“The Coronation of All Coronations”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 31, 2021
Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
I’m not sure how many of you have watched the incredible Netflix series The Crown, but I decided along with Marial to reprise some of the great episodes. One of them that stood out for me – recognizing that it is fiction with a historical twist – was the Queen’s coronation from June 2nd, 1953. I watched it with great interest and also because of tertiary character, the Duke of Windsor, who evidently watched it from a distance. While, of course, the words and the text and the script were made up, there was a moment when he was watching young Elizabeth being crowned and he said, “We are but mere mortals.” But while watching the anointing said, “but in so doing she becomes divine-like.” The Coronation stood out for me as a profoundly emotional moment, particularly with the anointing of oil, and its religious symbolism.
Now I know that today we are living with a certain ironic approach to such things. On the one hand we have a love of power, sovereignty, and of things that are beyond ourselves. We still love pomp and ceremony and we certainly appreciate and are sometimes even fixated in the media on royalty. On the other hand, we live in an egalitarian world: a world that sees each individual as being as important as the next. Certainly, in theory, anyway, if not in practice. We like to think that in an enlightened era when we cast our minds away from colonial things, that we can live without pomp and ceremony. circumstance and sovereignty, and elevation of others. But we live with this irony, don’t we? We live with this tension – between both loving it but not necessarily knowing whether we embrace it. As a culture we’re a little bit confused. We’re also a little bit confused because as those who ascribe to a biblical faith, we realize that rooted throughout it are great themes of monarchy, royalty, and power. One need only read the Psalms, some of which were coronation Psalms, designed for the praise of the king to realize that sovereignty was very important in the Old Testament.
Take Psalm 110 for example: “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty sceptre. Rule in the midst of your foes. Your people will offer themselves willingly on the day you lead your forces on the holy mountains. From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind. ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’”
The relationship between the priestly office and that of the king is articulated in this psalm. The priestly office that anoints the king for the purposes of carrying out the work of God. You can’t read the Old Testament without continually tripping over and being confronted by the great kings of Israel. From Saul and the dark days of his reign to David and the glorious days of the Davidic rule, to Solomon and the excesses of him and all subsequent monarchs; it’s rooted right there. But always with the proviso that a ruling monarch is under the sovereignty of someone greater than themselves – no matter what you ascribe to a monarch on earth – as mortals – the sovereignty ultimately lies with Yahweh, with almighty God. That was a belief rooted and grounded in scripture very early on.
The Protestant Reformers picked up on that theme also. They talked about Jesus in terms of monarchy. Three words were used to describe him: prophet, priest, and king. Jesus of Nazareth had a coronation: a coronation of thorns, on a cross between two thieves. He rules because of his resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father. The language used by the Reformers arises from scripture, of Christ being sovereign, sitting at the right hand of God the Father. This theme was picked up by the Reformers time and time again. They believed in the sovereignty of God above all things. Above all things. Above all dominions, above all powers. Above everything.
So, that was the language used. But where did all of this come from? On what scriptural grounds did the Reformers base their conviction? Well, our passage today from the Book of Ephesians would be one such text. It talks about the sovereignty of Jesus in the terms that I’ve just spoken of. Jesus sitting at the right hand of God the Father – Jesus having dominion, power. You have to understand the reason that the Apostle Paul put so much emphasis on that was due to the fact that there were other sovereignties in his time. There were other gods and goddesses being worshipped above that of Jesus Christ and above that of the Heavenly Father.
One of these emerged, believe it or not, from Jewish mysticism. Jewish mysticism in the time of Paul had this belief that there were descending powers or beings who came from the heavens. These were spiritual beings to which we, as human beings, had to ultimately give homage and praise. These were the ones to whom we turned, but we also had to appease them. We had to do certain things, believe certain things, have knowledge of certain things, to have access to these heavenly beings. I know this all sounds weird to you, but it was very real in the first century. People lived in fear of these beings and their sovereign hold. They were mythological, but people lived under the influence of their myth. It was powerful and palpable.
