On this day, Dr Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, will tell us what happened to her when she died. Today is the final Sunday of the Christian year. Next week, we start a whole new year with the season of Advent. Today we are not afraid to talk about the end, the end of life as we know it and even the end of time itself. Today is about what happens at the end.
Christians call this Sunday Christ the King Sunday because we read gospel accounts which talk of Jesus Christ as a King, who, in the end of days, will sit on his throne and determine who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. The King sits in his throne, according to Matthew's gospel, and he separates the sheep from the goats. But in order to begin to understand what Jesus was trying to tell us, we have to understand what it meant to be a King.
Sheep verses goats.
Today, when we say the word King, we think of Disney world, make believe, or some form of formal monarchy like in Britain, a monarchy that it is more about old traditions and celebrity than about actual power. Kings just don't exist in modern, enlightened countries anymore, or, if they do, they are just figureheads.
For the Jewish community of Jesus' day, a King still meant something. A King was the source of ultimate authority. To have a successful monarchy, like that of King David, was to ensure stability. It was an end to chaos. A truly good king was their best hope for peace, finally having wisdom to rule the land. It was the best of all worlds, to live under a good king. It was paradise. Just as a bad king could bring terror and famine, a good king could bring a golden age. A good king could fix all your problems and make everything right.
Jesus was telling us that he is the King. Christ is in charge and that should come as a great relief. It would not have been a source of terror for those who loved him but a source of relief.
Today it is hard for us to imagine any one person having that kind of lasting authority. We want to be in charge of our own lives, to order our own food, to chose our own education, to determine our own destiny. The rise of technology has led us to believe that we can answer any question on our own. Who needs a King when I can fix my problems myself?
My oldest son was asking an atheist why he chose not to believe in God. He said that he refused to believe in a God who would allow humans to suffer. So basically, when he didn't understand God or disagreed with God, he would just stop believing, like turning off a switch. Oh, I don't want you, God. I chose not to believe in you. I chose for you not to exist. Now, who is the King in that scenario? Who are we to determine the existence of God based on whether we approve of the workings of the Universe? Who are we to switch channels from believer to atheist to agnostic depending on our evaluation of God's behavior? It is not like visiting websites or buying a new car. When it comes to God, we cannot think of ourselves as consumers. Who is in charge of who?
In the same vein, we often want to determine the salvation of those around us. When someone dies, we tell each other that the person is going to heaven. Notice that there is never talk of hell at funerals. But the reality of this gospel text is that there is such a place as hell, the alternative to being with God, a place of pain and alienation from God. More importantly, this text tells us that no one but God determines who goes where. It is Christ who makes the call and separates the sheep from the goats. (I always feel bad for the goats...I think they are great. But the reason Jesus uses an image of sheep and goats is that sheep follow the shepherd, while goats do their own thing and tend to roam) To say that all are going to heaven is as arrogant as saying that certain people are going to hell. It is the language of judgement and arrogance and ultimately of violence because it is not our job to act as King. Only the Holy One sits on the throne. Whenever we try to enthrone ourselves, we do violence and make terrible mistakes.
The truth is that there is so much that we still do not understand. We may have all kinds of knowledge at our fingertips, but there is still so much more that we can't even begin to contemplate.
Quantum Physicists tell us that the more that we learn about the workings of the Universe, the more we realize how little we know. The more we realize that we are not the King. To learn at the highest human levels is ultimately to become more humble. Wisdom actually begins when we acknowledge our ignorance.
A few days ago, I was driving home in San Marco. I was thinking about work and I was about to make a phone call on my cell phone when a small but fierce crossing guard starting blowing her whistle frantically and marched out into the street towards my car. She stared me down and made such a racket with that whistle that I slowed almost to a stop. It turns out that I was going too fast. It was a 15 mile an hour zone because the kids were just about to get out of school. She was waking me up to the fact that I could hurt someone if I didn't slow down. Once I was nearly stopped she nodded and smiled at me, as if to say, "Good. You heard me."
5 foot nothing and full of authority, she was right.
Jesus is blowing a whistle with this story. Is it designed to frighten you? Maybe a little bit. I am not opposed to a hellfire and brimstone in the Episcopal church for a change! Because the truth is that it is not OK to just do what you like with your life. No, how you treat others, especially the poor, has a direct impact on your salvation. So slow down and pay attention to what you are doing with your time, with your life. It does matter. We don't know how, because we are not the King, but we need to be concerned with the matter in which we live our lives.
In this story, salvation has everything to do with recognition. When you serve God, you come to know God, and when you die, the King recognizes you. If you race through life doing what you want, if you live your life like a goat and do not follow Jesus and you don't take time to get to know the King, the Holy One won't know you. "I do not know you," he says. "I have not had a relationship with you."
When someone comes to your front door, you let them in if you know them. That is what the King does. Salvation is based on recognition and relationship.
We don't know exactly what will happen at the end of our lives or at the end of days, but we know what we need to know. We know that serving God in this life matters, that there is a judgement and that we are to take our faith seriously. The whistle is blowing even now. Slow down and make sure that you come to know the King.