Longing for Reign: Reign of Christ Sunday

November 26, 2023
Matthew 25: 31-46; Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24

A far right politician was elected president in Argentina last week. A “hard” right politician elected in Netherlands. Christian Nationalism is growing in this country. There is unthinkable violence in Palestine and Israel. Desperate migrants flee across borders. The earth, air and water themselves cry out for attention. It can be a scary time to be alive. We long for a time when everyone lives in freedom and at ease, people, creatures, earth all in peaceful companionship. In the Christian tradition, we call that longing for the Reign of Christ.

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday. I have not always been a huge fan of this Sunday partly because it used to be called Christ the King Sunday. I got all tangled up in the male language. Also, my understanding of the text is that Jesus never wanted to be a king. At least that is what we read in John 6:15, right after he has fed 5000 people – 

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and

take him by force to make him king,

he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Of course, that is Jesus fleeing from kingship, not Christ, the one who is all in all, the risen one that mysteriously appears through locked doors and cooks fish for his friends by the lakeside.

Reign of Christ Sunday is a good time for Mennonites, (and all Christians) to be clear about our allegiance. Anabaptism began out of the need for the separation of church and state. The early Anabaptists wanted to worship in freedom, be baptized upon confession of faith (not at birth as part of the government census.) They wanted to live in peace as followers of Jesus without the government telling them how to live out their faith.

Today as spiritual descendants of those early Anabaptists, we are grateful to live in this beautiful land, (stolen from the Nacotchtank and Piscataways) – AND our ultimate loyalty is not to the United States or the other countries of origin among us; our loyalty is not to the president or politicians who may proclaim themselves godly or godlike. Our allegiance is to Christ. We long for the Reign of Christ.

But what in the world does it mean, to long for the Reign of Christ? This text from Matthew 25 gives us some clues.

The parable about the sheep and the goats is the last of a long set of parables that Jesus tells near the end of his ministry. It is a very repetitive text, told the way that stories are told in the oral tradition. The list of the people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill, and imprisoned is repeated four times. With all that repetition, I often prefer to read this parable stopping after the sheep. I already know what is coming for the goats in the second half of the parable. All that condemnation, very uncomfortable. While I may have grown up hearing about hellfire and eternal punishment, I don’t really want to pass that kind of fear on to my children or the children of this congregation. But it is there, so let’s try to pay attention to it this morning, the whole parable.

Increasingly I find it helpful to look for the connections that Jesus made with the scriptures from his own Jewish faith. While Jesus sometimes reinterprets the texts with a new twist, he is also quite faithful to the ancient prophets whose texts he knows so well. The parable today from Matthew 25 has some striking similarities with Ezekiel 34.

In Matthew, Jesus says the one on the throne will separate the people like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.

Ezekiel’s prophecy speaks of YHWH the shepherd.(Ezekiel 34:15-16)

I myself will tend my flock, and have it lie down, says Sovereign YHWH.

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,

and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak,

but the fat and the strong I will destroy.

I will feed them with justice.

Ezekiel’s shepherd does the work themselves of tending the lost and bringing them back, tending to the injured and weak. These activities are like what the sheep do in Jesus’ parable. (Does Jesus promote the sheep to shepherds?) Interestingly, Ezekiel’s fat and strong sheep, (the goats in Jesus’ version) are not sent to eternal punishment. Ezekiel says, “The fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Is being fed justice, maybe force-fed justice, akin to eternal punishment?

A few verses later in Ezekiel 34 (20-22) we read again about YHWH who tends the flock.

Therefore, thus says YHWH to you:

I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

Because you pushed with flank and shoulder,

and butted at all the weak animals with your horns

until you scattered them far and wide,

I will save my flock,

and they shall no longer be ravaged;

and I will judge between one sheep and another.

Ezekiel’s shepherd has a hard job, not only dealing with unruly sheep, using their horns to butt the weak ones, but they have to know the sheep well enough to distinguish them one from another. Goats don’t figure in much here. And there is a reason these sheep need to be fed justice, they are disobedient, unmanageable and mean. YHWH the shepherd wants to save the ones that are struggling.

I will save my flock,

and they shall no longer be ravaged;

and I will judge between one sheep and another.

 When Jesus tells his parable about sheep and goats, there is no deliberate head butting or being pushed with flank and shoulder. Rather the “goats” have simply ignored those who need care. The people have neglected to do what they know they ought in caring for the people who are hungry, thirsty, the stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned.

