“Christ is the King, O friends upraise anthems of joy and holy praise…” Thus begins a wonderful hymn by Bishop G.K.A. Bell of Chichester, England. “King” is a favorite title of Christ employed in many Christian hymns. We sing, “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne” or “The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now”. And on the last Sunday in Pentecost we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, when in addition to singing about Christ the King, we have to start thinking about what it really means to say that Jesus of Nazareth is king, and that can give us pause.
After the American Revolution there were many who wanted Washington to be declared king, a movement that fortunately failed. But Washington’s vice president, John Adams, suggested that the president be addressed as “his Majesty”; Washington preferred “Mr. President” which has stuck with us to this day. When the portly Adams himself was elected president, they referred to him behind his back as “His Rotundity”.
Kings and queens have mostly disappeared from modern, western countries. Oh sure, we hear a great deal about the “woes of the Windsors”, the British royal family, and it often makes for entertaining reading. But where there are kings and queens, they are usually figureheads, useful for making inspiring remarks and opening shopping centers, but having little real power. We are more comfortable, or at least familiar, with presidents and prime ministers.
However, there remains a fascination with kingship. I share it myself and that’s why I stood for hours on the street in London in 1986 and watched the wedding procession for Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson go from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey and back again. However my most vivid memory from that experience was the day before the wedding, when the Marxists were out on the streets of Oxford selling copies of their newspaper, the headline of which read, “Parasite marries scrounger.”
British journalist Katharine Whitehorn attributes our fascination with kings to the popularity of fairy tales. “Whoever heard,” she asked, “of someone kissing a frog and it turning into a handsome senator?” President Jesus" just doesn't have the same ring as "King Jesus". A trendy, leftist minister once referred to Jesus as "Chairman Jesus", but that won't quite do either. Like it or not, we are stuck with King Jesus. So, on this Christ the King Sunday we are given the salutary reminder that we are subjects of a leader for whom we did not cast a vote; rather we are the subjects an absolute monarch whom we did not choose. Scary? The words “absolute monarch” bring to mind images of dungeons and royal thugs. But keep this in mind: Although we did not choose this King, he chose us. There is one law in this Kingdom and one banner waves in its skies: the law and the banner of love.
But more disturbing than the idea of kingship is the way King Jesus exercises his rule in the parable of the sheep and goats. “The king will say to those at his right hand… ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’… [but] he will say to those at his left hand, …’I was hungry and you gave me no food…’” The righteous sheep are told that they will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, but the “accursed” goats are told to “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.
Applied literally and unimaginatively, this parable would seem to say that we are to give food, drink, and hospitality to everyone who asks. To deny to serve the needs of even one hungry and homeless person would seem to be justification for being sent into eternal torment.
However, note the way the king speaks and the way the sheep and the goats answer him. The king says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food.” And both the righteous sheep and the “accursed” goats reply, “When was it that we saw you hungry?” The king asks in the singular, but both the sheep and the goats reply in the plural.
We are not expected to do the work of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, or healing the sick alone. We are expected to belong to communities that will exercise compassion and mercy. Does this excuse us from individual responsibility? Not necessarily; the community acts through its members, as well as corporately. Unfortunately, not only have all of us, time and time again, passed by the hungry and homeless on the streets, our churches are usually more concerned with maintenance than with mission.
Our budgets and check books are good barometers of our spiritual lives. What percentage of our money do we spend on ourselves and our family and what percentage do we give to the hungry and homeless? We need to examine our your church budgets, too. The great majority of churches that I know anything about give a small fraction of their money to the poor. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory” what will he have to say to us and to our churches? Christ the King Sunday is an invitation to us individually and corporately to let Christ reign in our hearts and lives by serving him in the person of the poor.
An Alabama Episcopalian who lived out the spirit of the parable of the sheep and the goats as well as anyone I’ve ever heard of was Augusta Bening Martin. In the 1920 and 30s Martin ran a mission to the poor whites on Sand Mountain that was sponsored by the Episcopal Church. She wrote regular reports of her ministry to the diocesan newspaper. In one report she reported finding a family of five – a mother and four children - in unspeakable conditions: “…the family had lived for weeks on ears of corn and a few fish and squirrels. The children slept on piles of grass, covered with sacks and rags. . . . All were emaciated. The children had never tasted cow’s milk, had never been to school, had never seen the American flag, had never heard of Christ, and knew God’s name only as part of an oath. . . ." The court committed the family to Martin, who provided them with housing, food, clothing, medicine, and other necessities. The children had their first bath and said their first prayer the evening they were committed Martin.
We think of power and glory in terms of self-aggrandizement, but the parable of the sheep and the goats reverses our expectations. The king who separates the sheep and the goats lifts up those who choose service over self.
In the dark days of Stalin’s rule, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge worked for the British newspaper, the Guardian, as a correspondent. Muggeridge went to Moscow fascinated by and greatly enamored with the young Soviet Union, but soon found himself deeply disillusioned. One day while walking in the woods outside of Moscow he came across a small church and noted that someone had given the church a fresh coat of bright, blue paint. Muggeridge writes that he felt that he ”belonged to the little disused church [the painter] had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love.” (Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol. 1, The Green Stick (1972), pp. 226-227.)
We, too, are invited to live in the “kingdom of love”, to give to the hungry and homeless, not in order that we might sit among the sheep when the Son of Man comes in glory, but because the King (who is also the Good Shepherd) sought and found us when we were hurt and hungry and lost and alone.