By the Rev’d Andrew Coyle
Season: The Reign of Christ.
Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Matthew 25:31-46.
Today, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, or Reign of Christ Sunday. And yesterday, we celebrated Hilary’s ordination as a priest. It was a great celebration yesterday, and, indeed, it is a great celebration today as we gather for the first eucharist at which Hilary will preside!
I want to reflect for a moment on how those two celebrations are connected and how they are, in fact, part of a single whole. And to do that, I want to bring us back to our baptism.
You might recall that in our Liturgy of Baptism, the whole congregation, along with those being baptised, makes the declaration that JESUS IS LORD! And those three words are so significant for us that they are the only words in the whole prayer book that are written in bold capitals.
To speak of Jesus as Lord now, though, is perhaps so familiar to us in our prayer and in our praise that we no longer have easy access to its full significance. But these words go right back to the earliest Christians living in the Roman Empire. And in that time and in that place, if you asked the question, who is Lord? Who rules? To whom do we owe our allegiance? The answer would come back: It is the emperor who is Lord. It is Caesar who is the Saviour, the Son of God. And if anyone claimed otherwise, they would be in danger of being charged with sedition, heresy, treason, blasphemy.
Yet that is what the earliest Christians did. They claimed that Jesus and not Caesar was Lord, that Jesus, not Caesar, was the ultimate power in the universe. And they did so because they understood that any power to save that Caesar might have was a power founded on the Roman Empire’s capacity for violence. Any power that the emperor or empire might have to bring life and freedom rested on its military might. And in this, any power that the emperor and the empire might have to bring life
and freedom was ultimately the power of fear and death. The power of the threat of death and the power to make good on that threat.
Indeed, we see that power at work in the death of Jesus. Jesus was crucified under Roman imperial authority. Crucifixion was a particular form of execution that served to underscore the empire’s power. Because it was not just about death but about pain and terror. Those who were crucified died in pain, and their deaths and the means of their death served to terrorise the Empire’s subject people into submission. Crucifixion was a brutal form of control. But it also revealed the power of empire for what it was – naked violence whose only power was that of death and the threat and fear of death.
The crucifixion of Jesus also, however, revealed the power of God. And that power is the power of resurrection, the power of life and the power of hope. Because although Jesus was crucified, although Jesus died, so great is God’s love and God’s power for life that God raised Jesus to new life. And life, new life, is always God’s purpose for us, always God’s promise to us. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”
Jesus lived out those words. He lived out those words in his acts of healing. He lived out those words when he cast out demons and freed people from the things that had possessed them and kept them locked up in fear and misery. He lived out those words when he ate with the tax collectors and sinners and when he drew people into a new experience of community where they were accepted and loved rather than despised and rejected. He lived out those words when he entrusted his life to God, trusting that, even though he would die, God’s power for life was greater than the power of fear and death, and there was yet life and hope in God.
And that is what we do also. As people who follow Jesus, we follow Jesus in entrusting our lives to God’s power for life. And baptism is a sign and a symbol of that trust.
In baptism, we declare our trust in God’s capacity to bring us back to life, whatever deaths we experience, whether that death comes to us as pain or fear or disappointment or despair. In baptism, we declare that God is the source of all life and that in following Jesus and putting our trust in God, we will not be disappointed at the last because God loves us with the same love that raised Jesus from the dead. In baptism, we also acknowledge our calling to follow Jesus so that we might
also be the means by which life and freedom come to others.
And that, of course, brings us to today’s gospel reading. We have already heard this passage this year because it is also the Gospel reading set down for Social Service Sunday. And you might recall me saying then that this passage offers us a scene of
judgement, The Last Judgement, in fact. It is the most detailed picture of the Last Judgement in the New Testament.
But you might also recall me saying that these words of Jesus are not really about judgment at all! But rather about discipleship, about what it means to follow Jesus, about what it means to confess Jesus, and not Caesar, as Lord, about what it means to be witnesses to God’s power of life and hope, not the empire’s power of death.
Following Jesus is all about responding to the needs of those around us in compassion and loving service: giving food to those who are hungry, something to drink to those who are thirsty, welcome and hospitality to those who need it, clothing the naked, and offering human contact and care to those who are sick or in prison. These are all gifts of life and hope. These are all expressions of God’s resurrection power, acts of love and compassion that raise us from the death of deprivation, isolation and despair. And these things are part of our common vocation as followers of Jesus.
Hilary has been given a vocation to remind us of all of that. Hilary has been given a vocation to proclaim Christ crucified and risen, to tell and retell the story of Christ’s victory over death, and to tell us again and again that Jesus is Lord and that it is in God that we find our life and our hope. And that is the story of our faith.
Of course, it is not just Hilary’s story to tell. It is our story to tell, the church’s story to tell. Hilary’s vocation is to serve and enable our common vocation, to continually remind us through Word and Sacrament that our life and our hope are in God, and that God’s power of life and the hope that that gives us cannot be matched or overcome by any other power.