Sunday 26th November – Rev Hugh Perry

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel the reader is told: ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’(Mark 1:14,15)

What does that mean as we consider the two readings from Ezekiel and Matthew this morning.  Are we as Christians preparing for the return of Christ or should we believe that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has not just come near but is continually coming into being as we live as Christ to others.

Does the resurrection of Christ mean as the chorus of Bill Wallace’s hymn ‘We are an Easter people’ suggests,

‘Christ is risen, Christ is risen, risen in our lives’.

As a teenager I was lured into the Levin Baptist church through their harrier club by a very well executed bit of friendship evangelism.  What dulled its effectiveness was that every time I attended the obligatory church parade I was warned about the fires of hell and the sudden return of Christ to sort out the sheep from the goats.  By contrast I read in Baden Powells Scouting For Boys, the essential manual for boy scouts, that you should always leave a campsite better than you found it.  Likewise, you should live life the same way.

Nevertheless, both fear and hope of a final judgement has been used as an evangelical tool and the reassurance of the dispossessed throughout the history of the church.

In his novel Their Faces Were Shining Tim Wilson describes a girl’s frantic phone call to her mother to tell her about the kids floating up through the roof during a calculus class. ‘Mom, it’s the Rapture’[1] She cries.

That’s an image you could certainly draw from both our readings.  But I believe it is not the image we should anticipate for the return of Christ.  Nevertheless, having a superhero to sort out the world is very tempting when faced with the realities of pandemics and ram raids.

During the recent election campaign, I met a number of people who were not just frustrated with the government but totally disillusioned with democracy.

Most of them were not obviously religious so they were not expecting the Rapture or Christ’s return.  I did however meet a couple of people who enthusiastically told me they didn’t vote because choosing the government was up to God. 

That yearning for a divine ruler is expressed in this Sunday being designated as Christ the King Sunday or, the more politically correct term, Reign of Christ.

We now have a king, but he is a constitutional monarch.  The king in the term ‘Christ the King’ comes from an era where a king was an absolute ruler, chief justice and supreme commander of the armed forces.  Nevertheless, if we accept that Christ is king then we do not except anybody else as ultimate ruler. That indeed would be enough to move Pilate to crucify Jesus.  

But many people see a returned Christ fulfilling that sort the would out, all powerful and judgemental role.  The opening verse of today’s reading backs up that hope.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory, (Matthew 25:31)    

To a certain extent this echoes verse twenty in our Ezekiel reading.  ‘Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: ‘I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep’ (Ezekiel 34: 20). 

This is not an advertisement for Weightwatchers and as we read on, we find that the fat sheep ‘pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide’.   (Ezekiel 34: 21)

The recipients of the metaphorical judgement are the wealthy powerful kings, corporate executives, the independent wealthy, and even pastors who increase their wealth by exploiting the vulnerable poor.  

It is a seemingly ageless issue and, the desire that unscrupulous despots get what they deserve, is timeless.  Unfortunately, that very seldom happens and even when a despot is deposed it is usually by another despot.  Even when a seemingly well motivated revolutionary deposes a despot, they quickly become a despot to protect their new position.  

So, throughout time humanity has a vision of an end time or after death judgment where despots get their comeuppance.

Unfortunately, religions have also used that vision to exploit vulnerable people and the church is no exception.  The issue of indulgences that divided the church into Catholic and Reformed is a classic example, with the prosperity gospel running a close second. 

Furthermore, absolute rulers from Constantine onward have kept order by suggesting that they rule on God’s behalf.   Verse twenty-three of our Ezekiel reading tends to support that notion.  ‘I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd. ((Ezekiel 34: 23)  

That is David the warrior king who had one of his soldiers murdered to cover up the fact that David had raped the solder’s wife.   

Yet despite the tarnished Davidic image many Christians see Jesus as the descendant of David who will return in his glory, and all the angels with him. Return to sort out the world. 

We can perhaps hope he will sort out the horizontal infrastructure in our major cities and even get the Christchurch sports complex finished.

However, it’s not just the divine we hope will sort out the world and Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence have written a very informative book called Captain America and the Crusade against Evil.

Jewett and Lawrence suggest that the comic hero Captain America appeared during the frustration many Americans felt at their nations refusal to enter the second world war. 

Reading that book was my first introduction to Captain America but in the superman comics I kept under the bed as a boy I had learned that Superman stood for ‘truth, justice and the American way’. 

But as a teenager I read all Ian Flemming’s James Bond novels.  On reflection I can imagine Bond as a very British way of having a superhero that sorts out the world, without questions in the house or disturbing the royal corgis.  However, the Queen did send James Bond to open the London Olympics. 

With those memories in my mind, I was intrigued to read recently a comment from spy novelist John le Carré suggesting that everybody wanted to be like Ian Flemming’s hero. But his readers hoped they weren’t like Le Carré’s heroes.  Those heroes lived in the complicated world where it is very hard to separate the good guys from the bad guys, and bureaucracy seeks a multiplicity of goals through procrastination.

But I did read an autobiographical book that was life changing for me.  In amongst the tangles and scandals of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and the cartoonists comment on the first industrial espionage in New Zealand which occurred at a cheese factory.  ‘The Spy Who Came In For The Mould,’  

In amongst all that imaginative high drama I read Ernest Gordon’s book Miracle on The River Kwai.  

The superhero in that book is a Scottish Sargent, a confessed Christian and probably a Presbyterian, who transforms the community of a prison camp.  In amongst the sick and dying officers he simply cared for those prisoners who could no longer work.  Soldiers who were left to die.  Because he cared others began to also care and many of the sick, including the author recovered.  

That miracle was spelled out in in Matthew’s Gospel long before World War Two.

‘For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you gave me clothing, I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison, and you visited me’.  (Matthew 26:36)

Being Christ to others is a way of living the divine realm into reality.  The Kingdom of God comes near as we live as Christ to others.  

Christ comes into the world in each of us who live as Christ to others.  Christ comes into the world as we see Christ in those we meet along the way.

The Matthew reading tells us there are always sheep and goats and there are always Ezekiel’s fat sheep and thin sheep.  Certainly, the Ezekiel reading is a warning to the greedy and leaders who make a goat of themselves.

But in suggesting how we might be judged in the everyday moments of our lives the Matthew reading calls us to a self-discipline of caring for others in every moment of our lives.

Like so many gospel texts, this story talks about how people become part of the kingdom of God.  The opening verse may well invoke images of entering a heavenly throne room with a divine monarch surrounded by heavenly bureaucrats.  But that is imagery of a divine realm that wraps around and inspires us rather than fact about the next life. 

If the kingdom of God or the realm of God is at hand then we should understand it as being within reach, within our reach.  Matthew lists of judgment criteria are suggestions of the ways we can make God’s realm real. Real in our time and our world.

Christ in all possible divine glory does not suddenly come into our world as a divine ruler with a heavenly prosecutor trailing a wheeled suitcase filled with evidence files. 

Neither are children lifted through the roof during calculous. 

The ruling Christ comes into our world as the least among us.  Our world is transformed as we care for those less fortunate than ourselves.  

The realm of Christ comes into our world when both ordinary people, and extra ordinary people live as Christ to others.

[1] Tim Wilson, Their Faces Were Shining (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010) p.60