Reign of Christ Sunday: A Good Sunday for Mennonites – Matthew 25:31-46, Ephesians 1:17-23

Today is Christ the King Sunday, or sometimes called the Reign of Christ Sunday,  a day where churches around the world remember Jesus as the one who rules over all. We read two of our lectionary texts, and I think they have a lot to teach us, especially as Mennonites.

Let’s look at Matthew 25 first.  This chapter is all about doing. First you have the story of the ten bridesmaids. Five of them do the right thing: they brought enough oil for their lamps and were ready when the bridegroom came. The other five…not so much! The prepared women were the Martha types…the do-ers…oriented to detail, they are the winners in the story! 

That story is immediately followed by the parable of the talents, where the people who do something with the master’s money are rewarded.  After that comes the story we read today that is all about those who do the right thing…they feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger, and  are rewarded by Jesus.  He tells them that actually they were feeding and clothing and welcoming him!

So Matthew 25 has these three stories all about doing.  Doing the right thing, working smart, working hard, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Mennonites love Matthew 25. Sometimes people say that Mennonites really focus on the Sermon on the Mount; that may be.  But I would make a case that we hold on to Matthew 25 pretty hard.  Because Mennonites love doing.

Feeding people? Clothing people? Welcoming strangers?  Check, check, check. Mennonites have a can-do attitude.  Here we are Jesus, send us.  We are very proud, in a humble way, of the work we do in relief, locally and international.  Mennonites raised $330,000 at the New Hamburg relief sale this past year…. And we are not above a humblebrag comment when it comes to the work of Mennonite Disaster Service. Feeding, clothing, welcoming. that’s our middle name as a denomination.

Some branches of the Christian church hold on hard to other scripture passages. This year the world is commemorating 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenberg door, an event that galvanized a critique of Catholic church that became something we know as the Protestan Reformation.  Martin Luther was famous for his reliance not on Matthew 25 but on verses like Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this Is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Mennonites totally believe this too.  Definitely!  Faith in God, salvation as a gift, it’s very clear, we would never deny this. But we definitely don’t dwell on those scriptures. We hear the words “you are saved by grace through faith” and before you can even blink,we say, “Yes, and, don’t forget Matthew 25.” We are firm believers in saved by grace after which discipleship, taking up our cross, following in Jesus’ footsteps is very very important.

I grew up singing, “Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord for thee!” Maybe some of you who grew up singing in Sunday school remember that song. Take my hands, my heart, my feet, my money, my life. Not a mite would I withhold, we will DO God’s will with our whole body. And this has been good news for the world. Mennonites have fed a great many people fed, clothed a great many peopleand welcomed a great many people, all in the name of Christ. Praise God, Amen! Our Mennonite can-do attitude has been good news for the world!

I wonder, though, whether this can-do attitude has always been good news for us. Putting such a strong emphasis on scripture passages like Matthew 25, where has this taken us? I think there are two places that it has taken us that have not been such good news.

When you are very good at doing things for God, you start to look around and you notice that other people aren’t feeding, clothing, welcoming people at all, or maybe they are not doing it efficiently enough, or in the right way. We can be like the famous do-er Martha, who was judgemental of Mary. We can become judgers. we can put ourselves in the role of God, deciding who is a sheep and who is a goat. 

Mennonites have been pretty quick to put their judging hat on, and it’s not just about who is working hard in the feeding, clothing and welcoming department. Mennonites have gotten carried away with judgement, casting each other out of the church, because someone hasn’t DONE the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.

When I was the pastor at First Mennonite in Vineland, which has a long history, I talked to women who were judged because of the clothes they wore, or didn’t wear. One woman was judged because she decided to wear a wedding ring, which wasn’t done at that time. 

In other Mennonite traditions you were judged if you smoked or drank alcohol or danced. My husband grew up in a Mennonite church where they didn’t allow people to have TVs.  More recently Mennonite churches have convulsed over whether women should do be allowed to be pastors or whether LGBTQ+ people should be welcomed as full members. The Mennonite church has been quite prescriptive about what to do to follow Jesus properly, correctly.

