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Title: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Date: 07 May 2023 11.00am
My Sunday newspaper has, I think, some twenty articles about yesterday’s Coronation. Because I read it online, I can’t tell you how many pages of print this represents, but it is a vast amount of what were once called ‘column inches’ about one single event. Now, I’m an Observer and Guardian reader, and therefore several of the articles were critical of the monarchy rather than in praise of it (which is not an outlook with which I happen to agree).
I suspect papers that are more ‘pro-establishment’ may well have devoted even more space to yesterday’s ‘big event’. And even if you are staunchly in favour of the royal family, you may have found the amount of press and media coverage of the Coronation just a little bit overwhelming.
If that is the case, you might prefer to turn your attention to our country’s long-running satirical magazine Private Eye, which dealt with the Coronation very succinctly on its recent front cover. Lacking its customary photo and humorous caption, in bold letters it simply asserted what it felt were the bare facts about what happened yesterday morning: Man in hat sits on chair.
And, in a ceremony which lasted almost two hours, if you were not paying close attention to the proceedings, you might well think that this was an accurate, albeit brief, description of what took place: man in hat sits on chair.
But the one who believes in me…will do greater works than these…
…which must have been a rather strange sentiment for the Christians who lived in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, in the latter part of the first century. For it was to these followers of Jesus, collectively referred to in the NRSV translation as ‘the exiles of the Dispersion’, that the so-called First Letter of Peter is addressed.
1 Peter is not an entirely straight-forward document, and there is a wide range of scholarly opinion about it, including whether or not it was actually written by Simon Peter himself. But what is not in doubt is that its recipients were outcasts. To quote from the passage we just heard, it could be said of them that they, ‘were not a people’.
These early followers of Jesus in what is now modern-day Turkey were (to use a different translation) ‘foreigners’ – foreigners in a strange land, or, at best, ‘resident aliens’. And – just as is the case in too many places across the world today – these people paid a heavy price for allowing their faith to dictate how they lived their daily lives. They were subject to discrimination and persecution and made to live on the margins of their society.
So, if the words of the Fourth Gospel had managed to reach this part of the Roman Empire by the time 1 Peter was written, the recipients might just have wondered how on earth they could do the works that Jesus did, let alone undertake ‘greater works than these’. For, surely, it is a remarkable statement that anyone – in any context or era at all – that anyone could do something greater than Jesus. Even for those who have good reason to be confident about they way they live their lives, the very notion reeks of arrogance. And, for these excluded and marginalized Christians of Asia Minor, the sentiment would, surely, be utterly bewildering.
But, as we heard read, this small and hard-pressed community who once ‘were not a people’, discover that, in fact something has happened and that ‘now [they] are God’s people’.
For the one who believes in me…will do greater works than these…
And that must also have been fairly bewildering for the first disciples of Jesus who heard those words uttered on the very lips of Jesus himself. Especially when you look at this passage in its proper context. For, despite this now being the fifth Sunday of Eastertide, our gospel reading takes us right back to the night of Maundy Thursday – it takes to no lesser a place than the Last Supper. And that is a curious context indeed to be suggesting that any of Jesus’ disciples could aspire to any kind of work or deed that might attract a label to do with greatness.
For just a few verses earlier, Judas Iscariot has gone out into the deep darkness of that night of nights to betray Jesus to the Jewish authorities. And, as if that was not bad enough, in response to Simon Peter’s claim that he would lay down his life for Jesus, his Lord and master has told him bluntly that, in fact, before the cock crows, ‘you will have denied me three times’.
But yet, for all that failure, for all that cowardice, for all that sinfulness and betrayal, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do [says Jesus] and, in fact, will do greater works than these…
How can this be? And – while we are asking some searching questions – was Private Eye correct? Was yesterday, for all its pomp and ceremony, was yesterday’s great event simply a case that a man in hat sits on a chair?
Those are not flippant questions, and nor are they irrelevant questions. For we have no business being in church this morning if we – who claim to be followers of Jesus – if we are not prepared to aspire to the seemingly impossible challenge of undertaking greater works than Jesus himself.
And in an age where not everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a monarchist, it is also neither flippant or irrelevant for us to work out why yesterday’s great liturgy is, in fact, more than just man in hat sits on a chair. Especially as the two questions share an answer that is rooted – deeply rooted – in the Scriptures that we have just heard read.
