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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christ the King 11/21/2011

Christology is probably not a word most of you are familiar with but you’re probably smart enough to figure out what it means.  If biology is the study of life and psychology is the study of the mind, then Christology, C-h-r-i-s-t-o-l-o-g-y, must be the study of Christ.  Makes sense, right?  More specifically we would say Christology is the study of the nature and person of Jesus Christ and one of the things that’s talked about relative to that is what’s called the threefold office which identifies Jesus as a prophet, a priest and a king.  There are other names and images for Jesus like teacher, shepherd, prince of peace and so forth but the classic three of Christology are prophet, priest and king.

Today, on this last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate Christ as King and you may remember that this is a day which has been part of the church year calendar for a relatively short period of time, less than 100 years.  Pope Pius XI started it in 1925 as a reminder that for a Christian, the primary allegiance is to Christ, not to any political, national or ethnic ideology and that continues to be a good reminder.  Those other loyalties all have their place, but Christ is King and that was the point Pope Pius wanted to make.  Lutherans and others added Christ the King Sunday to their calendars not long after that.

So we have a Christ the King Sunday and lots of Christ the King churches but there is not a Christ the Priest or Christ the Prophet Sunday and I don’t know any churches with those names either.  I would suggest though, that with today’s gospel lesson about the sheep and the goats, there is the opportunity to use this day to think of Jesus as a prophet, to approach this more as Christ the Prophet Sunday. 

This sheep and goats text is one that makes some Lutheran theologians and pastors uncomfortable because it sounds like Jesus is talking about a final judgment based on good works when good Lutherans know we are justified by God’s grace not by good works.  It reminds me of a joke I think I’ve shared before about people standing in line at the pearly gates waiting to meet St. Peter to see if they qualify for heaven and all of them are worried because they know their lives haven’t been perfect so they’re talking amongst themselves.  The Catholic says, I’m a little worried because I sometimes ate meat on Friday; the Methodist says, I could be pretty foul mouthed and I liked to have a drink once in awhile; the Baptist says, I sometimes snuck a beer when no one was around, and the Lutheran says, I’m worried because I once did a good deed.

Reading this text as having to do with faith vs. works, would seem to be trying to make it say something that Jesus had no intention of saying.  In telling a story like this Jesus was being prophetic in the manner of the Old Testament prophets. By that, I don’t mean he was engaged in fortune telling or predicting the future which is what we often immediately think of when we hear the word prophet.  Prophets talked about what was going in the world they lived in and that’s what Jesus was doing and what he must have noticed was a lack of care for the poor and the needy. 

In some ways prophets do talk about the future, but they talk about it as it is affected by the present so in many cases what prophets were doing was rattling cages; their intent was to upset people, to get their attention, to make them uncomfortable.  It wasn’t an easy calling; it wasn’t a good way to make friends and it appears that many of the prophets (obviously including Jesus) did suffer accordingly.  It would have been easier to stick to the party line and tell people what they wanted to hear and what those in power wanted them to hear, but that’s not what prophets did. 

To be sure, there were statements from Old Testament prophets that indicated a harsh future judgment similar to what Jesus does in this story.  Their intent wasn’t condemnation though, as much as it was an effort to open the eyes of the people and to cause them to respond and act in ways that were more in line with the ways of God.   So they used statements and images that made people uncomfortable, but the intent was never to leave them there, but to create the possibility of a different future.  That’s what Jesus was doing as he told this story.

To read Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats as some kind of systematic theological statement about faith vs. works and the way to salvation misses the point because prophets didn’t do that.  Jesus never set faith against works; he didn’t lecture on the fine points of theology so to read all that into this story is making it about something that Jesus didn’t intend.  What he talked about was discipleship; most everything he said was about discipleship, how to be obedient to the will of the Father.

The primary way he talked about this was with parables and stories about what he called the Kingdom of God.  That kingdom wasn’t a heavenly hereafter kingdom for Jesus, but one that is revealed in the present primarily through acts of love and mercy toward others.  Jesus concern in this parable is discipleship that is made known in love and mercy.  One cannot be identified as a member of Jesus’ kingdom, one cannot be a disciple or a follower without demonstrating it in acts of mercy.

So…what Jesus the prophet is doing here is creating a scenario that is intentionally provocative, one that can’t help but make you ask, “Am I a sheep or am I a goat?”  The harsh judgmental language about eternal fire and eternal punishment is intended to push the question, to make us uncomfortable because again, that’s what prophets did.  Isaiah compared the people of Israel to a vineyard that the Lord had planted but that produced only wild grapes; so the Lord would trample down the vineyard, break down its walls and let it be overgrown with thorns and briers.  Jeremiah was more direct, talking about armies coming from the north to “make your land a waste; your cities will be in ruins without inhabitants.”  Ezekiel is full of violent and gruesome images of the disaster that awaits the people for their failure to follow the ways of the Lord.  Prophets make people uncomfortable, and that’s what Jesus was doing here.

With all of the prophets though, interspersed with the threat of judgment was the promise of hope.  They did speak words of comfort, but usually you had to wait awhile before you could hear those words.  It’s important to remember that though in considering the sheep and the goats. Jesus spoke words of comfort too, so a story like this with its tone of works based judgment has to be weighed against Jesus’ many parables of grace like the Prodigal Son when no questions asked forgiveness is granted, and the Laborers in the Vineyard where, at the end of the day, everyone gets paid the same regardless of what they did. 

With that, perhaps the point we want to get from this is that the kingdom of God is about unlimited and unconditional grace, but with that unlimited and unconditional grace comes unlimited demand which calls us to account for sins of commission and sins of omission, things done and things left undone.  There is tension between unconditional grace and being accountable for our actions, but it would appear that that is where Jesus wants us to be.  It creates some discomfort, but it’s a healthy discomfort that creates good disciples and again I would suggest that discipleship, rather than judgment is what Jesus is focused on here.

With Jesus our salvation is secure, our acceptance is secure but our discipleship still has to be lived out daily and it’s clear that for Jesus discipleship is revealed in how we treat the undervalued members of society.  What’s also interesting here is that this isn’t an individual me and Jesus thing.  This is about the nations, about how groups of people treat the undervalued.  We are accountable not just for ourselves but also for each other and for the way our society cares for “the least of these” which adds a different dimension to this.  In an individualistic society we tend to view our relationship with God individually too; there’s a lot of Christian jargon out there about accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.   There is a personal aspect to our faith, but for the prophets, including Jesus, it was much more communal, much more “we’re all in this together.”

Obviously there is a caution here for the goats who view themselves as faithful but who are blind to the needs of those around them.  “When did we see you a stranger, or sick or in need?” they ask.  Clearly there is praise for the sheep and their generosity toward the least of these.  But with that praise there could also be a caution about humility for the sheep, a caution to them about self-righteously judging the goats. 

While judgment might not be the primary theme of this story, it is a theme.  The reminder though, is that while there is a judge, whether sheep or goat, we aren’t it.  Both sheep and goats are called to be disciples, not judges.   Both sheep and goats are called to discipleship by Christ, the prophet, priest and king who in his calling places unlimited demand on all of us.  It’s a demand that even the best of the sheep can’t always fulfill.  Fortunately for us though, this prophet, priest and king is also the judge, Christ the judge, who with that unlimited demand judges with unlimited grace.

I think that’s a good note on which to end another church year.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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