In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, Jesus is gathering his faithful followers for one of the last teaching seminars of his career. He’s spent a lot of time trying to get his disciples to understand the “Reign of God” concept: what it is, who’s in it, what’s needed from people to actually make it work. To make certain that they really “get it”, Jesus returns to fundamentals, and in the process he helps us to understand how our lives are to be lived.
We spend our lives trying to discern right from wrong, good from bad, healthy from harmful, and there comes a time when our choices and conduct will merit judgment. Jesus reminds us that the day is coming when we will stand in the awesome presence of God and have to answer the question, “Well, what have you done with everything that was given to you?” I consider myself an outstanding b.s.-er on essay exams, but I’m afraid that at that point, I would have very little to say in my defense. All of us are perhaps a little fearful of having to respond in that moment of total honesty.
The knowledge of knowing we will have to give some kind of accounting for ourselves should have a positive impact on our choices. One morning in 1888, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the man who had spent his lifetime amassing a fortune from the manufacture and sale of weapons of destruction, awoke to read his own obituary. The obituary was a result of a simple journalistic error–Alfred’s brother had died, and a French newsman carelessly reported the death of the wrong brother. Any person would be disturbed under those circumstances, but to Alfred Nobel the shock was overwhelming. For the first time, he saw himself as the world saw him–“The Dynamite King,” the great industrialist who had made a fortune as a merchant of death and destruction. This, as far as the public was concerned, had been the legacy of his life, and to his dismay, none of his other aspirations related to breaking down barriers of separation between people and nations were even mentioned in the obituary. As he read his obituary with horror, Nobel realized he would have to reorder his life in order to make his real beliefs obvious to everyone. He used every bit of his fortune to create the most valued and prestigious prizes given to those who do the most significant work in the cause of world peace, the arts, and sciences. Nobel had read his obituary with shock and surprise, much as those at the King’s right hand are surprised.
The King in the Gospel story makes it clear that as they served others, they were in fact serving him. Like them, we are often not aware that an act of caring has any effect beyond the present moment. We touch each others’ lives in unseen ways, but like ripples on a pond, all of our actions impact all those around us. And just like in the Gospel story, it’s usually about seemingly insignificant things. “I was hungry and you gave me food,” the King says to those on his right. For most of us, our opportunity to please God will not be the result of some benevolent act that impacts all of humankind. It will be a small act of caring directed toward an individual, because it is precisely in the smallest of acts that love is revealed.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, noted theologian, author, professor, and speaker, made a move from the faculty at Harvard Divinity School to the staff at Daybreak–a residential community for mentally handicapped people. The transition from working with the world’s brightest to laboring invisibly with people the world considers completely inconsequential was dramatic. Instead of teaching or lecturing, Nouwen started each day by helping others out of bed, bathing and dressing them, helping them feed themselves. Nouwen writes, “Most of my past life has been built around the idea that my value depends on my accomplishments. I made it through grade school, high school, and university. I earned degrees and awards, and I made my career. Yes, with many others, I fought my way up to the lonely top of a little success, a little popularity, and a little power. But as I sit beside the slow and heavy-breathing Adam (a resident of Daybreak), I start seeing how violent that journey was. So filled with desires to be better than others, so marked by rivalry and competition, so pervaded with compulsions and obsessions, and so spotted with moments of suspicion, jealousy, resentment, and revenge.” Nouwen had studied and written and lectured about Christ for many years; in serving people who needed him, he came to actually hear the voice of Christ. “Just as as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Today we celebrate the crowning of the liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King, or a better title, Feast of the Triumph of the Reign of God. We look forward on this day to the final coming of Christ, whether that be in some cosmic event or in our own private death experience. Regardless of how and when, we can be sure that each of us will face our God someday and fumble for words when asked what we did with all the gifts we had at our disposal. And at that moment, we will see the great scheme of interconnectedness that runs through the universe, connecting each of us to all the rest of us, past, present and future. We’ve been so busy trying to sing the song of our lives, working out the verses as we go along. The refrain for that song, however, will not be complete until we enter the fullness of the Reign of God, where we will sing in a cosmic chorus of unity and love in the presence of Christ our King.