This morning we get a glimpse of the glory of the reign of Christ that is still to come: Christ the king, who gathers all people before his throne to judge them. The judgment is a sober, eternal affair: blessing and the kingdom for those the king judges well; cursing and eternal punishment for those the judge condemns. The eyes of all creation focus on the judgment; even the angels attend the dread day. This is how Christ reigns on that day, this is how Christ will judge between the blessed and the cursed: did you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the imprisoned? If yes, you are blessed; if no, then you will be cursed.
Too often we talk about these activities as if they are mere “charity”: good things to do, a way to show that you are generous, nice extras. But in Matthew 25 Jesus turns these so-called “acts of charity” into central matters of the gospel. They are not optional; they are unconditional requirements of the king who is coming to reign. If you opt out of them, you will find that the king has opted out of you, as well.
These days, we have very clear boundaries between the executive and judicial functions of government. The president, the governor, the county executive, the mayor: they are responsible for executing the law of the land. The justices and judges and juries are responsible for deciding guilt or innocence. It’s even a very serious crime for the executive branch to try to influence the outcome of the work of the judicial branch. But in the ancient world, a king was both the executor of the law and the final judge of the law. Part of the way a king reigned was by being the judge. A good king was a fair and wise judge; a bad king was a corrupt judge. So we must understand that when the Son of Man, who is Christ, acts as a judge, this is how, if only partly how, he will reign. His judgment is good and fair, and we have been warned of the conditions of his judgment. Ignorance is no excuse here.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate the reign of our Lord and Savior. There are many kings in our lives, many who claim to rule over us, many who claim to have final authority over our lives. Sometimes we give them our permission to be rulers; sometimes we have little or no say in the matter. But every nation, every king, every ruler, every person will find themselves one day before the judgment seat of Christ. All will be asked how they treated the least among us, those Christ names in welcoming the blessed and dismissing the accursed. And that means that no ruler, no governor, no king, no nation in this world has the true final say on anything. The final say belongs to Christ alone. Rulers who claim that authority are pretenders; they claim something for themselves that never will belong to them. And when we give our allegiance to those rulers, those nations, we offer to them something that also does not belong to them. Only Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords. And whatever confusion we or the rulers of this world may have about that, clarity and certainty will be established one day.
As Christians, we must never let go of that truth and that hope. However good things seem to us now, however much things seem to be going our way, however much rulers and authorities seem to be on our side, it will all come to an end one day and yield to the infinitely superior reign of Christ. And however bad things may seem to us, however out of control the world seems to spin, however cruel and awful the rulers of our age may be, this, too, will pass and must submit to the judgment of our coming King.
But Christ does not just reign one day far off, in the future, at the end of all things. No! Christ reigns today, here, now, in this world. Being a judge, being the Judge, is only part of how a king, how our King, reigns. Executing justice is only one dimension of our King’s reign. There are many others, uncountably many others, but this parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25 gives us a glimpse of a second dimension to Christ’s reign. This second dimension is equal to his rule as the Great Judge, but its glory is hidden, secret. And its reality is present, here, now, in this very age, not just in the age to come.
In the parable of the sheep and goats, Christ raises up care for the poor, care for the least among us as the standard for his judgment. But he also tells us why this is the standard, why this is how he will judge among the peoples. He says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” You did it to me. To Christ. To the King—our King. It is not just a good idea to feed the hungry; it is not just a demand from God to clothe the naked. That would be enough, that should be enough, for every Christian, for every congregation, to commit itself to feeding, clothing, caring for the least. But Christ ups the ante further. When we serve the poor, the least among us, we serve Christ. When we welcome the stranger, we welcome Christ. When we care for the sick, we care for Christ. When we visit the imprisoned, we visit Christ.
This is how Christ reigns now. The difference between a king and a madman is that a king has subjects, a king has people who are willing to serve him. Christ reigns through our service to him, and we serve Christ by serving the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Every opportunity to serve them is also an opportunity to serve our King. Every act of service for them is a proclamation: Christ is King. Christ reigns here and now, by welcoming our service to the least of these as service to him. We may proclaim with our lips that Jesus is Lord. We may sing songs of triumph and praise his holy name. But our acts of service are where the truth of his reign becomes full reality.
Therefore, we do not serve the least among us out of some fear for the final judgment. We serve now because our King, our beloved Lord, is here, present among us. And if we love him, how can we pass up on the chance to serve him? If we love him, how can we walk past the ways he has given us to share that love? It will take faith, of course, to trust that when we love our neighbor we are loving Christ. In the parable the sheep do not realize any more than the goats what they have been doing. But love we have been given, and love we must give, if we truly belong to Christ our King.
Yes, love. Love was the oil that filled the lamps of the ten bridesmaids who waited for the bridegroom, for the king. Love is the great talent given to us so that we may engage in the risky business of the kingdom of God. Love is what we share with those Christ calls us to serve. Love is how Christ reigns now, today, in this world. And love, the love of God we share by loving our neighbors, is how Christ reigns as he judges us and all people when he comes in final victory.
Christ is King! Christ and no other. He reigns in love. He reigns with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. His glory is love everlasting. It is hidden now, in the face of the stranger, of the prisoner, of the poor, of the least, and in the acts of love of those who serve him by serving them. Not for long is it hidden, though. When he comes, his glory will shine for all to see—and it will still be the glory of his Love! Christ is King! Christ and notother. Christ, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the king of love.