The Good News of Christ’s Judgement!
The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King Sunday
Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25: 31-46
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church
22 November 2020
May I speak to you in the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we have arrived at the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which is the end of the Christian liturgical year. This last Sunday is also informally designated as Christ the King Sunday. This is the Sunday in which we focus on the kingship of Christ, and his role as judge over all the earth in his second coming. The 2nd coming of Christ is the end to which all human history is destined. This is why the kingship of Christ we celebrate on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. And, it is the subject which all of the readings over the last month have been pointing. All Saints Sunday we heard the beatitudes, the following Sunday we read about the wise bridesmaids waiting for the returning bridegroom, vigilantly and with their lamps lit. Last Sunday we heard about the faithful stewards who used their talents well to yield more talents before the master returned. These are examples of faithful discipleship. Discipleship that happens while we are waiting. The foolish bridesmaids who run out of oil are shut out of the kingdom. The fearful steward who buried the talent was cast out into the outer darkness. In other words, all of these readings we have heard over the past few weeks have been pointing to today’s text, where the final judgement is depicted as the sheep being separated from the goats.
Not everyone is so keen on the image of Christ the King, and less on the image of Christ as judge. A couple of reasons for this I think, are: First, as Americans we are biased against kings and monarchies, since that is the form of rule our forebearers left and formed the republic in which we now live. When thinking of kings, we often have images in our minds of how they are portrayed in history books and in films. They are portrayed as cruel tyrants, who have little interest in the people of their realm, but are interested only in remaining in power.
Another stumbling block that we have when it comes to thinking of Christ as King and Judge is because we have domesticated the person of Jesus—and the church itself is one of the biggest culprits for this. We can be overly sentimental about Jesus: We think of him as a helpless baby lying in a manger, or we focus exclusively on his compassion for the poor and needy and his ability to heal the sick. But we often overlook the man who was so self-confident as a boy that he taught in the synagogue when he was 10. We overlook the person whose truthfulness and wisdom revealed the hypocrisy of the religious authorities of his day; we sometimes overlook Jesus’ extraordinary integrity and self-discipline as he resisted the temptations of the devil in the wilderness and lived a life of perfect obedience to the will of God the Father without complaint and without question. We also often overlook the fact that Jesus had extraordinary courage and tolerance for pain, as he faced an unjust, humiliating and torturous death. And, we sometimes also forget the exceptional character he displayed when with forgiveness on his heart, he took his last dying breath.
Third, another stumbling block is that we also resist the idea of judgment. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” may be one of the most frequently misused lines in all of the Bible. When Jesus says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” he is not saying that we should not make moral judgements about behavior that is right or wrong. We couldn’t live as a society without some shared agreement about moral behavior. Rather, what “judge not, lest ye be judged” means in the biblical sense means is that we are being told not to presume to stand in God’s place to render an opinion on the state of someone’s salvation. In the context of the Bible, the phrase “To judge,” in its juridical sense, simply means to “render an opinion,” which means rendering the interpretation of how laws are to be applied to particular cases. For example, “It is the opinion of the court,” we hear judges say. And, so when we stand before Christ as our Judge, Christ will simply render his opinion on us. But, the law under which we shall be judged is the law of the Gospel–not any human law. And, the judge whose opinion we must accept is that of Jesus Christ our King, the Son of God, who died for us and rose again, so that we might have everlasting life. The case we present before Christ is the case of our individual lives and the faithfulness by which we live. We do not get to judge ourselves and we don’t get to judge anyone else.
So, those are at least three things we as Christians living in America have to mentally overcome when we think about Christ’s kingship.
What I want us to grasp this morning is the fact that the 2nd coming of Christ and his judgment of the world, is actually really Good News! We need Jesus to be a king, who as the Son of God, renders judgement upon us and the world.
Unlike most depictions of the final judgment in popular literature, faithful Christians aren’t supposed to anticipate this day with dread. On the contrary, it is a day we look forward to with great hope. And not because we presume on Christ’s grace and mercy, or because we get to walk straight over to Christ’s right hand before he gets to say anything. Rather, we come before the judgement seat of Christ with faith and hope, because we trust that the opinion he will render over us, will be one of grace and mercy.
But we also look forward to Christ’s second coming not simply to get Christ’s final word on us, but because the 2nd coming of Christ, ushers in a new age for all of humanity. The age where truth will reign and everything that is unjust or corruptible will be healed and pass away. And, that is good news! The second coming of Christ is the end of human history as we know it. But we do not anticipate this history ending in annihilation, but rather a new age will be ushered in, where humanity lives in perfect relationship with God and with each other. It will be a kingdom of perfect peace. That form of life which we so desperately long for.
But how is that peace achieved? It is achieved because the law of the land is the law of the Gospel. It is achieved because all the people who inhabit that kingdom are children of God, who accept Christ’s kingship and are united around him in his Word. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of people, who will, with the eyes of their hearts enlighted by the Holy Spirit, (as Paul so beautifully wrote in Ephesians), live in perfect obedience to Christ. And in that kingdom there will be no injustice, no need for human government, no need for manmade laws, no human courts, no prisons, no jails, no death, no disease, no war, no sickness. That is the vision of the kingdom of God that we hope for and that is what the judgment of Christ accomplishes! And that is Good News! Because if Christ does not come again to judge the living and the dead we will not have that. We will be left with what we have now.
