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Season of Pentecost, week 23, Common Lectionary year A

Reign of Christ

Christus Paradox: The Politics of Power in the Kingdom of God

(Matthew 25: 31-46)

Audio version

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

One of my ‘go-to’ websites for preparing for preaching is called ‘workingpreacher.org’ where there is a weekly audio podcast of a conversation between Biblical scholars and Preachers on the Lectionary texts. This week’s ‘episode’ began not with the texts, but with the name of today in the Christian Calendar, “Reign of Christ Sunday.” The conversation began by suggesting a) most folk in the pews would have no clue what that means and b) that they are not really likely to care that much either.

“It might be wiser,” one voice suggested (timidly) that we preachers in non-hierarchical or theologically liberal churches “tiptoe gently past the “Reign of Christ” designation for today, hoping no-one will notice. This is a sermon so I’ll temper my response for public consumption.

First, the Gospel text doesn’t let us tiptoe anywhere, does it? It’s an in your face, scary text which paints the “Son of Man” – aka the bearded prophet Jesus, now dead and risen, rising on a cloud, surrounded by angels, looking every inch the Ruler, with the rod of judgment in his hand, nudging some rather clueless looking sheep to his right, into a cloudy gateway to eternal bliss, while prodding the backsides of others into a pit of sulphurous eternal fire and torment. Try getting past that with no one noticing, or asking questions!

Second, it’s precisely in churches like ours that we need to take on this text, and the implications of a Sunday called “Reign of Christ,” if we are to have any word of hope or grace to speak out against the exclusivist, fundamentalist interpretations of this text that have led to so much xenophobic, closed-minded notions of what God’s kingdom and rule is in and for the world.

Our Identity and Values statement at Cedar Park claims that we are an open faith community seeking to make Jesus’ message, teachings and way of life relevant and real in a complex and often hurting world. We of all people then need to be able to proclaim with compassion and intelligence that the “Reign of Christ” in this world is about healing, feeding, seeking and finding, compassion and reconciling love.
To do that, we can’t shuffle either this text, or this “Reign of Christ” under a carpet. We need to know how both become life-giving for us and for the world.

“Reign” and “Rule” are words treated with world-weary cynicism by many and outright suspicion by many others, so that their use in church and in our culture is understandably risky and problematic. The current proliferation of “Occupy” movements from New York to Brisbane are populist expressions of an attempt to replace ‘rule’ by the few (whether they be bankers or politicians) with ‘direct democracy’ and consensus decision making, no matter how unwieldy that may be. The so-called Arab Spring occurring across Northern Africa and in the Arab Gulf throughout this year is likewise a groundswell of uprisings of popular dissent whose intent was to replace the ‘reign’ of dictatorial rule in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and even Saudi Arabia. The “reign” of one over many, it seems, is being challenged across the globe in unprecedented ways. Closer to our own religious home, Quiet Revolution in this province, and secularizing tendencies across the country all signal the reality that centuries of patriarchal and hierarchical structures of formal Christian religion are being fundamentally challenged.

Not surprising then that the word “reign” and its kindred moniker for God or Jesus as “Lord” have become too hopelessly loaded for them to have any life-giving, hope-filled meaning for so many people. Those who are at Chez Cora this morning have voted with their feet, choosing to have nothing to do with a religion of rules for separating sheep from goats, good from bad, heaven from hell. And those of us still coming don’t come for a guilt trip, nor even a “Lord who reigns,” but come hoping, seeking for meaningful ways to feed our souls, to find compassionate purpose and meaning for our lives, while experiencing the welcome of a community that feels like home. Perhaps the suggestion to leave text and date aside are wise after all?

And yet, I’m reading this text at the end of a Christian year that’s been trying to tell me something important, elusive, confusing at times, but ultimately radically different about this Jesus Christ, and the God whose Dream he came to fulfill. It began last Advent, with Scripture texts that proclaimed our longing for a “Prince of Peace,” and Christmas came along, and we found ourselves as stunned as those travelling Magi who looked for a King and found a homeless refugee baby as God’s harbinger of the ‘new world order.’ We stood stunned by a cross, the Roman Empire’s electric chair, as this child now grown stared death in the face with nothing but hope, and love. And who in so doing, defied the apparent finality of death with the resurrection seeds of compassion and hope sown in the lives of those whom he had shown how to live God’s Dream. Together we have spent the Summer and Fall with Matthew’s Gospel, watching Jesus paint powerful, word pictures pregnant with meaning and possibility, parables of God’s Heaven-on-Earth, to be found in lost coins, tiny seeds, banquets for beggars, and most clearly in the compassion of a wandering Rabbi who lived God’s compassion with bread and healing touch.

The politics of power in the Kingdom of God seems to be working upside down and back to front. The Kingdom of Heaven, the reign of God, something that Desmond Tutu helpfully calls “The Dream of God” is pretty much everything opposite to the human made kingdoms of the earth. In God’s Dream, as we saw three weeks ago, the blessed are not those with the most power, but rather those who suffer for righteousness’ sake, the blessed are those who are grieving, or suffering, or hurting, and therefore held closest to the heart of God.

Which brings us back to the scary text. Despite what centuries of powerbrokers of religion would have us believe, this text is not a description, or a prescription, nor a prediction of the final judgment, but yet another word-picture, yet another parable. It is as full of the ridiculous, of hyperbole, and of the unexpected, as all the parables and word pictures Jesus has told before to help us see God’s Dream for our world as one of eternal compassion, and universal reconciliation.
(We don’t have time to parse each verse here, but I’ve made an attempt on the BWS blog)
And more to the point, Jesus’ point in this parable is to ask us to see ourselves at work in this kingdom, this Dream of God that even now is at work within the world. Every day, we individually and collectively face the choice to indulge in Dream-weaving of living this Reign or Dream of God in the ways we relate to the world and all its – God’s – beloved creatures. We get to choose to be citizens of God’s reign/dream when we choose to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, companion the outcast, clothe those whom the world leaves exposed. If that’s what this text, and this Reign of Christ is all about –
– living Jesus’ upside down, inside out soul-feeding, compassionate purpose-filled life, where we work alongside God to heal, to bring home safely, to share blessing with those who most need God’s blessing, then, count me in. Jesus can be my pilgrim guide, my Shepherd, my Lord. Amen.

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