And that has been a painful and tragic reality in Mennonite life, that has been a huge detriment to our witness to Jesus Christ. The world looks at Mennonites and people don’t always think, “See how they love each other.” I think we have a reputation of being judgemental, casting each other out, and dividing churches because we can’t get along with each other.

We may have fed people and clothed people and welcomed strangers, but because we can’t seem to get along with each other, and we can’t always welcome each other, that has not been a good witness in the world. and it has caused a lot of pain in our churches, and caused people to leave the church. That’s a big danger that comes from emphasizing Matthew 25, emphasizing doing for Jesus.

The second thing that is not good news is that this Mennonite can-do attitude can be very burdensome. I’ll tell you how it felt burdensome for me just the other week. I was in Boston at the American Academy of Religion, which is a gathering of scholars from all over the world who get together once a year to talk to each other about religion.  I am very interested in social justice, which I come by honestly because I am a Mennonite.

So I went to hear talks about Christianity and the environment,  Christianity and racism, Christianity and the poor, Christianity and refugees.  These are all things that are very important. Christians need to be doing more, Mennonites need to be doing more. One of the last lectures I went to late on Saturday afternoon was about religion and the nuclear crisis, I think the title was that “Sleepwalking into Human Extinction”, and the topic was so horrifying and so compelling, I thought, “We should be doing something about this, all the other things are important but this is REALLY important.”  Like the little engine  that could, Mennonites just have to keep on, keeping on…we have to do, do, do the Lord’s work!

But the long and the short of it was that by the end of the conference I was feeling overwhelmed. I was feeling depressed, and I was feeling inadequate, that I have not done enough and I, and the church, just have to try harder. So that was my Saturday.

But Sunday things turned around for me, and here is why. I went to worship.  Because I was in Boston, I took the opportunity to worship at a local church. I went into a building close to the convention centre, which happened to be one of the oldest congregations in Boston, Old South Church.  I was immediately struck by the windows at the front of the church, and I was meant to be struck by them. The whole church was dark…dark walls, dark wood floors and pews, dim lighting. But there were these big stained glass window that filled the whole front wall of the church. The top half of the window was filled with a host of angels, the bottom half of the window had some shepherds, but you didn’t really focus on them because they were dressed in earth colours and their backs are to us. Instead your eyes focus on these radiant angels, who were carrying a banner that said,“Good tidings of great joy, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.”  It struck me as so beautiful in every way, and it’s hard to describe what came over me as I looked at that good news.

I have been in a lot of churches and seen a lot of stained glass windows, and I have never seen this image as the main image that you look at through a whole worship service.  And so it gave me pause to think, what would it mean to look at this message every single Sunday of your life, “Good tidings of great joy, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.”

It’s not good tidings of great joy because the church is going to save you.
It’s not good tidings of great joy because Christians are going to do a lot of great things.
It’s not good tidings of great joy, because MCC is going to raise a lot of money this year

The good tidings are not about anything that we are going to do–the good news is about Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the good news. Jesus Christ is the Lord. As a monarch, as the one in charge, with authority from God

This was profoundly re-orienting for me, profoundly reassuring and it co-incided with me starting to think about this sermon and reading the passage from Ephesians that we read together. It is Jesus Christ who is seated at the right hand of God. The eyes of our hearts need to be enlightened about the hope we have. Our hope is not in our own activities, not even in the church, but it is in God through Jesus Christ, which is exactly what the angels came to say.

As Mennonites we can get very wrapped up in all we are doing and can do. We get so involved in this work and that work that we feel it’s our job to save the world. We can’t save the world. We don’t have to save the world. We worship a Saviour who has done that job.

When we lay down the burden of trying to save the world and instead concentrate on just being faithful to the one who reigns forever and ever, we can live more joyfully. We can trust that God has things in hand. When we trust that Christ is reigning, then we can be less judgemental and more forgiving. If our fellow church member doesn’t measure up to our standards of faithfulness, we can let it go. We let it go because we aren’t the one in charge of judging the world

I don’t think we are called to forget Matthew 25. It’s in scripture, it’s important. But can we hold it in balance with the reality of Ephesians and the concept of Christ, the king, the monarch, the one who reigns.

