Canon Jenny reflects on King Charles’ Coronation in the light of Jesus’ words in John 14.
A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 7th May 2023.
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
I think it might be that we ask the wrong questions.
Jesus says to the disciples, ‘You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Then Thomas says to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ (John 14:4-5)
In this story from the 14th Chapter of John’s Gospel, Thomas asked Jesus “How?” and “Where?” At times the disciples asked him “What?” or “When?” As we search for meaning and guidance in the way of life we hope for clear answers, directions, locations, programs, processes and definitions. But Jesus doesn’t answer those questions. All through John’s Gospel Jesus answers a different question. He says to them, “I am.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” In this passage. He answers a different question.
Jesus answers the question “Who?”
The scholar David Ford in his wonderful theological commentary on John’s Gospel says one of the key themes of the gospel is the question “Who is Jesus?”
The question is addressed with powerful theology in the Prologue, with signs, the changing of water into wine, the feeding of a large crowd, woven through the gospel, with Jesus teaching. “I am,” Jesus says echoing the words of God to Moses in the Book Exodus. Be clear Jesus is echoing God words. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
They have gathered for that last supper and in John’s Gospel the focus is not a feeding, it is on cleansing. John shed light on food in the 6th Chapter when Jesus told them “I am the bread of life.” Jesus washes the disciples’ feet here, shining light on his nature as a servant who prays and lives and acts out of love. And he gives them the commandment to love. They know that he is approaching his death. “No one has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends.” He has said. And so, through three chapters of conversation with them around the supper table, and then walking on the way to the garden where he will be betrayed, he speaks with them about who he is, and who they are, and how they belong in him as he belongs in the Father, “close to the Father’s heart”, as the Prologue beautifully says. (1:18) All John’s Gospel is written for this that we might know the key question is “Who?” and that where we belong is with him, Jesus, close to the Father, God’s heart, and that we might believe and trust in this.
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”, Thomas says to Jesus, as they struggle desperately with the train wreck that is unfolding before their eyes, with the arrest they sense approaching and the trial and the crucifixion that they are helpless to do anything about it. He has told them that they will betray him and deny him and so it seems their very identity as his followers is in tatters at their feet.
And then he bids them to let their hearts not be troubled. And he speaks about his Father’s house and rooms for them there. It sounds like a place so it is natural that they would ask… “Where?” “How?” … but Jesus answers that different question … “Who?” “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Reflecting on Jesus’ words, David Ford writes this:
“The most vital thing is to meet this person, listen to this person, get to know this person, trust this person, follow this person, converse with this person, relate continually to this person, be loved by and love this person. All else flows from this. And the most fundamental thing to know is that Jesus is as God is. He is the “I am” of God: God’s self-giving life and love, God’s self-expression in Word and truth, embodied in a person living among us. The whole of John’s Gospel testifies to this in concepts, images, and above all stories of encounters with Jesus …”
In recent days, and especially last evening, many of us found ourselves, in the United Kingdom and across the world, encountering a different person. We have been absorbed in a beautiful liturgy, the Coronation of King Charles III. There will be, of course, and rightly, many different carefully thought-out views of the place of monarchy in this country or in any country, for that matter. And it is important to acknowledge that. But that might not take away from our reflection on this event. This Coronation Liturgy was to celebrate community, faith and service, the order of service said. We watched the events leading up to the service, and in the midst of the service, we heard the glorious music of choir and organ and we watched King Charles swear his oath and pray a profound prayer:
“God of compassion and mercy
Whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve
give grace that I may find in his service perfect freedom
And in that freedom knowledge of thy truth …”
How utterly right that the most holy moment of this Coronation, The Anointing with Holy Oil, took place away from the camera’s gaze behind a screen. And prayer and music were all we had to accompany him. And then the King was vested with particular robes and handed the Regalia spurs and sword, orb and ring, glove and sceptre and rod. And he was crowned.
We might think in the midst of the beauty and solemnity and the prayerful nature of this service that if there was a question hanging in the air it was the “Who?” question. We might think that surely a monarch, a king named and anointed and vested and crowned was to give us a presence to look up to and follow and give allegiance to.
But that is not so. Certainly, all we saw of Queen Elizabeth’s deep faith and what we have seen of King Charles’ faith – and his wise acknowledgement of people of all and no faiths – would have us know that he knows what questions his life and reign might help answer. He may well assist with questions whose nature is What and How and Where and When. He may well gather advice and answers, directions, locations, programs, processes and possibly definitions. His life may even give hope, especially in the seriousness with which he engages with the needs of our planet.
But a human king is not the answer to the most profound question a human being might ask. A king crowed in such beauty and profundity is not the answer to the “Who” question.
For those of us who give the scriptures and the faith in Jesus Christ our allegiance, our truth, the answer to the question is Jesus.
“I am the Way and the truth and the life.” He said facing his betrayal and trial and death. A very different vista from the one we saw last night.
What might that look like, I wonder, this way, truth and life.
A way sounds like a path. Perhaps we can only see a little of it as we walk along it but the path is there and we seem to be being reassured that the path will unfold in front of us as we need it to do. These words are for reassurance, comfort, really. All of chapters 14, 15 and 16 of John’s Gospel are for comfort and reassurance. For us, as well as those gathered with him at the supper, that day. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Are the first words of this long time of conversation. He knew their hearts were troubled and he wanted to give them a number of images that they could hold onto in the awful times ahead. And he associated the images with himself as if to say, that whilst it will seem like he has been taken away from them, in some way he will be with them. They couldn’t begin to anticipate the resurrection, of course, but these images were to cling on to.
So, yes, a way, path. So, we know we are not completely at sea. We may not be able to see far ahead but the path, the way, will continue for as long as we need it, and the way, the path, will be closely connected with him. We will not be alone. Us, our loved ones, our community, nations, the creation, any of it. Will not be alone. There is ground on which to walk that has meaning and direction and the presence of God…all our life.
In the midst of this way, this path, Jesus says that he is the truth. The truth. That is quite a claim. We might remember him saying that the truth sets you free, which is interesting as we so often hide from it. We do so think that if he knew what we were really like, or what a mess we are in, or what a muddle the world is in or what we once did …that he would turn away from us. After all, we would turn away from us. So, he says, not I can face the truth with you, but I am the truth. The truth of all embracing love and utter forgiveness whoever you are and whatever you have done and not just for the difficult things …but also to rejoice in the truth of the goodness in you and the creativity in you and even …when you just want to rest and gaze at the beauty of creation as God did on that seventh day. He is the truth in all things. The truth.
And then this way and this truth is also the life. The place where we are made to be. How we are made to be. Where we are made to be. Thriving in the love of God, in Jesus, close to the Father’s heart. Truly alive. And where death somehow doesn’t win, doesn’t have the last say, where death is washed away.
Small wonder that David Ford says to us about Jesus:
“The most vital thing is to meet this person, listen to this person, get to know this person, trust this person, follow this person, converse with this person, relate continually to this person, be loved by and love this person. All else flows from this.”
 David F. Ford The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary p273