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Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Light of Christ Anglican Church
Rev. Michael J. Moffitt, November 26, 2023

Christ the King Sunday

Text: 1 Corinthians 15:20–28

Today is Christ the King Sunday. Early 5th-century church father Cyril of Alexandria spoke of the kingship of Jesus,

…Christ has dominion over all creatures, …by essence and by nature. From this it follows that to Christ, angels and men are subject. Christ is also King by acquired, as well as natural right, for he is our redeemer…we are no longer our own property, for Christ has purchased us with a great price.

I thought it might be helpful to first understand the origins of the Feast of Christ the King because its roots trace back to the early twentieth century when Europe was struggling to rebuild after the horrors of World War I. It’s easy to forget that the loss of life was more significant than in any previous war in history. It is estimated that 20 million people died, and 20 million more were wounded. Governments teetered on the edge of economic collapse, and unemployment soared. In some places, people were on the brink of starvation.

A few years ago I read a book entitled, A Hobbitt, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, by Joseph Lonconte. It described how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who both fought in that great war came to faith in God and friendship because of the absolute horror of seeing how barbaric men could be to one another. Actually, Tolkien was already a believer, but Lewis was an atheist. During this period men and women had believed that this kind of war would never happen because mankind had become so enlightened by reason and therefore were above such things.

Instead of bringing in an age of peace and human superiority the war ushered in significant political and social changes. Secularism was on the rise, and traditional values usually taught in the Church, were facing challenges from emerging political ideologies like communism and fascism.

I recently read an article by Ashley Tumlin Wallace in The Anglican Compass concerning the beginnings of “Christ the King” Sunday.

The old world, with its established social and political orders, was disintegrating. Pessimism and a sense of helplessness infected the people, exacerbated by the bitterness between nations. In this fertile ground for tyranny, figures like Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin began to rise. In their distress, the people gravitated to anyone who could offer them hope. 

In this climate of despair, Pope Pius XI saw people turning away from Christ, seeking hope, guidance and sustenance from emerging dictators. Amid this shift, there was a growing inclination to relegate morality and the Church’s teachings to the annals of history, deeming them irrelevant in the modern age. In this modern worldview, Christ might be accepted as a historical figure but had no place in modern life.

On December 11, 1925, Pope Pius Xl issued his encyclical letter “Quas Primas” and established the Feast of Christ the King. In doing so he sought to turn the hearts of those who walked away from the hope and the teaching of the church. He wanted them to remember the same thing that the early church stressed: Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, there is hope in no one else. Unless men and women believed that the Kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in was the authority in every area of their lives even in political and economic matters, there would be no hope. Pope Pius Xl knew that those who would be faithful must realize that Jesus Christ the King ruled and reigned in their minds, their hearts, and their wills. Jesus must be the object of our affection over and above everyone and everything else. Their love for God and their commitment to his glory must be the motivation of their lives.

Some have called this period of time “the end of innocence.” In their pride and arrogance men and women believed that humanity had evolved to the place where war was no longer necessary. Then came World War 1 which destroyed their faith in the goodness of men and began a time of disillusionment and doubt.

With few exceptions our world today is not so very different from the world of Pope Pius XI. Peace seems to be a thing of the past as political, social and economic woes are abounding and most nations reject the kingship of Christ in their lives. The Feast of Christ the King remains as relevant today as it was in 1925. 

This is the last Sunday in the church year. The calendar begins again next Sunday with the first week of Advent. I think it is right that we end the church calendar with the proclamation that Jesus Christ is our King. Most, if not all of us here this morning, have never lived under the authority of a reigning King or Queen. Today even in Britain the King and Queen are for the most part figureheads as the law and ruling authority is Parliament. Even though King Charles has what is termed Royal Prerogative, there isn’t much he can do if Parliament really objects to what he wants.

We are not used to the idea of being under an absolute monarch or king with absolute authority over every area of our lives, but the Scriptures would have us understand that Jesus Christ is King and all of creation is his kingdom. The Bible reveals to us how we are to understand God as King and how that changes the way we are to live before the king.

The Scriptures have much to teach us about the blessings that the King brings to those who will submit to his authority, but they also have much to teach us about what happens to those who will not bow down and worship the King.

