The Reign of Christ, Year A – The Last Sunday after Pentecost

October 26, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

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Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Psalm 100 Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 25:31-46

The Reign of Christ, or Christ the King, is about power.  A different kind of power.  Pentecost begins with power, the power of the Holy Spirit to transform people and unify different ethnic groups, and ends with the power of compassionate caregiving of the ruler Christ on the micro and the macro levels of life.  Nothing is off-limits – personal or corporate – for Christ’s rule, nor should anything be off-limits for the mission of the church.

Power and leadership are fulfilled in service, so writes the prophet Ezekiel.  The shepherd’s calling is to feed and care for her or his sheep.  Those with power are challenged to uplift the powerless.  God has a preferential option for the weak and wayward.  God cares for the least of these, in contrast to political and economic leaders whose primary interest is self-aggrandizement and control.

Psalm 100 describes our gratitude to a god whose power is shaped by love.  “Make a joyful noise…be glad…sing…and celebrate.”  God’s steadfast love endures forever.  Despite the vicissitudes of life, the universe and its Creator are on our side.  God’s abundance is at our disposal.  Recognizing such a gracious God, we are inspired to acts of thanksgiving and blessing, modelled after the God we worship.

In the era of Trump, the passage from Ephesians describes a different kind of power – steady, compassionate, and hope-giving in nature.  We need to remember that leadership is about hope, abundance, and compassion.  The realm of Christ inspires hope in the future, or as Ephesians 1:18 proclaims, “the hope of a glorious future.” (my paraphrase) In the words of Colossians 1:27 this hope is incarnational and mystical and available to everyone: “And the secret is simply this: Christ in you! Yes, Christ in you bringing with him the hope of all glorious things to come.”   Imagine, hope in the future!  Imagine, hope for the planet – for endangered species, vanishing polar ice caps, homeless refugees, flooded coastal cities!  Contemplate a world where negotiation trumps bloviation! Where people worship the God of reconciliation and not the god of war!

Peoples’ behaviors and beliefs often mirror the gods they follow.  Conversely, we often create images of God that reflect our particular biases and interests. The passage from Ephesians challenges backward looking, distant, and destructive deities.  Instead of distant and indifferent potentates, focused on staying in power and silencing opposition, the reign of God involves power that gives hope, the power of the crucified one, whose suffering love rises and rules all creation.  The risen Christ embraces all reality, uniting and reconciling all things, becoming “all in all.”  The church, this fragile and fallible institution, the congregation we pastor, are to become “all in all,” following the example of the risen One.  Our congregations are to become places of “size,” as process theologian Bernard Loomer asserted, able to bring together contrasting viewpoints and practices in a creative and healthy synthesis.  Where does your church need to grow in stature to fulfill its own missional vision?

The parable of the sheep and the goats contains both a promise and a threat.  Addressed to the nations – that is, both to countries and their citizens – this passage asserts that divine judgment is connected with compassionate behavior.  Contrary to some interpretations, I believe that this passage is primarily corporate in orientation, although it has obvious individual implications.  It is about how corporate entities behave in relationship to their most vulnerable members.  In an era in which many see Christian ethics primarily about issues of sexuality (GLBT issues) and singing the national anthem at football games, this passage goes wide: it challenges us to care broadly as well as intimately for the hungry, poor, and in prison, and breaks down the barriers of national borders in care for the stranger as well as the neighbor.  Who are the “least of these” in our world today?  Who are the least of these – often forgotten – on your church’s doorstep or in your neighborhood? The passage gives us some hints: they are the powerless, scorned, vulnerable and at risk.  Caring for the least of these may require us to transform our economic, judicial, and prison systems, and expand our indirect or direct missions to respond to discarded members of our society.

I don’t like the threatening words addressed to those who neglect the least of these, or who frankly don’t see them.  This hits too close to home as we as a nation (the USA) seem quite content with millions in poverty, unable to vote, receiving inadequate legal counsel, and lacking adequate health care, nourishment, and education.  It convicts our leaders who seem hell-bent on polarization rather than reconciliation. To the question, “when did we see you,” the honest answer is “we didn’t see you” or “we avoided you” or “turned our eyes away from you.”  Christ feels the pain of the neglected and forgotten from the inside.  When you treat them with healing love, you heal God’s experience of the world as well.

The gospel is always political and social; care for the least of these is not charity, our lives depend on it, the future of our nation depends on it as we fracture over race and economics. 

The reign of God, the sovereignty of Christ, is about shepherding the nation and the earth.  God loves the world – the whole world in its intricate interdependence – and challenges us to do likewise.  Let us care for the baby humans and also the baby right whales, of which there are only 400 in the North Atlantic. Let us ensure good education for all children and also welcome to law-abiding immigrants, regardless of documentation.  Let us focus on expanding, rather than contracting accessibility and power.

Recently, I saw a Facebook post in which someone asked if the process theology imagines God as “flexible.”  The answer is unequivocally “yes.” God is flexible, that is, intimate, personal, compassion, and always adapting to our deepest needs.  As ruler Christ listens and responds, suffers and heals, companions and uplifts.  Everyone is welcome in a realm without boundaries who inspires a “church without walls.”  Christ’s rule redefines power – both divine and human power – as healing power, advocacy power, accessibility power, affirmative power, and compassionate power.  Take heed, pastors, political leaders, and economic moguls, listen to Christ’s way of service and care, shepherding our world toward a glorious future.  (For more on the process vision of power, see Thomas Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence and Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.)

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. and a professor in the D.Min program of Wesley Theological Seminary.  He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians; and Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Healing.