|Christ Pantocrator mosaic
Daphni, Greece (ca. 1080-1100)
OLD TESTAMENT: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
The oracles of Ezekiel are often downright alarming to us. The writer’s understanding of God often seems to us to depict a powerful and sometimes scary Holy One upon a high and mighty throne that judges and hands out punishment because of the sins of the people, so a little history would probably help us out a little. First of all, the prophet Ezekiel was probably part of the group of those who were deported from Jerusalem to Babylon in the year 597 BCE. So his ministry was to those who were in exile with him. He used visions to give them hope, to remind them that God was present even in the exile with them. But he also proclaimed that the loss of the temple and the exile was the people’s fault, rather than God’s, that the circumstances in which they now found themselves were consequences of what they had done and how they had acted. They had heard God but had not taken God’s Word seriously. He condemned the leaders for being irresponsible shepherds of the people and for their lack of justice toward those in their care.
So, this reading focuses on restoration. Using the image of the shepherd, the writer depicts God as the One who will take over and rescue the sheep. It depicts a Great Gathering. God as the Shepherd seeks each one out and brings them to good pasture, green and lush and plenty. The metaphor of the shepherd is a common one in the ancient Near East. It is a metaphor not of passivity or weakness, but of a power defined by justice and compassion, which is why this reading works well for our Christ the King readings. After the promise of new leadership, God promises a new covenant of peace.
If you read it, though, this is not necessarily an indictment but rather a condemning of the behavior of the unjust leaders (and possibly of the people themselves for following those who were not good and just!) So God will step in. In other words, hope is never lost. We read the words “I will save my flock.” There is talk of judgment, of justification, but over and above, God saves. This is not carrying any of those so-called “hellfire and brimstone” images but rather the image of One who dispenses justice and discipline. This is not, contrary to what some would think, a God of wrath but, rather, a God of Righteousness, a God of Justice, a God of Light, lighting the way for those in darkness and shining a light on those who inflict the darkness. But when it is all said and done, God will transform all into the flock of this righteous and just Shepherd, where they will be fed and nurtured, and live in peace. It is the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. It is the vision of God.
We read this as part of our Christ the King Lection because it is a different view of the King. The King is a Shepherd (and the Shepherd is a King). This is not a King who rules in wrath and dispenses punishment but rather a King who rules in righteousness and dispenses justice. And, more than that, this is a God who seeks and searches until the flock is found. And when God starts dividing the flock, it’s not into “good and bad”, “right and wrong”, “us and them”. Rather, it is bringing strength to the weak, healing to the injured, and “foundness” to the lost. Any division that happens is so that God’s grace can permeate and save us all.
a. What is your response to this passage?
b. What is it about some of these visions that bother us so much?
c. What image of the Peaceable Kingdom does this passage depict?
d. Why do we insist on dividing God’s Kingdom into “us” and “them”?
NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 1: 15-23
Most scholars agree that Ephesians is considered what you could call a “Deutero-Pauline” work, implying that it is “second” or “secondary”. (This would also refer to 2 Thessalonians and Colossians). These letters were probably written in the 70’s or 80’s. Paul more than likely died around 60, sometime around Nero’s reign. So, rather than being written by Paul himself, Ephesians was more than likely written by a follower of Paul, using the format and even the style that Paul employed in his letters. This is not plagiarism. In that society, placing someone else’s name on a work was considered the highest form of compliment.
The main purpose of Ephesians, probably written to a Gentile audience, seems to be to remind the believers of their communal identity in their new status in Christ and to urge them to walk in ways that demonstrate this communal identity and unity. (When you think of it, this idea of “community” would probably have been more difficult for Gentiles to grasp than for the Jews of that time, who had a sense of community embedded in their very being.) The church here is understood as a Body of Christ that is exalted, which resonates with our understanding of the community of saints here and forever.
In this week’s reading (which is actually made up of four run-on sentences for all you English writing aficionados!), the writer describes Christ’s Reign as having by established by God’s power in the work, death, Resurrection, and spirit of Christ. It is not a matter of placing Christ as King over other Kings. This is not some calculated hierarchy of authority. Rather, Christ is King…Period. There is no other. And this Reign of Christ IS the fullness of the Kingdom of God, when peace and justice and righteousness will finally be securely in place. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “nothing is lost…everything is taken up in Christ, rid of evil, and remade. Christ restores all this as God originally intended to be—without the distortion resulting from our sins.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, as quoted by Jennifer M. McBride in Feasting on the Word.)
In verse 18, “the riches of the glorious inheritance of the saints” refers to that inheritance that is extended through Christ who God raised from the dead, caused to sit in “heavenly places”, and gave authority over all things. We are part of this inheritance. But the reading does not end with the Kingship of Christ as one that is removed from us or one that is “out there” for us to inherit. The reading instead closes with a reference to the church as the Body of Christ that is triumphant in all things, the point of eschatological fulfillment. In other words, the Body of Christ is us.
There’s this huge poster way up on the wall of one of the meeting rooms at Lakeview, our Texas Conference assembly and retreat center. If you look at it closely, you saw all these wonderful different pictures of people in ministry, doing what God called them to do. But if you step back far enough, you realize that together the pictures form a silhouetted image of Jesus. The point is that it takes all the pictures finally coming into being, coming into focus, and fitting with each other the way a jigsaw puzzle does, to realize that image of Christ, that Vision of God.
