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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christ the King 11/23/2014

At the end of every calendar year you get all the year in review stuff, highlights of the major news stories, all the “best of” lists, sometimes “worst of lists,” various media outlets choose their person of the year and with it all there’s reflection on the year gone by and what it all signifies or might signify in the greater arc of history. We don’t do that so much at the end of a church year. We’ve been through the cycle of seasons again, the Christmas cycle of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, then a little green “ordinary” time before forty days of Lent followed by the seven Sundays of Easter, then Pentecost and the long green “Sundays after Pentecost” time ending today with Christ the King Sunday.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new addition to our liturgical calendar. In the old red hymnal the last Sunday of the church year was just called “The Last Sunday after Trinity” as some of you remember that prior to the green Lutheran Book of Worship they were Sunday’s after Trinity, not Sundays after Pentecost. It wasn’t until 1970 and the LBW that Christ the King Sunday made the calendar although the Catholic Church had been observing it since 1920 in response to what was perceived as creeping secularism and nationalism. It was intended as a reminder that for Christians, Christ always comes first; he is our king.

Whatever you call it though, it seems like the last Sunday of the church year should have something of an “In conclusion, let me say this…” feel about it. How do we sum up the cycle of seasons we’ve been through? What represents an appropriate last word for the year? What would Jesus want the last word to be?

This year, the lectionary gives us a pretty good answer, I think. It’s the parable of the sheep and the goats, the third of our end of the year, Matthew 25 parables. Usually the sheep and the goats is understood to be a parable of judgment and without question elements of judgment are there, it’s difficult to argue otherwise with the description of the sheep being welcomed into eternal life and the goats going away into eternal punishment; that sure sounds like judgment. What can be argued though is the intent of the parable. It does describe a scene of judgment but is it intended primarily to announce the coming judgment, or is the intent to encourage faithful discipleship?

I would argue for the latter, encouraging faithful discipleship, because that is really what Jesus has been about throughout the entire gospel. Let’s go back to the beginning as we do this end of the year review. Matthew starts chapter one with a genealogy of Jesus which is then followed by his story of the birth of Jesus including the Wise Men and escape into Egypt before the return of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to Nazareth. When Matthew gets to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in chapter 4, Jesus’ first words, echoing the words of John the Baptist, are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Those words set the tone for the gospel. Repentance isn’t just feeling bad, it is for the sake of faithful discipleship. It’s a turning from those things that take us away from God so that we can better live in the manner in which God would have us live. Jesus talks about this manner of living and gives instruction concerning it, especially in parables, most often using the term “the kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven” to refer to a different way of life.

So, if repentance for the sake of faithful discipleship is the first word of the gospel, and it is, then you would expect that it would also be the substance of the “in conclusion, let me say this” part of the gospel. Chapter 25, from which this parable comes, is the “in conclusion” part of Matthew or at least it’s the “in conclusion” part of this part of Matthew. The gospel doesn’t end at chapter 25, but chapters 26, 27 and 28 are the passion narrative, Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. It’s a shift from what has come before so if the gospel were a symphony these final three chapters would represent the final movement set in a different key.

Prior to that final movement though, based on what has come before, you might well expect that both Jesus and Matthew would want to make one final appeal to motivate faithful discipleship marked by mercy and love and I think that is what you get, especially in this last parable. When you listened to it read this morning, you perhaps noticed that it gets repetitious as four times you get the repetition of a positive or negative version of “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if a phrase is repeated that many times by a writer or a speaker, it must be pretty important. Whether you were part of Jesus’ audience when he told this parable, or part of Matthew’s original audience or if you’re sitting out there today, unless you haven’t been paying attention at all, you recognize that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, providing clothes for the needy, taking care of the sick and visiting those in prison are all kingdom behaviors as described by Jesus. If Christ is your king, these are the kinds of behaviors you are called to; it seems quite obvious.

I do think this whole chapter is a restatement of Jesus’ first words in Matthew, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s a final call to obedience from both Jesus and Matthew, one final reminder of what repentance and discipleship look like, one final description of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.

The question of judgment still hangs out there though, not just today but with all three parables of the last three weeks, this one along with the parable of the bridesmaids and the parable of the talents. I’ve offered other approaches to all of them, approaches that I think have to be taken into consideration as part of Jesus’ intent, but with all of them the question of judgment persists.

Like it or not, judgment is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Along with these three end of the year parables there have also been Old Testament readings that speak of judgment or the Day of the Lord, often in rather frightening sounding terms and, in almost every case, the judgment described is based on what we do or don’t do; it’s based on works.

Yet, we proclaim a theology of grace recognizing as Martin Luther did, that if judgment is based on what we do, how can we be sure, how can we know that we’ve done enough of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger and all those other sheep behaviors the parable mentions. How can we be sure that we’re sheep?

Luther’s answer of course was that we can’t be sure, except for the grace of God and that became the central point of his theology. We still need the ethical demands to encourage us about what we can do in response to God’s grace but not so we’re driven us to despair about what we can’t do. That brings us back to the idea that Jesus’ intent in today’s parable was not just to announce judgment but to encourage faithful discipleship for the sake of the kingdom.

Parables are not full blown theologies that wrap everything up and answer all the questions; some issues require further discussion and in this parable, judgment is one of those issues, grace vs. works is another. What seems quite clear though is that the sheep behaviors that get repeated four times are the main issue here; they are pretty important in revealing the kingdom Jesus talked about and that’s what he wants us to notice.

In end of the year conclusion then, let me say that we do better if we focus on the ways we can make those behaviors part of our discipleship and we also do better if we let Christ our King worry about judgment. I think he would be OK with that as the last word of the year.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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