Scripture Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23
Lord of the Least
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday- the last Sunday of the Church year, for next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent. The parable which Jesus tells us today certainly shows him as a king- but also as a judge. Kings and judges were often the same thing in ancient history- the king gave justice, either in person, or through judges whom he appointed. To this day, judges in Britain sit beneath the royal coat of arms- judges, in a way, represent the Queen.
And so, in the parable of the last judgement, we meet Jesus as both judge and king- because part of a king’s role is to be a judge:
When the Son of Man comes as King, and the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the righteous people on his right, and the others on his left.
The Son of Man is a title which Jesus used for himself. So here he is speaking of himself as king and a judge. Which is rather incongruous: the child born under the Emperor Augustus, refugee from the wrath of King Herod, the Carpenter of Nazareth, the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head, judged and executed by Pontius Pilate, is now transformed into a ruler on a throne, judging the nations.
And when it has been imagined by artists- Christ dividing humanity, the good on the right and the bad on the left- it can be a terrifying image, as the theologian Karl Barth points out:
All those visions, as the great painters represent them, about the judging of the world (Michael Angelo in the Sistine Chapel), Christ advancing with clenched fist and dividing those on the right from the left, while one’s glance remains fixed on those of the left! The painters have imagined to some extent with delight how those damned folks sink in the pool of hell.
But this is a false perspective, for the King and the Judge is the same as the Carpenter of Nazareth. The one who preached the Sermon on the Mount judges us by those same criteria– blessed are the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the persecuted ones, those who hunger for justice.
For Christ the king is also present elsewhere in the parable. The standard of justice here is: how did you respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and foreigner, the naked, the sick and the prisoner? Because, says Jesus, when you helped ‘the least important members of my family, you did it for me’. And when you refused to help them, ‘you refused to help me’. If this was a criminal case, the indictment would be that the accused did not help ‘the least of these’ when they needed it. That was like not doing it for me, says Jesus. The judge on the bench in this case is also the victim of the crime.
A few years ago I was at a conference on city centre ministry. One of the speakers was a Methodist minister, whose church was near King’s Cross in London. He explained that his building acted as a base for some Catholic nuns, who every night went out to try to meet the needs of those on the streets in the area- homeless people, people who’d run away from Scotland, prostitutes and pimps. The minister asked one of the sisters one evening, ‘How can you go out and do this every night?’ ‘Because’, she replied, ‘every night when I go out I meet Jesus’.
[They will say,] ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and we would not help you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.’
We’ve seen the paintings, the stained glass windows, the statues of Christ as king and judge. Perhaps we are less used to seeing the sort of picture- from Latin America- of Christ which is in the front of our order of service- Christ homeless, thirsty, imprisoned. But as the nun at King’s Cross believed, that is also where we find Christ our king.
Over the centuries, kings, emperors, rulers, have sought to borrow the Kingship of Christ for themselves. It’s why kings were usually crowned by Archbishops- the king was seen to have divine authority. That is a problem if the church then thinks that because their man is in power, Christians may never criticise the government- which is helpful for those in power. We might think we are living in a more secular age, but Vladimir Putin in Russia is keen to have the support of the Orthodox Church.
In America, the unthinking, uncritical support of Donald Trump by many fundamentalist churchgoers are bringing Christianity into disrepute. For even in our increasingly secular culture, many people still know enough about Jesus to know that he takes sides, not with the powerful, but with ‘the least important’.
Christ might be the judge now, but once it was he himself who was on trial, before Pontius Pilate, a man appointed by the most powerful man on earth at the time, the Roman Emperor. And there, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom ‘is not of this world’. For the kingdoms of this world are usually set up to serve the rich and powerful. In the kingdoms of this world, strangers are treated with suspicion- migrants are a ‘problem’, where it’s easy demonize those from other countries, or other faiths, or other skin colours. In the kingdoms of this world, people are often imprisoned for speaking inconvenient truths (and, as happened to Christ, are often tortured and put to death). Even when we imprison people for committing crime, we of this world prefer to think we can throw away the key, and we are uncurious about the pressure which lead to crime. In the kingdoms of this world, we are apt simply to blame the poor for their poverty.
But the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world- it is an upside-down version of the kingdoms of this world. We are called to make strangers welcome- which is why churches are involved in work with migrants across the world. We are called to see prisoners as people- something we remember in Prisoners’ Week, which reminds why churches are involved in prisons in many different ways. Despite decline, churches continue to be present in some of the poorest communities in our land, standing with those who are hungry and have little to live on. We can help in practical ways- the food bank is a good example. But we can also speak up for them, for example, when some politicians and the tabloid press revert to blaming the poor for their poverty. Our true Christian vocation is to serve those Jesus calls ‘the least’, for it is in the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the prisoner and those like them that we truly encounter Christ, our King. ‘Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians also thinks Christ is Lord of all, because God has raised Christ from the dead:
[God]… raised Christ from death and seated him at his right side in the heavenly world. Christ rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and lords; he has a title superior to all titles of authority in this world and in the next.
Like the Parable of the Last Judgement, this is also picture language, but the meaning is clear: the kingdom of Christ, which is not of this world, isn’t simply different from the kingdoms of this world- it is superior to all authority in this world and the next!
Quite often, the church has misunderstood what this meant. Once, Popes were crowed like kings. Once, the church lobby in this town could chain up the swings to stop children having fun on the Sabbath. The Church often misused its power. Today, if we do have any power, let us use it for the sake of those Jesus called ‘the least’- the refugee, traumatized by war, hoping that she might find peace in our country; the young man who finds himself in prison, seemingly a failure in life, but seeking a reason to live a better life; the mother who turns to the Foodbank to feed her family, because the social security system has let her down. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world- but it has to do with this world. Christianity is at its most powerful when we are seen to care for ‘the least important’.
That’s why the author of Ephesians also wants to remind us that Christ is also King of the Church:
God put all things under Christ’s feet and gave him to the church as supreme Lord over all things. The church is Christ’s body, the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere.
Christ is supposed to rule the Church as well. What would it mean if we truly believed that Christ was the King of the Church? As society changes at a rate we can hardly comprehend, we worry and fret about the Church, don’t we? We wonder about the future for the Church, when the world about us seems increasingly indifferent or even hostile to faith.
But suppose we take in this congregation take seriously the claim that Christ is the King and Head of the Church? Suppose we stop fretting about losing the outward trappings of power and influence, and instead learn from today’s parable to expect to find Christ where we might not have expected? Suppose we take seriously that our King is not, primarily, a judgemental king, but is, rather, to be found among ‘the least’- the naked and hungry and stranger and sick and thirsty and imprisoned? Will we manage to do that? And how?
In all our worrying about the Church, we sometimes forget the things that are really central. Take, for example, this particular act of worship- the Sacrament of Holy Communion. What is God saying to us through his gift of this sacrament?
What is this act of worship about? What happens at this Table? Here, in bread and wine, Christ gives himself to us, unconditionally. Are we prepared to share this Table unconditionally?
Quite often in the past, the Church has used this Sacrament as a way of exercising power. We imagined that this Table was for those who were good enough, and we presumed we knew who the good enough people were. But what if our King and Head is inviting everyone, without exception, unconditionally, to this Table? We will share bread and wine, but what else could we be sharing? And we will share with one another- but who else sharing it with? What if this Table not ours to keep for ourselves, but is meant also for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner? Is Christ saying to us: “Look what I have done for you! But now I stand naked, hungry, sick, imprisoned, a stranger among you- what will you do for me?”
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo
 Karl Barth Dogmatics in Outline, p134
 c.f Hans Küng, Credo: The Apostles’ Creed Explained for Today, p168