Speaking just over three hours before the start of the Coronation service, in the Thought for the Day slot on Radio Four, the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded those listening that the Coronation was designed to remind us of a three-way promise involving the King, involving God, and involving ‘the people’ – in other words, involving us.
He spoke of the burdens of expectation that we all carry, whatever our position in life, and of our need of each other – our need of being able to share the burdens that are laid upon us. For, said Archbishop Justin, it is then that ‘we open up the possibility that together we may do something much stronger, much bigger, and much more significant than we would ever do alone’. It is then, to speak the language of this morning’s gospel, that we might aspire to what Jesus calls ‘greater works’.
Which points us towards the heart of the much commented upon innovation in yesterday’s liturgy that saw the Archbishop of Canterbury offer everyone who wished to do so the opportunity to ‘pay true allegiance’ to King Charles.
In the wake of some sharply critical comments about this aspect of the service, Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, also reflected on the imminent Coronation a little earlier this past week, again in a Thought for the Day, making the point that pledging loyalty is somewhat counter-cultural in an age which sets so much value on personal autonomy.
He made the point that what was demanded of King Charles (and freely given by him) was a loyalty very much larger than anything being asked of us in return. “It’s going to be awesome,” he said, “to watch a person pledging himself wholly to the well-being of nation and commonwealth. He’s entrusting his future to people he doesn’t know amid events he can’t control.” Which, as Sam Wells explained, is a statement of faith – “of faith in something beyond our own integrity and autonomy.”
And that is the key both to the importance of yesterday’s Coronation, and also to understanding the call to do ‘greater works than these’. For, if we are to live out Jesus’ challenge, it is not something we can do as individuals, bound up simply in our own sense of autonomy. For the Christian, we are called to live as part of that great community we call the Body of Christ – of which those of us gathered here this morning are a small part – we are called to live as a community dependent on and sustained by God the Holy Trinity.
For, on the night before his death, Jesus explains that, in the wake of death and resurrection, he will go to the Father, who will send the Spirit on his disciples and bring to birth what we call the Church. And, empowered by the Spirit, and working as the Body of Christ, nothing will or can hinder the Good News – not betrayal, not denial, not desertion, not persecution. If we live out lives faithful to God in community, nothing should stop us doing these greater works to which Jesus encourages his followers.
We see this so very clearly in today’s readings. We see it in the story of Stephen the first martyr in our opening reading; we see it promised to the disciples in the gospel; and we hear it explained to the hard-pressed Christian communities of Asia Minor – people who felt of no account and were treated as such, but who were nevertheless called to be living stones of a spiritual community that could ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness’. A community which has rediscovered that being bound together in service, they have become nothing less than being God’s people.
Which is why yesterday, of course, was about so much more than man in hat sits on chair. Whatever anyone’s views about hereditary monarchy, you would have to be stubborn in the extreme not to recognize that yesterday was a celebration of community, loyalty and service – the service of a King, the service of a myriad of overlapping communities that make up this nation and the Commonwealth, and the loving and loyal service of a God who shows us how to live for others principally through the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
That was the example which gave Jesus’ disciples the reason not to let their hearts be troubled; which gave Stephen the first martyr hope as he was stoned to death; which allowed the dispersed, ‘alien’ Christians who received the first letter of Saint Peter to understand that they were not nobodys but God’s own people. And, as I hope was apparent yesterday, this was the example which, without any doubt, sits deep in the heart of King Charles III, calling him to a service and a loyalty that, despite all the trappings of sovereignty, sacrifices autonomy on the altar of loving service in community.
And so, this morning, we are challenged to take this example to our own hearts, and recognize our own membership of that chosen race… that royal priesthood… that holy nation and remember that we are God’s own people, called to proclaim light in the dark places of the world.
For there are just as many marginalized and persecuted peoples – Christians and plenty of others – as there were in first century Asia Minor when 1 Peter was written. And the victims of persecution and discrimination are the victims of those who chose to put personal autonomy in place of community. Which is why we should rejoice that whether you believe in hereditary monarch or not, the man in the hat sits on the chair to remind us not of his own autonomy and importance, but to point us to something far, far greater – something inseparable from the call of the God who loves us through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday into Easter and on to Pentecost.
And if we pledge our allegiance not just to king or community but to this loving and extraordinary God, then, without doubt, as Jesus said, we can and we will do ‘greater works than these’. Amen.
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