“Jesus Is Lord”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’
45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (NRSV)
On Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christians around the world affirm the lordship of Jesus Christ. We conclude each year this way because whether our lord-of-choice is holy or unholy, we all commit our lives and our allegiance to something. And for Christians, if that lord is something other than Jesus, it shows.
Adolph Hitler’s lord was absolute power—politically, militarily, economically, socially, and personally. And it showed. He cared not what human suffering he caused in his quest for power. Committed to German nationalism and white supremacy, Hitler evangelized with fear and violence. He even convinced many Christians to profess faith in his graceless gospel, and to accept not only the lordship of his own brutality and hate, but also the impossible union of Christian discipleship with nationalism and militarism.
Those who accepted Christianity on Hitler’s terms did what one must do when unable to accept that faith in Jesus is much more an ethos embodied than a dogma uttered: They chose to understand Jesus as strictly a personal savior. In do so, they reduced faith to a purely private matter. Such individualistic religion fit nicely into Hitler’s scheme. It allowed the significant Christian community to equate patriotic zeal with Christian truth. So, loyalty to the protector state and its murderous focus on racial purity and world domination became the same as faith in God. National symbols then invaded Christian sanctuaries, and allegiance to the nation became a matter of holiness. The Church’s mission was quickly purged of Christlike expressions of justice and righteousness. Those whom Jesus describes in Matthew 25—not to mention Jews, Gypsies, disabled people, people of African, Polish, or Russian decent—all these were considered “inferior” and a threat to the purity of Hitler’s Aryan society. Exterminating these human beings became a purge as mindlessly ordinary as confessing the “sin” of eating too much chocolate.
In following Hitler, many Christians may have avoided persecution, but they ceased to follow the lordship of Christ. Christians don’t profess Jesus’ lordship of by saying the Lord’s Prayer and reciting the Apostles’ Creed. We profess our faith by following Jesus—our one and only Lord.
In response to widespread Christian capitulation to Hitler’s demands for lordship, 139 delegates from the German Evangelical Church, convened a confessional synod in the town of Barmen in May of 1934. Their urgent and prayerful discussions gave birth to a theological statement which is as concise in its language as it is courageous in its fidelity to Jesus.
“The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” which is now in our Book of Confessions, unequivocally asserts that, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death.”1
Therefore, they said, “We reject false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
“We reject false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.
“We reject false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords…”2
Jesus is Lord! they cried. Not Hitler! Not the Third Reich! Nor any government, nor state, nor army! Jesus is Lord! And in the last sentence of the confession, the writers of the declaration urged the church “to return to the unity of faith, hope, and love.”3
The Nazis got the message, and all 139 of the delegates were branded traitors, as were all pastors and lay people who openly concurred with the Barmen declaration. Some would hide or emigrate from Hitler’s wrath; many were imprisoned. And some were executed for declaring their faithfulness to Jesus.
On Reign of Christ Sunday, we do declare that Jesus is Lord by gathering for worship. Much more importantly, though, we enter and participate in his lordship through our day-to-day speech, actions, and attitudes.
In his last public teaching before his arrest, Jesus brings all his previous teachings home with a powerful image of the Son of Man surveying a culminated human history. When all is said and done, he shows much less concern with people being “good” and having stayed out of “trouble” than with them having gotten into “good trouble”4 Jesus is much more interested in people having followed him in the ways of God’s hospitality, compassion, and justice than his is in the words they say.
How did you respond to “the least of these,” he asks? How did you respond to the hungry? The thirsty? The naked? The sick? The imprisoned? How did you respond to those whom the power-drunk lords of this world scorned and persecuted?
Jesus says that when he is truly our Lord, we’ll know it. Everyone will know it, because we’ll feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty. We’ll clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. We’ll help house the homeless and show compassion to the poor. And we’ll stand in solidarity with those who, because of the color of their skin, are systemically treated more like varmints than human beings and neighbors.
All of that is challenging enough, but it can befuddle Christians to hear Jesus imply that his lordship extends beyond those who have made verbal professions of faith in him. When Jesus is truly Lord, the name “Jesus” may not even enter the minds of those who care for others. How else would it be that his “sheep” would ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we…welcomed you…gave you clothing…visited you?”
But isn’t such unpremeditated faithfulness consistent with Jesus’ teaching earlier in Matthew when he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven”? (Mt. 7:21)
Discipleship is premeditated faithfulness to the lordship of Jesus. And when he is Lord, we care for those in need not because we believe that doing so decides our fate. This is not about works righteousness. When Jesus is Lord, we help our neighbors for their sake. We help them because they are beloved human beings, and we see the image of God in them. We see Jesus in them.
Many gods compete for lordship in this world. And falling under the spell of some lesser lord is as easy as walking into some big-box store, or pressing a button on a TV remote, or getting overwhelmed into fear by all the changes and challenges around us.
When we follow Jesus, though, when we demonstrate his ways loving justice and fierce righteousness, we inhabit, by grace, the realm of God in which you, and I, and all humankind are welcome, and through which you, and I, and all humankind, and, indeed, all Creation are being transformed and restored.
What lord do you trust?
In this heartbreakingly beautiful and broken world, whom do you follow?
1The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part I: Book of Confessions. Office of the General Assembly, 2016. Pp. 280-284. (Also online at: https://www.creeds.net/reformed/barmen.htm)
4Thanks to the late Rep. John Lewis for that term.