Sunday Reflection for Christ the King from our Lay Reader, Christina Heath

Are you one of the people who have been eagerly awaiting the new series of The Crown? Or perhaps you are one of those who believe it takes far too many liberties with the “home life of our own dear queen”. Either way, monarchy has always held a fascination for people drawn to the power of kingship as practised by a fallible human being.

          Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King and can use this opportunity to explore the mystery of Jesus’s own kingship which like so much of His life reveals plenty that is unexpected. The expectations of a monarch have changed over the years: what was expected from a king like William the Conqueror is a far cry from the expectations of a constitutional monarch like Elizabeth II. However, there are some constants which subjects have always seen as desirable in their kings:

Authority

Knowledge of their subjects

Compassion for them

Competence

Justice

Let us consider these briefly in turn. Most kings derive their authority through inheritance, conquest, or tradition. Jesus, as part of the Trinity with the Father and Holy Spirit was present from before time began and so claims ultimate authority as creator and sustainer of us and all we know. He is the all-powerful king from whom all other rulers derive their power. Because of this He can demand respect and awe and thanks. No monarch knows his people better than Jesus. He knows our innermost thoughts and nothing that we do or omit to do, and nothing we think is hidden from Him. This gives Him a unique position to understand our fears and hopes. He more than any monarch can share our lives, not least because as God made flesh, He wept for his friend and was moved to pity by our suffering. No other king can aspire to that level of compassion. No other king is love itself. As omnipotent God but also man there was never a monarch who could rule more competently. It is through His divine providence that we are sustained in life and saved in death. Jesus was motivated by justice and sometimes angered when it was ignored as in the misuse of the temple or the failure to put people before minor rules. God has always been held to be a just God, giving the Jews the law to guide their conduct and protect the weak. Jesus summarised the law as the requirement to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

          All three readings appointed for today consider the return of the Messiah/ Jesus at some time in the future when He will be revealed in His true kingly glory to judge all the peoples of the earth. The Gospel reading comes at the very end of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew. His prediction of his own return in righteous and just glory comes just before his arrest, trial, and sordid death on the cross. The shameful physicality of His treatment in His final earthly days could not be further from the awesome and mighty divine glory He speaks of in this section. That of course is part of the point. No king worth his salt could command the respect and love Jesus does without sacrificing Himself for us. His kingship was anchored in His utmost vulnerability.

          Within the section predicting Jesus’s return in glory is the story of His division of the sheep from the goats at the final judgment. We do not associate kingship with shepherding now, but the Bible does. Partly this is because David, Israel’s most famous and revered king, was originally a shepherd. Yet the analogy goes beyond this. The Shepherd King is the leader and guide of the flock and yet also its servant: he puts His life at risk for His sheep – indeed He lays His life down to protect them. He is the way into the fold and so to safety. He knows His sheep individually with all their oddities and quirks. He selects the best for market while retaining others so that they can grow stronger. It is interesting to note how many of a good shepherd’s characteristics overlap with the attributes of a good king. Shepherds would divide the sheep from the goats which flocked together. Those of you who have been to the Holy Land will know that sheep and goats there look similar at least superficially and are not distinct as they are here in the UK.

          Jesus said that when he returns as king and judge He will separate the sheep from the goats and His decision will be made not on “good works” but on how we display our faith and love for Him. He went to great pains to describe how we should show our love for Him – in actively loving others. We are told unequivocally that mere feelings of good will are not enough. We need to “get our hands dirty”. We need to do things: feed the hungry, help the poor, heal the sick and stand up for the persecuted and those treated unjustly. Now your skills may not run to healing the sick, but you can volunteer for research, you can support the local food bank or contribute financially to organisations which support those who are suffering. At the very least you can give someone a call during this lockdown and cheer them up. Jesus requires us to put our faith into action and it is noticeable that failing to do what is right ultimately condemns us. Not because we have not earned salvation (we cannot do that on our own account) but because we have not loved as we are encouraged to. To love God is to love the humanity He created and if we do not actively love others, we do not love Him either.

          Most of us like to think we know if we are sheep or goats, but as Jesus makes clear many are surprised by their eventual categorisation. Sheep and goats are not clearly different except to the shepherd. Jesus does not want us to keep an account of the love we show, or fail to show, but to give of ourselves generously and spontaneously. If divinely inspired love were exercised by a muscle, it would be an involuntary response ingrained in our nature and not a calculation to display our righteousness.

          It should not surprise us that Jesus the King will judge us: we are judged in our working and social lives and will be eventually by Jesus. What we do know is that Jesus is loving and just, knowledgeable, and compassionate. Jesus will have the last word on us and everyone and He is a judge whom we can trust.

Next Sunday is advent Sunday and the beginning of the new church year. We will prepare watchfully for the coming of new life and hope in the vulnerable baby born at Christmas. It is fitting that today we end the old year by looking forward to who that baby is: the almighty king with dominion over us all.