The Jewish listeners to this parable know what it means to be strangers; it is a central tenet of their story that they themselves have been strangers. It is because of their own experience as strangers that they are commanded to welcome strangers. The commandments to welcome the stranger appear more often than any other in the Jewish law.

So it is interesting that Matthew’s repetitive list of those who need care does not start with the stranger. Instead the list is ordered: hungry; thirsty; the stranger; naked; ill; in prison. The stranger is third in the list of those who are to be cared for. I wonder why.

Since today is supposed to be the final sermon in a series on communion, I am going to make a leap here that makes sense to me. I hope it will make some sense to you too. The sheep and goats parable concludes chapter 25, and Matthew 26 begins:

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming…”

Jesus is preparing himself to share a meal, the passover meal, with his disciples. He will once again feed his disciples and friends after this instructive parable about feeding and taking care of the people they meet.

This time as I read through this text, I remember the expansiveness of communion. Often we focus only on the words of institution, about the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. Yes, communion looks back and remembers the meals Jesus shared with his friends – and also the food he multiplied on hillsides to feed thousands. The parable reminds us that communion also looks outward, toward the world where bread and drink are needed. Communion also reminds us of the bread and fish that Christ shares with his friends after he is risen. And communion looks ahead with imagination to the time when all will love their neighbors as themselves, when earth and heaven are united, when there is enough bread and drink for everyone.

Expanding our understandings of communion to include Jesus’ parable, we can begin to understand how communion goes even beyond the ritualized meal. Communion points us toward a way to live in the world. Communion is about feeding the hungry and thirsty people at the table – and on the street. Communion is about welcoming strangers to the table, so that they are no longer strangers. Communion extends beyond the table as we share clothes with those who have none, tend to those who are ill, pay attention to those who are in prison. With all these people as part of communion, we will need larger tables.

And when we respond as the sheep in Jesus’ parable, caring for and sharing with those we meet, we are actually caring for and sharing with the one on the throne, now understood as Christ. When we care for these others we are tending to Christ. The same Christ that is mysteriously present with us in communion – is present with us when we take action and offer care.

But what about the goats? The goats seem to have all they need and do not notice, much less identify with, those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill or in prison. They don’t have room in their hearts or world view, much less at their tables, for those with such basic needs. I wonder if we become a little bit goat-like when we restrict our ideas of communion to tiny pieces of bread and swallows of juice, served in the church ritual.

Is there room for goats (or head butting sheep) at the table, in the Reign of Christ? The parable says the goats will be punished. By not building relationships with those right in front of them, they have done themselves in. While this eternal punishment may terrify us, some of Jesus’ listeners who feel disrespected and struggle to be taken seriously, may find it a relief to hear that these goats and head butting sheep will be rejected. They look forward to a time when they will no longer have to deal with these bullies but can live in peace.

But – is there a place in the Reign of Christ for goats and the horned sheep that scatter the weaker ones? Can they change their ways if they are fed justice by the shepherd? Will their punishment truly be eternal? (It is a fascinating question and here I point you toward a helpful and accessible lecture given by Ron Haflidson at St John’s College – “What the heck is hell?” – Divine Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew)

While the language the Reign of Christ sounds political, it is actually more practical. And we enact it when we pay attention to those who are present (or look for those who are missing.) We enact in when we are alert to those who have real needs and desire connection. The list that Jesus gives in the parable is just a suggestion of those people that deserve care and desire a place at the table.

Here at Hyattsville Mennonite we try to keep this vision of the Reign of God alive and growing. We teach our children and the adults keep learning. We might not always call it the Reign of God, being humble and practical as we are, but that, my friends, is what we are doing – keeping the hope of the Reign of God alive. We practice now, watching for the Reign of Christ, participating in the Reign of Christ, even though our individual actions, even our collective actions, may seem like mere drops of water in the ocean. But how else will we ever get there unless we develop the habits of the Reign now?

So piece by piece, we cut and sew and tie comforters, we serve Thanksgiving Dinner at the Day Center, we support Jubilee friends so they can find their own dream homes. We partner with San Mateo Church as they support newly arrived immigrants.

We partner with LAR greeting people as they come out of jail. We prepare, hold, and clean up, the Ten Thousand Villages and Bake Sale. We share fellowship meals, play games and laugh together…

We even catch glimpses of the Reign of Christ as we share little bites of bread and tiny cups of juice in the ritualized meal of communion. Piece by piece, sip by sip, until all are fed and housed and free, until all find a place at the table, in the flock of Christ’s reign.