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Readings: Christ the King

14 November 2014


Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1.15-end; Matthew 25.31-end 

Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King: keep the whole Church in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace, and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet; who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.

"WHO do you say that I am?" Jesus's question, in the middle of St Matthew's Gospel, hovers in the background on the feast of Christ the King. Matthew's whole Gospel is the answer, opening with the bald and bold assertion that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David and Abraham, and concluding with Jesus's claim to have been given all authority in heaven and earth, sending his disciples to make disciples of all nations, promising his presence to the end of the age. Ephesians echoes it: Jesus Christ, seated far above all rule and authority, calls people to recognise and know him.

So, on the one hand, Matthew makes no secret of the answer to the question. On the other hand, he does. Today's Gospel pitches us into the heart of the complexity. If Jesus is the Messiah, with all authority, incarnate among us, coming in glory, why do people not recognise him when they meet him?

Isaiah proclaimed (61.1-2) "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn."

The Spirit's empowering precipitates compassionate action for the oppressed. Because Matthew told us that Jesus was conceived and anointed by the Spirit (Matthew 1.20, 3.16), fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy that God's Spirit upon him and he would not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick (Matthew 12.18-20), it is no surprise to find Jesus identifying himself with the poor and needy. That is where we will find and know him, if we look hard enough.

The Head Verger at Durham Cathedral and I meet regularly with three churches in Durham to co-ordinate ministry for people who turn up in need. Last time, unannounced, a young woman barged into the room, and in very colourful language announced her anger at having nothing in life. Abruptly, what we were discussing was, yet again, in front of us in flesh and blood, demanding help. There was not a lot we could do. The irony was not lost on us.

Our readings help us with the dilemma we faced in not being able to fix her life instantly. We worship a God whose idea of kingship is being involved in compassionate action. Ezekiel described God as the true shepherd who personally seeks out his lost sheep, rescuing the scattered and returning them to the safety of good, secure pasture. This was a vision of woolly heaven. But the picture is even better, because God's kingship is about compassionate action to secure not just relief, but justice.

As Ezekiel describes, shepherds had to be hands-on. In the previous chapter he, exiled in Babylon, received the message he dreaded. Jerusalem was razed to the ground, and the nation's freedom was over. He was so distressed that he was literally unable to speak. Then the Lord came with a message of judgement on the leaders of the people who had brought this disaster on the nation, accusing them of being false shepherds refusing help to people who were like sheep at the mercy of predators.

In this context of severe judgement of false shepherds who did not care for the vulnerable people, God made the extraordinary promise to humble himself to become a shepherd - a lowly job in the pecking order of the day - for his defenceless people.

The prophets we have heard from in the past three weeks were more like godly irritants than pastors, although ultimately that may be pastoral ministry if people need to be jolted to attention. On the feast of Christ the King, who do we say that Jesus is? If he is who he claims to be, then he is both prophetic irritant and pastor. So we will meet him in the poor and needy, as well as in the breathtaking foretastes of his heavenly glory, which the Ephesians experienced in worship. Are we to be found in all the places where he can be found?

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