John the king of England had issues. He had always been deeply jealous of his older brother, known as King Richard the Lion-hearted. When Richard was killed during one of the Crusades, John was already in trouble for being unfaithful to his wife. John’s wife could have no children, and John was not only having an affair, he was having one with a woman from France, England’s sworn enemy.
Once Richard was killed and John was elevated to the throne, things went from bad to worse. As king of England, he depended on the loyalty of the barons, noble landowners who paid increasing amounts of tax to sustain the monarchy and the running of the country.
King John, already losing the support of his people, sank even more money into a failed attempt to regain some of his land in France. Finally, the barons had had enough and turned to open revolt. They went to war against their king. It appeared to be the darkest hour in England’s long history.
But it was because of the ongoing battles of a man who was an utter failure as a king that the Western world now enjoys functional democracies and legal systems. The battles between King John and the barons led to what is now known as the Magna Carta, signed in the year 1215. The Magna Carta, the Great Charter, forms the basis for both the English and American governments, rights, and laws, which in turn have formed the basis for governments all around the world.
Many of King John’s own troubles were self-inflicted. But all that mattered to the people of England was that he was their king. They owed him allegiance, and, in return, he owed them good and faithful leadership. The whole system collapsed because the barons did not trust the king – and the king did not trust the barons.
What does early medieval English history have to do with the Gospel for today and for the occasion we observe, Christ the King Sunday? All of us who are part of the family of God are part of the community of faith, the community of those who worship the King.
The barons in England were unable to worship King John because he had abused their loyalty. His marital infidelities, his squandering of the country’s resources, his petty jealousies that led to disastrous wars – he was not worthy of their allegiance.
The word worship comes from Anglo-Saxon, from the earliest roots of the English language, and it means exactly what it sounds like. Worth-ship. The condition of being worthy. We worship the King because he deserves our loyalty, our obedience, the best that we have to offer.
The question then becomes how you and I carry that out. What do we do, what do we say, to demonstrate our loyalty and our obedience and our best selves?
Amelia Earhart was a pioneering pilot, a woman who learned to fly planes and delighted in testing the limits of the new science of flight. She spoke often about what she called “the soul’s dominion,” and when she did, it was clear that for her, the kingdom of the soul was found in relationship. She said: “No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.”
The Gospel lesson for today is one of the best known of the sorting scriptures, passages that describe what will happen on the day of judgment. And as it unfolds, it has much to show us about the question of how each of us is able to demonstrate our worship of the King. Life is not made up of grand gestures – it is made up of the thousand little words and deeds and looks and impulses. Each moment is a choice: a choice to acknowledge the Christ in each other, or to ignore it. You and I can choose to see in everyone we encounter something that is worthy, something that invites worship.
When you and I come to stand before Christ the King, it will not be for the purpose of Jesus shaming us for our failures and shortcomings. Instead, it will be so that we can be sorted. Both the sheep and the goats, gathered before the shepherd, will be waiting. And it is not by external appearances that he will sort us out. It’s not whether we look like sheep or look like goats. Instead, he will know, as only Christ can know, what was in our hearts. In every encounter, at every opportunity: were we kind?
Because the opportunity to be kind, the opportunity to show love, the opportunity to see the Christ in each other, will not announce itself with grand gestures. It will be the holding the door for someone, the impulse to hand a dollar to a beggar at the intersection, the stepping back and letting the person with one or two items go ahead of you in line.
In the early thirteenth century, when King John and the landowning barons were at odds with one another, there was no single act that led up to the events of that treaty at Runnymede. It was not because of a huge war lost, or a single, huge transfer of land or money or power that paved the way for the Magna Carta and the common weal, the good of the people. It was a series of seemingly insignificant actions that led the barons to discover, individually and collectively, that they could no longer worship their king. The once unthinkable outlook had become the great truth.
When we stand before Christ the King, sheep and goats together, he will not speak of single, isolated instances but of a thousand small gestures, a hundred thousand smiles and helping hands, the shared acknowledgement that we are, all of us, living as Christ to those around us.
“I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. Whenever you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto me.”
That is what we do, that is what we say, to demonstrate our best selves. That is worship. That is giving our love and our loyalty to Jesus. That is bowing down, with joyful obedience, to Christ the King.