Paul knew that the earliest Christians were also associated with Jewish temples and were running into this form of mysticism – not universally accepted, I might add, but certainly one, particularly in Asia Minor and around Ephesus, very much in vogue. Paul, in response to this belief that these divine beings from heaven had a sovereign hold over us for good or bad, talks about the sovereignty of Jesus. He also talked about the power and the sovereignty of Jesus within the context of a Roman Empire – a Roman Empire whose military might was enormous, though waning somewhat, in the first century. They had the cult of Caesar, and people worshipped (can you imagine?) Caesar. They believed in the cult of Caesar. What the Caesar said, the people did. The military power of Rome to back up the power of Caesar was enormous and would oppress nations and keep people down.
The earliest Christians were confronting this spirituality of mysticism with all these little gods, and they’re confronting the power of Rome, telling them what to do and how they’re to live and who they should believe in. All at the same time as a fledgling group believing in this person called Jesus Christ. Paul affirmed to them that above all these powers, above all these principalities, there was Jesus Christ. In this was their confession. In this was what they were willing to die for.
When I look at this passage from Ephesians, and I know that some people think it was written a little bit later on, when Paul was in his declining years, and that he used a scribe. But the more I read this, the more I think how important this message is in every era. Never mind the sovereignty of the time in which Paul lived, but in every era, there is something profoundly liberating about what Paul said. The people who heard Paul felt themselves set free from the bondage to mythical and legendary things and from the power of Rome to live as Jesus Christ would have them live.
I think, my friends, that the notion of sovereignty and power is as relevant today for us as it was for the people in the time of Paul. I think maybe over the pandemic we have seen a head-on collision of our different theories of power and sovereignty and a hold over our lives. Let me explain what I think. I think we’re living in a day and age that has inherited this idea of scientia potentia est – science or knowledge is power. That has been part of our western culture, probably from the 16th Century and Francis Bacon to Hobbs and his famous leviathan, where he used the very same phrase: “knowledge is power” in the 17th Century. We have lived with this belief that the more knowledge you accumulate, the more scientific examples you can have, the greater your rationality and your ability to understand and know your environment, the greater the ability to have control over it.
We have heard so many people articulating that same principle repeatedly: Trust science. Believe in science. Believe in rationality. Believe in knowledge because knowledge is power, and that those who have that knowledge have enormous power over other people. An enormous influence, which can be used for good, as we’ve seen with vaccines, or it can be used for ill to subjugate the weak and the poor. We find that that notion of knowledge is power is really a sovereignty matter. It’s what ultimately holds and keeps us.
On the other hand, we’re living in a culture in the 21st Century that questions whether that should have a sovereign power over us. Rather, like the philosopher Foucault, we believe that maybe it is we as the subjects who determine who should have power over us, and that we decide, you and I where power resides. The ultimate authority in our lives is our own will, and what we deem to be right and true. This, I believe, has led to a collision over vaccines. I think that notion of scientific sovereignty is adhered to by many but questioned by others based on their own personal subjectivity. We see this clash of sovereignty going on within our own culture, and maybe, within our own hearts that we’re sometimes unsure and we ascribe power to others over us, and other times we question those powers. Don’t think that the issue of sovereignty is a philosophical thing, rooted in the biblical monarchs or in our passage from the book of Ephesians. What Paul is ultimately saying is that regardless of the sovereignties (he uses the phrase “all powers”) Jesus shall reign. Like the great reformation hymn writer, Sir Isaac Watts, in our hymn this morning: “Jesus shall reign where’er the son.”