And, I don’t know about you, but when I was writing this sermon I found that I was pretty emotional when I was writing it, because I think like you when we read the Bible and we have this vision of what the kingdom of God is and what God promises us, we look to that and we long for it and we hope for it. And, yet we look at where we are now and we can’t help but see the great chasm, the great gulf that exists between that promised heaven and where we are on earth.
We all experience a lot of pain in our daily life. And a lot of times it hard for us to acknowledge that, because I think sometimes that pain runs so deeply and it can be so overwhelming that when we confront it we are too overwhelmed by it and its hard for us to take in.
So instead of confronting that pain head on, we keep it at bay, we put on a brave face, or sometimes we just complain about it or we just lament about it. And there is nothing wrong with just lamenting. We see lament all through the Bible, especially in the Psalms. But lament for the sake of lament ultimately is not spiritually helpful. But when we lament, and when we lament to God, and expose the deep, deep longing of our hearts and we face that pain and we turn that pain over to God, that is when we have the ability undergo spiritual transformation and growth. Because we are acknowledging that sometimes the pain, the evil, and the suffering that we experience in the world is too great for us to overcome, and the only person who can do that is Jesus Christ, and his grace, and his power of healing.
So I encourage all of us, when we have that time and that space to open up our hearts and minds to God and to lament, to try to have the courage to face that pain knowing we are not alone in experiencing that pain. And, that we are here together as brothers and sisters in Christ who are experiencing that pain together, and that we have a shared faith, and a shared hopefulness that what we experience today here on earth is not the last word. It is not all there is. There will be something better. There is something to hope for. And that is what Paul was so beautifully trying to write to the Ephesians and you can hear it in his voice.
Some of the things that came to me while I was writing this sermon that I was meditating on that we lament as individuals and as a society right now are:
We lament the thousands of people who have died, and the homes, businesses, and land that have been destroyed due to floods, hurricanes, and fires just this past year. These natural disasters reveal to us how powerless we can be when confronted with the enormous scale and forces of our natural environment and how all the technology in the world can’t protect us from it.
We lament the nearly 1.4 million people around the globe and a quarter of a million in the US alone who have died from the coronavirus this year. And the 7 billion people on the globe who have been somehow negatively affected by it in some way. It reveals to us how vulnerable our bodies are to disease and sickness.
We lament the families and marriages that have been destroyed by alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, gun violence, adultery, suicide, and divorce. These things reveal to us how we turn to substances instead of God to relieve our pain. It reveals to us how often we fail to love each other rightly and the irreparable damage these things can sometimes cause.
We lament the perpetual wars we find ourselves in and the sons and daughters who return to us broken, both emotionally and physically.
We lament that some people have no interest in the truth, and are willing to lie to us or deceive us to protect themselves or to secure power. Whether these people are our friends, our families, our spouses, our children, the church, news sources, social media posts, leaders, teachers, scientists, or political leaders. It reveals to us how little courage many of us have to confront the realities and the consequences which are brought about by speaking the truth.
This is but a short list. I am sure each of could add more to the list. But these laments are instructive because they reveal to us what we so deeply long for and what only God has the power to heal and make whole.
What do we long for?
We long to live in harmony with our environment, that we can have policies and laws that acknowledge how inextricably bound up with the environment we are as living creatures.
We long to see the end of suffering and death, sickness and disease. We long to see health and flourishing. We long to see the end of the sorrow and the grief that has afflicted families. We long to see more happiness and joy.
We long for compassion and mercy, and love and forgiveness in our personal relationships, in our workplaces, in our city, in our state, in our country, and around the globe.
We long to stop feeling helpless in the face of what feels like insurmountable personal or social problems.
We long for the truth. For only armed with the truth can we truly act responsibly and with the knowledge of what we are actually doing. We can never be full moral agents, or experience real freedom, if we are acting into a reality that is based on lies, deception and falsehoods.
While the kingdom of heaven and Christ’s judgment is something we await with joy and expectancy, like the bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom or like the faithful stewards waiting for their master to return, we can lament, but we can also grow spiritually by being witnesses to the future kingdom that awaits us.
And we can be witness to that which we long for and that which we hope for by seeking to honor and preserve the natural environment we live in; we can seek to help those whose lives have been devastated by sickness, and disease, and natural disaster. We can turn to Christ in sorrow and pain, and ask him to heal us in ways that alcohol and drugs never can. We can exercise compassion and mercy on those we encounter; we can seek to love more fully and forgive more often; we can work for justice in places where we live and work; and perhaps more importantly we can be people who always endeavor to speak the truth in love, and hold one another accountable for the lies that are told. These are all things we can do, because our laments reveal to us the kind of people and the life that we long for and, and it reveals the kind of life that Christ has prepared for us since the foundation of the world, the riches of Christ’s glorious inheritance among the saints.
I leave you this morning with the passage from the Book of Revelation, which records the vision of the Last Days shown to John of Patmos. It is Revelation 21:1-5. I hope you hear the passage as good news.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And, I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trust worthy and true.”