For those who use the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 95 is called the Venite, which is Latin for “Come Ye.” It’s an invitation to celebrate and shout with joy that God is worthy of our praise because he is a great God and King and the Creator of all things. In His creative genius he molded the dry land with his own hands and made the seas with us in mind. We should marvel that even though he is greater, more powerful and more wonderful than anyone or anything else he still condescends to come down and shepherd us lovingly. “We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” I never tire of reading this Psalm because it is a wonderful reminder that we have a King who rules in righteousness and justice and is the perfect shepherd.

In our Old Testament passage from Ezekiel 34:11–20, God responds to the unfaithfulness of the under-shepherds who had been given the responsibility to shepherd his sheep. The term “shepherd” in the Old Testament often referred to kings, princes and spiritual leaders who ruled over the people of God. The first part of the chapter chastises them for not looking after the well-being of the sheep but exploiting them and growing fat off their labor. Because of poor leadership they had grown far from God, and Israel and Judah were in exile in Assyria and Babylon. Even though they deserved God’s judgment, he promised through the prophet that he would come down as their shepherd and gather his sheep from all the places they had been scattered. Ezekiel’s prophetic voice revealed a great tenderness within the Great Shepherd’s promise to his errant flock. Listen to Ezekiel 34:11–16 from the Message,

God, the Master, says: “From now on, I myself am the shepherd. I’m going looking for them. As shepherds go after their flocks when they get scattered, I’m going after my sheep. I’ll rescue them from all the places they’ve been scattered to in the storms. I’ll bring them back from foreign peoples, gather them from foreign countries, and bring them back to their home country. I’ll feed them on the mountains of Israel, along the streams, among their own people. I’ll lead them into lush pasture so they can roam the mountain pastures of Israel, graze at leisure, feed in the rich pastures on the mountains of Israel. And I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I myself will make sure they get plenty of rest. I’ll go after the lost, I’ll collect the strays, I’ll doctor the injured, I’ll build up the weak ones and oversee the strong ones, so they’re not exploited.”

Sheep have a reputation for being very stupid and in many ways helpless. They don’t make good decisions and are not inclined to follow the shepherd without motivation. When frightened they will scatter and run right into the jaws of the wolves who are chasing them. That’s why it takes a person who has a loving heart to be a shepherd and is willing to risk his life for their well-being. God was promising that even though his people—like sheep—had continually acted foolishly and turned away from Him and his commands, he was still willing to come to their rescue and to bring them back to the green pastures and clean still waters of Israel. There are many places in the Scriptures where God’s people are referred to as “sheep of his pasture.” In our fallen nature men and women are inclined to turn away from the Shepherd and seek their own desires, and later regret their decisions. God, the Shepherd King, was not only promising to gather his sheep and provide for them, but he would also deal with those who refused to follow and were responsible for mistreating the sheep.

Some commentators think Ezekiel turns here from the kings to lesser officials who had mistreated their fellow countrymen by taking advantage of their position over them. God was judge between one class who were the weak and the helpless and another who were strong and oppressive. The flock was going to be purified, not only of its bad leadership but also of its bad members. There was no place for the individual sheep to consider the pasture as theirs, but they all were to understand that each had the responsibility to use what was needed and not trample on the rest thereby ruining it for others. As Jesus would later point out in his teaching, “we must love our neighbor as ourselves.”

In our Gospel reading from Matthew 25:31–46 Jesus refers back to Ezekiel 34:17 in referring to those who were his flock as sheep. The point that he makes in this passage is that those who follow him as King will also have his heart for the good of the kingdom. They will be concerned for those sheep who are hungry, thirsty, abandoned, naked, sick or in prison and will respond with the shepherd’s heart. He assures them that when he comes in his glory he will say to those who have demonstrated his heart and shown that he is their king by how they respond with love and concern to those who are suffering, “Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

On the other side will be those who Ezekiel 34 referred to as goats or those sheep who had grown fat while other sheep were left with little or nothing. These Jesus accuses of ignoring the needs and the cries of those who are hungry, thirsty, abandoned, naked, sick or in prison. Those who are hurting have captured the heart of the King. He considers it a personal slight when those in his kingdom who are suffering are ignored. To those who turn away Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

King Jesus was declaring what it looks like to follow him, and it has everything to do with his commandments that he summarized as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Some have found this passage troubling because they felt it taught that we are made righteous by our works instead of grace alone. The truth is that our works should always reflect our hearts and in Ezekiel 34:20, God declared that he would judge between the sheep and goats because he alone knew their hearts and intentions. He knows our hearts and whether or not we are really submitted to him as God and King.