In a little while the choir is going to sing a beautiful but more contemporary peace, reflecting some of the images of our day when they sing “Above All”. For the Apostle Paul, all powers, all sovereignty, either ascribed to reason and knowledge or to our own subjective wills, just as the monarch is under a sovereignty that is greater, that reaches beyond it. Paul says that this sovereignty is manifested in the ministry and the word of what? The body of Christ; the church. It is through those who believe that God’s sovereignty, the word of God’s sovereignty and of Christ’s rule, is proclaimed and heard.
I love Ian Thomas, a writer who was the founder of the Capernwray way of bringing Christians together for fellowship. Thomas describes the church in the light of Ephesians as a glove. It has nothing going for itself, no power of its own, can only be animated by the hand put into it. He describes the church as a glove and the power of the Holy Spirit and of Christ as the hand. The church, without the sovereignty and power, and animating grace of God, is nothing. The glove animated and moved by the power of Christ becomes the body – the instrument whereby God can do wonderful things.
Unfortunately, this has been misunderstood at times. This notion of the sovereignty of the church has taken on, by virtue of its own mortality, a sense that it has to mimic the powers of this world, that it has to reveal itself in power and majesty in worldly terms. We have seen that happening throughout history, with the subjugation of nations and the poor. We’ve seen it in militarism, in authorities, in ecclesiastical powers who have used their power for the sake of political purposes.
The Reformers all knew what Paul knew: that without humbly following Christ’s example and recognizing his coronation, that his elevation was based on God the Father raising him from the dead and is the very heart of the sovereignty that we espouse, and proclaim. Not, as Jesus said, as the world gives, but rather, as God reveals. That is why I believe our society today still needs to hear that word.
Over the last few weeks – well, the last month, I suppose – I have been inundated in the most positive way with cards and notes and letters. Some of them have caught me completely off guard. Some of them have come from people who run homeless shelters in the city; some have come from food programs in the city; some have come from a group of women who help trafficked young women who were used as prostitutes in our city; and some of them have come from youth organizations, helping families in poorer parts of the city. I humbly confess, I had no idea the reach of our church, the ministry, and the encouragement that we have given, continue to give, and will continue to give, so many. These have been personal letters, but they haven’t really been about me. They’ve been about the ministry of our church, quietly sometimes, humbly, silently, doing amazing work.
Anyone who’s attended our AA group here knows that our willingness, whenever possible, to have been open for them when we could has meant the world. Those who have been fed through our food bank have said the same thing. I have heard from so many people who have been helped with these things, and they just wanted me to know. They just wanted me to know.
I think sovereignty, you see, is the sovereignty of Christ, and it’s the sovereignty of service. It’s not about doing good works because good works somehow redeem us. The things that reflect what the church’s mission really are like, humbly following the person of Jesus Christ, it’s his sovereignty, his monarchy, his power that is greater than the power of the world and we must never forget it.
This was illustrated some years ago when I visited my grandmother, along with two of my cousins. I have told this story in a bible study group once, and they all laughed. My cousins were playing in my grandmother’s living room. Fortunately, I was in another room and escaped the ignominy of the moment. They collided with a glass bookcase, and a series of plates and cups and saucers that were in it came crashing down and broke all over the floor. My grandmother came in and she was in tears. These were the Coronation plates from 1953. You’ve probably seen them; you might even have them. She loved them and somehow felt bonded to the monarch by having them. They were precious to her and now lying on the floor broken. I came downstairs and I saw the debacle that had occurred. I thanked the Lord Almighty that I hadn’t been there. I looked at my dear cousins, who were absolutely gobsmacked when they saw what they had done, and I watched my grandmother on her knees picking up every single piece of pottery and trying to put it back together. It meant the world to her. It was as if her monarch had been broken.
Well, our monarch was broken. Our monarch was crucified. But our monarch was raised from the dead, and above all other powers, and above all other sovereignties, and above all other principalities, he rules from the cross. He rules as the Lord.
I love the words of Isaac Watts. He wrote a Christmas hymn too. He said, “He rules the earth with truth and grace.” This Reformation Sunday don’t forget that. Amen.