You can listen to this on the Christ Church website, or read it here.
In the Fall of 1925, Pope Pius the Eleventh threw a fit. The Pope was upset about the growing power of modernity in the world. As people believed more and more what science was coming to discover, Pius and many other religious leaders, were afraid that the Bible would have less and less power in peoples’ lives. He was anxious that the Church might become irrelevant and he desperately wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. On top of that, the Pope was embroiled in a nearly hundred-year-old controversy between the burgeoning Kingdom of Italy and the Papal States. Since 1849, a newly unified Italy had been fighting with the Roman Catholic Church over who controlled the city of Rome. The Popes were sure that the Church was in charge. The Italian Parliament had other ideas. By 1925, Pius, the fifth Pope to take on this fight, had had enough. On December 11, 1925, he published an encyclical entitled Quas primas which argued for the Kingship of Jesus above all others and reiterated that the Roman Catholic Church was the “kingdom of Christ on earth” with the Pope obviously serving as its temporal ruler. Finally, to commemorate these two foundational truths, Pope Pius the Eleventh created the Feast of Christ the King.
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Last Sunday after Pentecost uses, almost verbatim, the Roman Catholic Collect for Christ the King, but it stopped short of making today a Feast Day. When we adopted the Revised Common Lectionary in 2009, Christ the King was included in the package and became a thing in the Episcopal Church. Some would say it shouldn’t be a thing seeing as, if you look in the Prayer Books in your pews, you’ll find absolutely no reference to the Feast of Pope Pius the Eleventh’s Temper Tantrum. I’m sure Pius is in heaven today, scratching his head and wondering how a bunch of Protestants ended up subscribing to a feast created to affirm the earthly authority of the Pope, but here we are, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.
While I find this Feast Day’s genesis to be questionable, what I appreciate about having a day set aside to honor Jesus Christ as our King is that it gives us an opportunity to imagine Jesus in an unusual way. 21st century American Christians aren’t well versed in the language of kings. We live in a country that was founded in rebellion against the King of England. If I’m honest, most of what I know about kings and queens is the result of whatever the American news decides to pick up from the British tabloids. Yet this image of Jesus Christ as King is a well-established, apocalyptic, theme in the Scriptures. Dubious feast day or not, it is worth our time to ponder what it means to call Jesus Christ our King and to live within his Kingdom.
In our Gospel lesson for this morning, we find a very clear image of what it means to live within the boundaries of the Kingdom of God. Remember the context for this parable, and for all the apocalyptic parables we have heard over the last month.  Jesus isn’t making general claims to a large audience, but rather, these are final words about final things, addressed to his closest disciples. It is Tuesday in Holy Week, and the cross is quickly approaching. Jesus knows that his disciples have already committed quite a bit to following Jesus. He isn’t trying to tell them what they need to do to be included in his Kingdom, but rather, what is expected of those who claim to live under the authority of Christ the King. As inheritors of this Apostolic Tradition, we should read these words carefully, not as a parable of judgment against those who do not know Christ, but as a stark judgment against those who claim to follow Christ the King but can’t be bothered to live in his service. This parable is a helpful reminder that the proper response to the love of God is to reach out with compassion to those Jesus came to save. We who are bold enough to claim a place in the Kingdom of God bring honor to the King when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the incarcerated.
What is particularly interesting in this parable is that neither the sheep nor the goats realize they had seen the king in the poor, the hungry, or the sick. One group was motivated to action, not out of guilt, fear, or shame, but out of love. This group saw a need, and decided to do something about it. Living in the Kingdom of God means having your eyes open to see God’s hand at work in the world about you. Yet it means more than just seeing. Living in the Kingdom of God, being counted among the sheep, means seeing and being God’s hand at work in the world about us. As Episcopalians, we affirm this Kingdom truth every time we renew our Baptismal covenant; promising that with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons.
Over time, I have become more and more convinced that the true work of discipleship is learning how to see Christ in our neighbors. It is only when we can see that we can then act to relieve their suffering. In the Ephesians lesson, Paul prays a prayer that is becoming the foundation of my that understanding of discipleship. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
We grow in relationship with God by learning how to see the world through God’s eyes. As we become more in tune with the heart of God, we see more clearly the injustices of this world, we see the suffering and are moved with compassion, we see the lonely, the anxious, the hungry, the naked, the poor, the outcast, the incarcerated, and the hopeless and we are compelled to act because in them, as in all our neighbors, we see the face of Christ. Of course, this does not happen on our own. The only way to fix our spiritual eyesight is with the help of God. Through prayer and studying the Scriptures, God works to focus the eyes of our hearts, making us more and more able to see, so that, when the day of judgment comes, our question cannot be, or at least should not be, Lord when did we see you, because as baptized followers of Jesus Christ the King, we have already made a promise, that with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in every person we meet, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Pope Pius the Eleventh might not have had it 100% correct, but he did get some things right. Jesus Christ is the King of kings. It is under his authority that all of humanity lives. One day he will come with power and glory to sit in judgment upon his throne, and all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, members of his Kingdom and subject to his authority, will need to be ready to have an answer to the question: Did we see our neighbors in need and respond with love or with apathy? Everyday, we see dozens, if not hundreds, of our neighbors. All of them need God’s love. This morning, our lessons invite us to see Christ in each of them, to reach out in compassion, and to offer the love of God, not out of fear of judgment or guilt or shame, but as a loving response to the love which our King has shown to us. Who knows, one day, with God’s help, we might just find ourselves counted among the sheep and pleased to hear these words, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.