In this week when we celebrate the Reign of Christ, we are given a tiny glimpse of that vision that will be. But unlike earthly kings and queens that we crown and just sit back to see what they do, the crowning of Christ as King comes one picture at a time. What picture is yours? What part of this vision has God called you by name to bring? What were you created to be?
a. What message does this reading hold for you?
b. What image of the Reign of Christ does this reading give you?
c. What does it mean for you to have this “inheritance”?
d. So, what does it mean for us to BE the Body of Christ?
e. What part of this vision is ours to build?
GOSPEL: Matthew 25: 31-46
This passage probably makes all of us a little uncomfortable. We’ve gotten to know this welcoming, nurturing Jesus and here, just before we read of the conspiracy to arrest Jesus in the next chapter, just before the beginning of the end, we get this. First, we get a depiction of the Son of Man coming in all his glory. It reflects the imagery of Daniel (7:13-14) and foretells the coming judgment. The image seems to be a little scary. From the throne, the King uses his authority to separate individuals like sheep and goats. And we are told that the sheep will inherit the kingdom. So what happens to the goats?
The issues of the final judgment and the establishment of God’s Reign were of paramount importance to the writer of Matthew’s version of the Gospel. (So keep in mind that it’s not clear if these things were on the top of Jesus’ list! In fact, there are some theologians that think that this prophetic writing was added to the end of the string of parables that came before it.) I mean, think of all the ways that Jesus talked about salvation and the Kingdom. None of them included a list of who was “in” and who was “out”. Jesus seemed to be more concerned with showing everyone the way home.
The judgment is not based merely on doing the right thing. In fact, both those who had done what was good and honorable and those who had not actually had the same response. (When was that, Lord?) That’s pretty cool. Those who were doing the “right things” still had doubts, still had questions, still walked in faith. But they loved their neighbor. It was an authentic outpouring of the love of God. Apparently, that’s what it’s all about.
But this is not a checklist of things to do so that you can go to heaven or whatever your vision of eternal life is. This is depicting a way of living, a way of being. This is depicting the Kingdom of God. And getting signed on to the sheep team is not about us. It is about loving our neighbor. It is about being Christ in the world. It is easy to read this and look upon salvation as something that we achieve. But salvation is discovered (and sometimes in ways that we do not expect.) And perhaps this writing is nothing more than a reminder of what it means to walk in the Way of Christ. It means to love God and love neighbor. The two cannot be separated. As Christians (and as good Methodists), we usually default on the side of grace. So, again, what happens to the goats?
I heard an NPR “Fresh Air” broadcast several years ago that included an interview with Mark Derr, a naturalist who recently wrote How the Dog Became the Dog—From Wolves to our Best Friends. In his book, Derr explores how the relationship between humans and wolves developed, and how that relationship then influenced the physical evolution of wolves into dogs. He says that he believes that humans and wolves developed a close relationship after recognizing themselves in each other while hunting. So, he surmises, the dog is a creation of wolves and humans—of two equal beings that came together at a certain point in history and have been together ever since. As time went on, the physical features of the wolf began to change. It’s skeletal frame became smaller and its jaw shortened. In essence, the wolf became a dog by becoming a little more like its human companions. So, maybe we’re all a bunch of goats. Maybe the point is to become a sheep by taking on more human characteristics, by following in the way of the one who was fully human and fully divine.
We stand in a threshold between two times. The Kingdom of God has both already and not yet begun. We are given glimpses of what will be, but there is still much work to be done. In Creation, God gave the gift of the very essence of God. God spoke Creation into being and called we humans to be the very image of the Godself, full of love and compassion and righteousness and a hunger for justice and peace. In Feasting on the Word, Lindsay P. Armstrong depicts this passage as a “wellness check and possibly even a warning to those living in unhealthy, self-centered ways.” He says that “we may not like warnings or wellness checks; after all, they ask us to recalibrate our lives. However, they provide a critical wellness overview that we are wise to tend, particularly since heart trouble plagues us all.”
We do not do what we do as Christians to gain salvation. Being Christian means loving God and loving neighbor. It means being who God meant for you to be, the very image of the Godself, in the deepest part of your being. It means becoming a sheep and realizing that it’s about more than you and all the other goats on your team. It’s about the Shepherd; it’s about following Christ; it’s about being the Body of Christ in the world.
This week’s Gospel passage depicts what it means to live into the fullness of this glory—feeding where there is hunger, bringing water where there is thirst, providing clothing, and help, and companionship to those in need, and welcoming every stranger into our midst. It is that ever widening circle bringing everyone into the center and it gives us that sacramental vision to which we are called—“when justice shall roll down like waters and righteous like an ever-flowing stream, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Rosabeth Kanter said that “a vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more.”
a. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b. What is so bothersome about this passage?
c. How would we fare in our “wellness check”?
d. What depiction does this provide for us of that Peaceable Kingdom?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey)
Jesus didn’t come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human. (Hans Rookmaaker)
The future enters into us in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens. (Rainer Maria Rilke)
To your table you bid us come. You have set the places, you have poured the wine, and there is always room, you say, for one more. And so we come.
From the streets and from the alleys we come.
From the deserts and from the hills we come.
From the ravages of poverty and from the palaces of privilege we come.
Running, limping, carried, we come.
We are bloodied with our wars, we are wearied with our wounds, we carry our dead within us, and we reckon with their ghosts.
We hold the seeds of healing, we dream of a new creation, we know the things that make for peace, and we struggle to give them wings.
And yet, to your table, we come.
Hungering for your bread, we come;
thirsting for your wine, we come;
singing your song in every language, speaking your name in every tongue, in conflict and in communion, in discord and in desire, we come.
O God of Wisdom, we come. Amen.
(Jan L. Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, # 129)