Today in the Spirit: Proper 29A (Christ the King)

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The last Sunday in the Pentecost season, and the weekdays following it, mark the end of what liturgical churches call the Paschal (Easter) Cycle of the church year (On Advent 1 Sunday, we begin the Incarnation Cycle). Since the early development of a three-year rota of lectionary readings (since Vatican II), this Sunday has been titled Christ the King, emphasizing Christ’s installation purposefully and majestically on the throne of heaven with God the Father. As such, the Collect and readings assigned for the day serve as a resounding finale, not only to the period of pre-Advent over the last few weeks but to the whole of the ordinary period after Pentecost with its focus on life in the Spirit. In Proper 29A, the assigned Gospel reading from Matthew 25:31-46 is Jesus’ prophetic vision of the Son of Man, also titled the King, sitting on his throne with the righteous on his right and the cursed on his left, passing final judgment on both groups.

The assigned OT reading out of Ezekiel 34:11-20 may have inspired Jesus’ vision of the sheep and the goats. As in Jesus’ vision, there is a gathering and separation of the righteous out from the nations in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Though no specific judgment is rendered in this passage, the suggestion of the narrative Jesus unfolds in his teaching can easily be implied. The appointed Psalm 95 carries what we worshippers might imagine to be the heavenly song of the righteous ones whom God has delivered as in the OT reading and the Gospel: For the LORD is a great God and a great King above all gods (3). Then follows in the psalm the exhortation back to the believing community in their distress: Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! (6).

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The NT reading from 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 is selected to fit the theme of Christ the King. In this passage, Paul offers his own prophetic vision of the ever-increasing dominion of Jesus Christ, beginning with Christ’s own rising from the dead, the gathering of all the resurrected ones who have been chosen to live under his reign from the heavenly throne, and finally the subjection of all things, including the Son of God, to the Father God all in all. The Collect encapsulates both themes found in the readings for the day, the deliverance and the gathering of the people of God under the benevolent rule of the Father’s “well-beloved Son.”

The Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

I Judge between Sheep and Sheep (Ezekiel 34:11-20)

“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet? “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep” (17-20).

As for you, my flock. Be careful not to miss in this passage the sudden turn of address from the shepherds of Israel (religious leaders, 11-16) onto the larger congregation (all Israelites, 17-20). All at once, the lack of contentment in the community of the faithful becomes the responsibility of the whole people of God and not just the leaders. In the text, the good pasture, representing not just a place (Zion) but a state of living contentedly by the abundance and blessing of the LORD (like the green pastures of Psalm 23), is not shared fairly because of the selfish actions of fat sheep lording it over lean sheep. The land is muddied up, and there is fighting between its inhabitants (see 34:21ff). It is implied that weaker members of the community are left unfed and hungry, ideas to prepare us to hear Jesus’ vision of the sheep and goats in the Gospel reading.

We need to respond to this passage with readiness to see and take responsibility for inequities that often exist in our own local Christian communities. We must ask ourselves, Is it really enough for us to look for church leaders to develop programs for the discreet care of those in need? Is it sufficient to call ourselves a caring church when we put the burden of compassion on the backs of a few who demonstrate gifts of mercy?

The Holy Spirit is within us to empower us for service, and Paul, for one, teaches us each to take account of our willingness to do good in the body of believers. In the section at the end of Galatians where Paul urges the church to bear one another’s burdens, he goes on to write: Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (see Galatians 6:1-10).

Today, in the Spirit, who works in me the compassion of Christ for the lost and lean sheep, I resolve to look with fresh eyes on the state of my own church community—to see the muddiness lying underneath the fine carpet. Empower me to confess my own needs to receive help and, gratefully, to offer assistance with goodwill. 

The Sheep of His Hand (Psalm 95)

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! 
For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand (6-7).

The obvious connection between this psalm and the Gospel reading is the reference to the sheep. In the Matthew 25 vision, the righteous, those set apart by the Son of Man to be on his favored right side, are labeled the sheep. The psalm, likewise, describes Israel, the chosen people of YHWH, as the sheep of his hand (or the flock under his care (NIV)). Taking the two together, we can meditate on the continuity of God’s devotion to his people across the expanse of time. The care of God’s sheep extends from creation in the psalm to judgment in Jesus’s vision, from the activity of the Maker on the one hand to that of the Finisher on the other.

For a devotional application, we can (and must) take the proverbial leap of faith from observing the God who cares for his flock throughout history to worshiping the God who watches over our whole lives from birth to death, even from before birth to after death. How is it, we must ask, that often we acknowledge the One God who is all sovereign and lose sight of his exercising control over our kids in trouble at school or the prospect of losing a job?

Of course, we say it is natural—but it is still wrongheaded. Our loving Father will caress us through these disconnects, but all the while with the goal of training us to trust. See how this well-known passage in Isaiah brings together the remembrance of God’s sovereignty over all things and the assurance of protection for the moment: But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine (Isaiah 43:1).

Holy Spirit, today, as I ponder your covenant love for your people exhibited across all time, I surrender my individual cares of the moment into your hands as my Shepherd.   

He Must Reign (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 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 (22-26).

For us, contemplating the resurrection of the dead can (excuse the pun) take on a life of its own. “Christ rose, so do we, end of story.” Paul, however, cannot tell the story like that. He certainly wants to assure the Corinthian Christians that all believers will take on a resurrected body; this perishable body must put on the imperishable (15:53), but, then, for what? Paul hopes that we might join (leaving out the arguable details of how and when) a final campaign of Christ to put all enemies under his feet. This is OT language (see Psalm 110:1) to describe the Messiah putting a complete end to any and all usurpers, both in the world and in the air, who would stake a claim in his rightful dominion.

So, as we meditate on Christ’s second coming in these weeks of Pentecost going into Advent, we heed the call of the Scriptures to think beyond what will happen to us to what we will be outfitted for–first, to live beyond the danger of perishing in the reign of Christ through the time of judgment, and, then, thinking of that famous line from the Westminster Short Catechism, “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” At the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul concludes by saying the preparation for immortality begins now: Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Today, Holy Spirit, I think to the end and work back to the present, as Paul would have me do in this great NT chapter. Increase my passion for serving you for eternity, and begin my training now.

The Sheep from the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (31-34).

One of the most compelling aspects of this vision of final judgment is the surprise shown by the people of both groups listening to the King’s words. Both the righteous and the wicked are equally perplexed by the presence of Jesus in the people they have chosen to help or not help. Everyone who hears or reads these words can identify with that startling moment of discovery. “The King was really there?” From this point, the inevitable exercise of accounting takes place, doing inventory in our minds of how we performed in one case after another of interacting with needy persons. Surely, if this vision were the only words we ever heard from Jesus of Nazareth, we would all be left in a horrible state of wondering.

But this vision of final judgment is not all we hear from Jesus. Throughout the Gospels and in all of Scripture, the cry of the good news of abounding mercy from heaven serves to overwhelm doubt and despair. See Romans 3:21-23. First, some bad news: “You are all goats,” says the word of God:  For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (note Paul’s word glory here in conjunction with the King coming in glory in Matthew). And then: But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. “Now, all of you who believe are made sheep to be at my right hand, and the works I will empower you to do will prove it.” So Paul also writes, For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).

Today, led by the Spirit, I will allow myself to experience the people’s surprise in this vision of Jesus, then to be refreshed anew by the Good News of an inheritance prepared for me by the grace of the Father and the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. 

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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