As Canadians we should know something about monarchs because we have a monarch as the head of state. Many people don’t think about this at all but there are some people who are monarchists, who think a lot about our monarch. My mother was one of those people. She thought the world of the queen. In fact when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited St. Catharines in 1973, I went with her to stand on St. Paul St. for hours to wait for the queen. It was all over in an instant. I was rather disappointed in seeing the shadowy profile of a woman in a car with her hand raised. But my mother was transfixed, “I have seen the queen.”

Incidentally she never lost this great love of our queen. When she lived in a nursing home, and the queen was turning 80, my mother decided to knit her a scarf and send it to her. After deliberation, she decided the best colour for a queen was royal blue. I mailed it off for her, and she got a letter back from the queen’s lady in waiting thanking her for the remarkable gift. After receiving that letter, she was so excited, she told me she hardly slept all night.   my mother didn’t sleep that night.

This is all to say that my mom loved the queen, she read books and magazines about the queen and she even had pictures of the queen that she cut out of the magazines taped on her wall!  This was the loyalty of one woman to the queen—her whole life she had her eyes peeled for the queen.

Our monarch is Jesus Christ, do we have our eyes peeled for him? Are we excited to even get a glimpse of Jesus?  Do we wait in expectation to see him?  In a few weeks we will see Jesus coming as a baby, born like every other baby. The king of creation placed in a manger. We will see Jesus carried by his parents to another country: fleeing violence, they become refugees. We see Jesus growing up in Nazareth, living his life with his family until in his 30s he goes out to see John the Baptist and is baptized. He calls disciples and starts proclaiming the kingdom of God: healing sick people, feeding hungry people, casting out demons, teaching, welcoming the outcast, touching the untouchable,astounding people with his knowledge of God. After a transfiguring moment on a mountain he sets his face for Jerusalem.

On the final Thursday before his death,
Kingly, he takes a towel and washes feet.
With majesty, he serves bread and wine.
With honour, he prays all night.
With power, he puts on chains.
Jesus, ruler of all creation, submits to death, even death on a cross
                  to save us from our sins.
And from that day to this, Jesus appears in state
in the eyes of the prisoner, the AIDS orphan, the crack addict, the refugee
needing a cup of cold water, needing a coat,
needing my heart, needing yours,

[this excerpt is adapted from a poem, “Coming to the City Nearest You” by Carol Penner]

I think our scripture passages invite us to see Christ as the one who rules over all.  We are not the ones who are called to judge each other. We are called to be faithful, to follow in those footsteps.  But we are not the ones who are called to save the world. We are called to worship the one who saves us.

What does that mean in our lives this week?  Maybe as we take up this task or that task of discipleship, we can do it with calmness rather than desperation.  We may not end all homelessness with our actions, we may not stop CO2 emissions enough to halt climate change, we may not end racism this year. We are called to work for justice, yes, we keep on working. But we can trust that God is working for good in the world, and will bring salvation. God is saving us, not we ourselves!

I hope that this week we will have the eyes of our hearts enlightened and catch a glimpse of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power in Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 1:17-23 Responsive reading

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. 
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead
and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 
far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,
and above every name that is named,
not only in this age but also in the age to come. 
And he has put all things under his feet
and has made him the head over all things for the church,
which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

A sermon preached
by Carol Penner
November 26, 2017
Christ the King Sunday  
Grantham Mennonite Brethren Church, St. Catharines

About Carol Penner

I am a Mennonite pastor currently teaching theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. I’ve served congregations in Ontario and most recently, Alberta.

I love to write and to lead worship! If you are finding my writing helpful, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to use or adapt the material here, it is all written by me. If printing material, please credit “Copyright Carol Penner www.leadinginworship.com” (and say whether you modified it). If publishing, please contact me for permission. Contact me at carol@leadinginworship.com

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