Easter 5 (Coronation Weekend)
Sunday, 7 May 2023
Provost John Conway
The Christ whose presence is evoked and celebrated, whose way and truth and life are offered, is the one who serves; the one whose power is known in giving it away in the service of others, who fully offers himself to bring life to all, life in all its richness and diversity.
Acts 7.55-60; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14
The passage that we just heard from John’s Gospel comes at the start of the Farewell Discourses – Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he goes out into the night to be arrested, tried and crucified. Judas has already left into the night. Jesus has predicted to Peter his forthcoming denial, to which Peter has reacted with vehemence and anger. And now Jesus addresses the disciples: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
We perhaps most associate that passage with funerals, where it is frequently read. Then ‘my Father’s house’ is heaven, and the dwelling places, what is promised for life after death. The Greek word used for ‘dwelling places’ is, however, the same word that is used for wayside inns – places where travellers will stop on the way, to rest, be together, replenish for the journey ahead. So dwelling places may not be so much a final destination, heavenly or otherwise, but places on the way, resting places, where we are united with Christ and fortified for what is to come: If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. The ‘coming again’ of Jesus, to take us to himself, is, of course, the resurrection. On the far side of crucifixion, Jesus tells the disciples in this farewell, when I come again, we will be together. What we celebrate in Eastertide is that the gift of eternal life is not only a heavenly future, but the life given to us now, given in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ; given to us in a multitude of dwelling places, places of rest and renewal, where we encounter and are united with Christ.
We are in the midst of a weekend of festivities, of, I hope, some relaxation and celebration and perhaps renewal: a resting place. At the heart of this weekend, of course, was yesterday’s Coronation.
Can we think of yesterday’s Coronation as a resting place, a place to dwell awhile? The Coronation is, after all, something offered by the church to the nation to aid us in the task of reflection and renewal. There is a wonderful spaciousness about Jesus’s words that I think fits what the compilers of yesterday’s service clearly recognised and worked hard to evoke. That there is a much greater diversity in the life of our nation than was previously recognised. In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. And in our nation, there are many paths of faith, many ways and reasons to celebrate. If the Coronation was a resting place it was made all the richer by the diversity and splendour of its many participants.
In our constitutional monarchy, the power of the King is largely symbolic. The monarch’s role, their symbolic power – and that is a real power - is to reflect, and help us into reflection about, the nature and shape of our common life. That common life is undoubtedly recognised as more plural now than in the past, and thank God for that. But the hard question in our divided and fractious times, is whether that pluralism, whether our differences, can hold together. By involving a wide variety of faith and community leaders, of musicians and volunteers, the Coronation wanted to show that they can. If the Coronation is to help us in our collective reflection - help us, in this resting place, to grow into a greater unity, into a sense of purpose and collective will for the journey ahead - then it was right to start by recognising that plurality, to enable a celebration of our diversity and the place of different creeds, faiths, and commitments in the whole.
The Coronation was, however, at heart a Christian service. That might mean that we imagine there was a limit to that recognition and encouragement of diversity. That this was, finally, a re-assertion of Christianity – of Christ as the way, the truth and the life.
That famous self-description of Christ – I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me – is at the heart of the second half of this morning’s Gospel. If the first half presents a spaciousness to Christ’s promised presence, the second brings a narrower focus, an assertion of Christ’s centrality and uniqueness. I would remind you, however, of the context. This is as Jesus says farewell before betrayal, and crucifixion. This is no triumphant statement, but rather a challenge to his disciples and all who follow; the recognition that there is no shortcut to being with Christ, only engagement in this way – the way of crucifixion and resurrection, the way of judgement and hope. It is in walking that way that Jesus comes again to bring us into his presence.
And similarly the Christian heart of the Coronation is not offered as some sort of triumphant assertion that we have the answer, the truth and the life. In the midst of all the celebration, the pageantry and splendour of music and architecture, all the oddness and the glory of it; in the midst of the hoped for coming together across our differences, the church humbly offers this resting place with Christ, a way that judges us all, and gives hope to all. The Christ whose presence is evoked and celebrated, whose way and truth and life are offered, is the one who serves; the one whose power is known in giving it away in the service of others, who fully offers himself to bring life to all, life in all its richness and diversity.
At the heart of the Coronation is the presence of him who comes to take us to himself, who offers words of forgiveness and new life to disciples on the other side of their, our, betrayals and desertions. That presence of Christ, that way of Christ, met in the safety and comfort and warmth of this wayside resting place, asks hard questions of power, especially of those who claim him for themselves. His life and death, and resurrection, judges all our pretensions to power. The power held by our King, by our government and politicians, by all of us. For power is not given for its own sake: it is given not for self-aggrandisement, but to bring life. And the more power we have, the greater the question that is asked. For it is as we walk the way of self-sacrificial service that we find the truth and life offered in Christ’s presence. And so the truth of the coronation, and of the common life it seeks to reflect and inspire, the truth of this weekend, will be revealed in the months and years to come: can we together truly walk in that way of service, and so bring life to one another across all that divides and threatens us?
Very truly, I tell you, says Jesus, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Amen.