Christ the King A-17
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“Tell us, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” (Matthew 25:38). It can be frustrating. Why must God be such an open secret? Every proof for God ending in a leap of faith?
We may wish it to be otherwise but certainty is exactly what scripture does not offer us. Instead, the bible ushers us into an entirely different way of knowing: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we are always On The Way to discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary and sufficient for survival in an uncertain world. Yes, we really are saved by faith alone. Jesus is a different kind of king.
The hiddenness of God is an ancient idea. It runs deep through Luther’s writing too, including famous Christmas sermon which is both humorous and shocking in its frankness. Imagine waking up to these words on Christmas morning: “There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: if only I had been there [at Christ’s birth]. How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger! Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at the time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”
Scripture admonishes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2) Faith is measured by loving service and acceptance of the weak, the lost, the grieving, the meek, the persecuted, the tearful and distraught—starting with the brokenness in yourself and moving out to encircle the whole world. Jesus is a different kind of king.
The hiddenness of God is a result of radical, pervasive incarnation. Franciscan author and theologian Richard Rohr writes, “The presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God. There’s no other place to be. It is we who are not present to Presence. We’ll make any excuse to be somewhere else than right here. Right here, right now never seems enough. It actually is, but it is we who are not aware enough yet.”
Because God is the water we swim in, it takes something more than our physical senses to detect this presence. Jesus praises God for “hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them only to the little ones” (Matthew 11:25). Well, what is it that the learned and the clever often cannot see? The presence of God always hidden in, with, and under each moment is found and observed using the more sensitive and finely tuned faculties of the human heart rather than the senses alone. Jesus is a different kind of king.
When the Spirit within you connects with God’s Spirit given from outside you, you are finally home. Now you know that your deepest you is reflected in the image and likeness of God, and Christ is living his life in you and through you and with you. Only God’s grace has the power to turn the inward spiral of the self out toward others. This dwelling in grace is what Jesus called the kingdom of God. Here we find unity not in conformity but in our differences. Jesus is a different kind of king.
We come to know God by loving God, and in knowing God we come to love our neighbors as ourselves. For some time now people of faith have been confused about this. The Good News is not about being correct but about being connected. Beyond personal morality, the gospel calls for mercy and forgiveness. Beyond acts of charity and kindness, the gospel calls for justice. There is great urgency in re-learning this lesson. Like the prophet Micah before him, today’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-30) admonishes us to Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Later today, I am talking about the social and economic teachings of Martin Luther as part of our on-going reformation series at the Forum. From his earliest days in Wittenberg when he saw the adverse effects of the emerging market economy on the common people and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of beggars on the streets, Luther committed a great deal of theological energy and passion to the issue of persistent poverty.
With words that sound as if they could be written today Luther wrote, “The poor are defrauded every day, and new burdens and higher prices are imposed. They all misuse the market in their own arbitrary, defiant, arrogant way as if it were their right and privilege to sell their goods as high as they please without criticism” (from the Large Catechism). According to Luther, “God does not care even if you never build a church if you only love and serve your neighbor.” “If you want to love and serve me [God says,] do it through your neighbor. He needs your help, I don’t.”
The hidden God is encountered by faith not reason. Likewise, Luther acknowledged, there is no single, biblically-mandated economic model, no direct line from the biblical witness to any specific economic institution, political party or system. Instead, the gift of reason, God-given creativity, and freedom find their proper place in striving answer how best to live out what St. Paul called “faith active in love.” Faith active in love is something we do together by reasoning, listening, and learning how best to support the common good.
Jesus is a different kind of king. We are saved by grace and not by merit. But according to Luther, “Faith is followed by works as a body is followed by its shadow.” God’s love for us moves us toward works that embody love toward the neighbor. We do these works despite knowing we are a mixture of sheep and goats, weeds and wheat and we always will be. As Martin Luther put it, we are simul justus et peccator. We are simultaneously saint and sinner.
So, as we set out to do God’s work we do so with humility, boldly calling upon God’s mercy when we get it wrong. To accept that we can be goats doesn’t mean we say, “It’s okay to be ignorant and evil.” It means we have some real wisdom about ourselves. You can see your weeds and acknowledge when you are not compassionate or caring. You have to name the goat as a goat. I’m not perfect; you’re not perfect; the church is not perfect; America is not perfect. Together let us strive for a more perfect union –as the preamble to the U.S. Constitution says so brilliantly.
It takes uncommon humility to carry both the dark and the light side of things. The only true perfection available to humans is the honest acceptance of our imperfection. Only God in us can love imperfect and broken things. By ourselves, we largely fail. By faith in grace alone, we are saved.
“Though some would make their greatness felt and lord it over all, [Christ] said the first must be last and the last and service be our call. O Christ, in workplace, church, and home, let none to power cling; for still, through us, you come to serve, a different kind of king.” (ELW #431)