The first movie I remember seeing in a theater was The Sword in the Stone, the Disney version of the King Arthur tales. The movie created a fascination for me with the stories of Arthur, the legendary king of England. I wanted to know about his sword, Excalibur, and the Knights of the Round Table. This happened long before the days of the Internet and search engines. So, I consulted our family’s encyclopedia to learn bit and pieces of information about Arthur.
My father eventually gave me a copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. White shares stories about how Arthur found Excalibur, the Round Table, the knights who joined Arthur, and the quest for the Holy Grail. At this point, in my own Arthurian Quest, most of this was not new information for me. White’s text organized things I had learned in bits and pieces and related them in a way that started to fit the pieces together. What intrigued me most about White’s book was the title, The Once and Future King. In the middle of the book’s second part, White explains that this is the inscription on Arthur’s tombstone. The inscription points to the hope that one day Arthur, or at least someone with Arthur’s sense of justice and equality, will return to restore the days of Arthur’s Camelot.
Over time, I lost interest in the Arthur stories and assumed that all the legends and myths faded from my memory. But sometimes words and phrases get imprinted in our lives and seep out into other places. One day, I was reading this text from Matthew’s gospel and realized I had held onto that inscription, “The Once and Future King.” In my mind, I had translated that from Arthur to Jesus. I was thinking of Jesus as the idealized king who once came to Galilee and preached about the reign of God. After his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven, and good Christians are just waiting for him to return one day and fully realize that reign he had proclaimed in Galilee so many centuries ago. Jesus, the once and future King. On a Sunday dedicated to celebrating the Reign of Christ, a Sunday placed at the end of the liturgical calendar, it is tempting to think we are simply looking forward to that day when “the kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev. 11:15 NRSV).
This parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25 challenges that view of the reign of Christ. It speaks about the presence of Christ in the here and now. While his kingdom has yet to reach its fulfillment, Christ is not an absent king, and his reign is not just a future possibility.
At first glance, this text points us to the future king. The scene is the final judgment when the nations will be brought to Christ and separated into the blessed and the cursed, the sheep and the goats. But the judgment is based on how these people encountered Christ before this event.
Six actions are mentioned as what separates the sheep from the goats: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners. These are acts of comfort and support for the poor and vulnerable. They are actions so simple that almost anyone can do them. However, as the judgment discloses, not all of us do. The goats are cursed for not engaging in these activities.
What we sometimes miss in this story is the shock. Both groups, the sheep who get rewarded and the goats who get punished, are shocked to hear that they have or have not offered such comfort to Jesus. The king tells the sheep, “Blessed are you for when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was sick you comforted me, when I was in prison you visited me.” These sheep do not rush off to their inheritance. Instead, they stop and ask, “Lord, when did we ever do that?”
Later, we hear a similar litany between the king and the goats, only this time, they are judged for not doing these acts. They are just as surprised as the sheep. They ask, “Lord, when did we ever see you in these situations?”
The shocked sheep and the baffled goats receive a similar response: “I was present in the least of these. When you did these acts to the least of these, you did it to me. When you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it for me.”
John Wesley has a sermon based on part of this text entitled, “On Visiting the Sick.” Most of the sermon is about as exciting as you would imagine, given that title. Few Methodists even know of this sermon, and fewer still bother to read it after seeing the title. While published as a sermon, the material is more like a training pamphlet for how to visit the sick. Wesley advises on what to say and how to greet the sick, how long to visit, and how to offer prayers for them. He has a section on who should participate in this activity, and his answer is all. He counters objections that the rich might have, the young, the aged, men, and women.
Why does Wesley go through all of this? Why does he take the time to create a manual for visiting the sick and answering objections to participating in this ministry? In the opening paragraphs, Wesley says this is a means of grace. Means of grace are ways we encounter God; ways God’s grace is channeled into our lives.
Wesley fears that many of us seeking God’s guidance and presence have a limited view of the means of grace. Often, we turn to what Wesley calls works of piety: worship, reading scripture, and prayer. These are places we expect to encounter God. Wesley says God has also promised encounters when we engage in works of mercy like those mentioned in Matthew 25.
I don’t know how or why I ever stumbled across that sermon from Wesley. But when I read the opening sections, I had two strong reactions. The first was he changed my understanding of what it means to engage in such acts of mercy. Somewhere, I adopted the mindset that I was supposed to do these acts because I needed to take Christ to these poor, unfortunate people as if I had some excess amount of Christ I needed to bring to the world. Wesley turns these actions into part of our growth in grace. He says you need to do such activities, hoping to encounter Christ through the people you serve.
The second response I had was an “Aha!” moment. I suddenly understood an emotion I had often struggled to describe after going on a mission trip or visiting someone in the hospital. Others have struggled to express what I often sense is a similar feeling. The words I settled on to try and describe my experience were, “I received so much more than what I gave.” Now, when I sense something like this, I stop and pray, “Lord, did I just see you?”
The shock— the surprise of the sheep and the bewilderment of the goats are what jump out of this text for me as we celebrate the reign of Christ. Do I still subconsciously reduce that reign to future glory and miss the present implications of his reign? Am I missing encounters with the king present among us now? I pray the shock of the sheep seeps into me the way Arthur’s inscription once did, and I start to encounter the world expecting signs of Christ’s presence.
This Sunday ends one liturgical year. We prepare to turn the page on a new church year. Cue up Advent, and let’s start the journey towards Christmas! I love Christmas Eve worship services. There’s nothing like a crowded sanctuary with lights turned off and candles lit while singing “Silent Night.” When we read the Christmas story in that setting, we are tempted to think the world stood still that first Christmas, and everyone showed up for the birth of Jesus. We can forget that God sent some angels to rouse a few shepherds to go worship the king. Later, some guys from the East show up in Jerusalem looking for the newborn king, and nobody knows anything about this birth. More people missed his presence that Christmas than those who showed up.
Later, at his trial, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you a king?” Pilate missed his answer and, in a twist of irony, ordered that the charge against Jesus be placed above him on the cross, King of the Jews. The crowds made fun of Jesus, “What sort of king is this?” Most people missed the very different reign he proclaimed.
Our text today invites us not to look for signs of his presence in the might and power that we are often told is the blessing of empire. Instead, it warns that our king is present in places often overlooked and neglected, sometimes even among the faithful. It says Christ is present when the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given drink, a stranger is welcomed, the sick are comforted, the naked are clothed, and prisoners are visited. What a shocking place for a king. What a surprising way to live in his reign. Thanks be to God.
Christ, may we be awed by the grace of your present reign among us. Amen.