A power that identifies with the poor and suffering, the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned. As we heard in our gospel reading, “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
It reminds me of a story told by Michael Mayne, a vicar in Cambridge, when he visited Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta. As he arrived, an old woman was brought in from the streets in a filthy condition. She was barely recognisable as human. He writes: “A little later one of the sisters said “come and see” and took me across to the curtained-off bath. She drew back the curtain. The bath was filled with a few inches of water, in which was lying the stick-like body of the old woman. Two sisters were gently washing her clean and comforting her at the same time. Above the bath, stuck to the wall, was a simple notice containing four words: “The body of Christ”.
Christ’s kingdom is one where those on the margins are brought into the very heart of his embrace, where those who are despised or forgotten are treated with especial love and grace, where those in need are cared for with love and compassion. And it is a kingdom where we will be called to account for how we have responded too.
So on this day, the Church’s New Year’s Eve, let us look back on the journey we have travelled, and the journey that lies ahead. And let us acknowledge Christ as King, the one who rose from the dead to bring us the transformation of eternal life; the one who has gone ahead to guarantee that the story of our lives and world will reach a conclusion of life and hope; the one who calls us to live out his kingdom’s embrace of the poor and oppressed.