In our Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 15:20–23, we see how Jesus is the perfect model of a Shepherd-King who laid down his life for his sheep, who without him would perish without hope. In his death and resurrection, he secured life for those who follow him. Those sheep who follow Jesus also receive protection from an enemy who would kill and destroy them if left to their own strength. The Apostle Paul wrote,

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

The sacrifice that Jesus made serves as the perfect example of how far the righteous King would go to provide for and protect those who are his subjects, but he isn’t done yet. Let’s read verses 24–26,

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We look forward to the time when Jesus comes again, it will be time for final judgment and the formation of the new creation. At this time Jesus will give the kingdom back to the Father. The first fruit was symbolic of giving over an entire harvest to God. Christ’s resurrection was pointing to a much greater harvest to be given to God the Father—the harvest of the entire kingdom. This will happen after Jesus Christ has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power. Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:21,

…that he (Father) worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.

And the Psalmist wrote in 110:1,

The Lord says to my Lord:
      “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

Adam introduced death into the human race, but Jesus came to eliminate death. Yet the elimination of death will take place gradually and its elimination is the last great work of Christ. After this Jesus will then hand everything back to the Father and the Son will once again be made subject to the Father. In perfect harmony with the idea of Christ as the first fruits that honor God as the one who gives the harvest, Christ will remain in subjection to the Father, “so that God may be all in all.” Again, Jesus is the model as he willingly submits to the Father in love.

Some have suggested that this would indicate that Jesus is somehow inferior to the Father in dignity and being, but rather in his Messianic work, the Son subjects himself to the will of the Father. Often we view those things through the lens of how we would react if we were in the same situation with each other. It’s a mistake to compare ourselves and our relationships with each other with the eternal relationship with the Trinity. The climax of Christ’ Messianic office is his total conquest over his enemies so that, “God may be all in all.”

Here, Paul refers to God the Son’s desire to glorify God the Father through all eternity. Importantly, each person of the Trinity desires to glorify another person of the Trinity. The Son glorifies the Father (John 17:4), the Father glorifies the Son (John 17:5), and the Holy Spirit glorifies the Son (John 16:14). This aspect of the nature of God is something God wants us to walk in, having a concern for the glory of others and not our own. The apostle wrote in Philippians 2:3–4.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

From the birth of Jesus Christ to his death, resurrection, and ascension back to the Father, we have the perfect model of living for the glory of the Father.

This past week as I considered this text I thought about the times when I was in another country. Once when in Africa we were riding with another priest and as we traveled down the road a policeman stepped out into the road holding up his hand for us to stop. He motioned for the driver to step out of the vehicle bringing the vehicle registration and driver's license. The policeman and the driver talked for a few moments, the driver handed him the documents and returned back to the vehicle. I asked him what happened, and he told me that the policeman said he was speeding, to which I asked, “How could he possibly know that? He didn’t have a radar gun or any other means of determining our speed.”

It didn’t matter. We had to go to the next town where the driver had to go into a bank to get a certified check for the amount of the fine, which we had to pay because the driver was an African priest. Then we would double back to where the policeman was and give him the check. He in turn would give the vehicle registration and license back to the driver. As we set in the vehicle while the driver went into the bank there were several young men in uniform holding automatic weapons. It dawned on me that it didn’t matter that I was an American, or a priest because this wasn’t my nation, the kingdom where I have certain rights that give me recourse in such matters.

I was also reminded that it may not be long before I don’t have the same rights even in the U.S. Why? Because wherever I am, my allegiance is to King Jesus even if that becomes illegal. My King rules and reigns in righteousness over all the earth and all of the universe. Knowing who I am in Christ lets me live in freedom even if I was in chains. My King, my Shepherd has promised me that when all is said and done I, along with all who follow him, will inherit the kingdom of God. Frankly, it does matter what kings or authorities on the earth demand, I will follow Jesus.

What about you this morning? Are you certain of where you will be when the final breath leaves your body? Will Jesus say to you, “Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into my rest” or “Depart from me I never knew you?” If you’re not certain then now is the time to bow before God confessing your sins and surrendering to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as King.

I want to close with the prayer of David from 1 Chronicles 29:10–13. He prayed this before the assembly gathered in Jerusalem as Solomon was preparing to become the king and the last one of a unified Israel and Judah. Let’s pray.

“Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name.”

And all the people said, Amen.

©2023 The Rev. Michael J. Moffitt

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