King of Sheep

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24Matthew 25:31-46

Question. You can post a response below if you like, or just think to yourself. What is your number one priority? Who is the person, or what is the activity, or what is the philosophy that comes first in your life? Think about it...

Family? Nation? Friends? Job? School? Success?

What about God/church/religion/faith? Can you honestly say that it's your first priority?

Today is Christ the King Sunday, or the Reign of Christ Sunday. The two lessons deal with a Messiah-King who governs the sheep with justice and mercy. And so we spend much of today talking about this idea of Jesus as King, as benevolent monarch. It's an anachronistic idea, for those of us living in 21st century democratic countries, to talk about the role of king. We have shifting political allegiances, voting for one candidate, criticizing them after a while, changing parties, affiliations, all the while knowing that every two or four years we get a chance to have a voice - however small it might be - in our political system.

But a king? There's a shift in our thinking that has to take place because of the different metaphorical political system at work.

But before I look at that, I think it's worth noting the context out of which this Sunday's celebration arose in the first place. It originated in the 1920s in the Catholic Church, looking to the many places in Scripture where Christ is called King; but theologically, it was a response to the intense nationalisms of the early twentieth centuries. So in between the two World Wars, there was this radical statement by the Pope that our ultimate allegiance is not to any earthly ruler or political system, but rather to Christ himself.

I don't think it's a leap to suggest that if we embrace this for the idea of political systems and nations that we should embrace it for all of our priorities, no matter what they are. In other words, if we truly believe what it is that we celebrate today, then before we begin to think about any other priority on that list we construct, we must put God first.

I don't think that's an outrageous statement, and I don't confuse church or denomination with God's very self. But I do want to suggest something else: is it possible that we are supposed to have only one priority?

I'm partially thinking about this because on Friday I got the chance to go hear Roy Blount Jr. speak about his new book, Alphabet Juice. It's a playful reflection on language. He notes, for example, that we never need to say, "very unique." "Unique" means one of a kind. How could something be very unique, or sort of unique? If it's unique, that's enough! So if we strip priority down to its root, "first", then "first priority" is redundant. And any other "priority" isn't really a priority. It's secondary or tertiary, right?

But I'm also brought to this conclusion by looking at our New Testament lesson today. In it, Jesus is the King, returned at the time of judgment, to separate sheep from goats. And he separates them by their deeds. Those who do the right thing to him - feed, clothe, give shelter - enter into glory. Those who do the wrong thing to him - essentially, failing to show compassion - do not.

But here's the curious thing about it: none of them, whether bad or good, realize that they have done what the king accuses them of! We can expect, perhaps, those who are considered "bad" not to do the right thing. They're too busy, too preoccupied with their own priorities, too cold-hearted to lend a hand to one suffering, even if that one is the king.

But those who are ultimately the "good" ones in the story, it's the same. They didn't even realize they were being kind and compassionate to the king. How is this even possible?

This brings me back to priority. If we make God our priority, our first priority, our only priority, then what we do as a result will simply flow naturally. We won't even know we're doing what it is that we're expected to do. We won't end up ignoring family, friends, community, job, school; our attention and enjoyment of them will be a natural outpouring of grace connected to our worship and adoration of God and God alone.