In what has been billed ‘the most watched sermon in history’ the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, today spoke at the funeral of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. For those who never preach, and for those of us whose audience figures are drastically more modest, it is easy to be overly-critical about what is said and how it is said on such occasions. This post aims to avoid all such cynicism, and to reflect appreciatively on the Archbishop’s words, with one small point of clarification.
Christ is preached, and in this I rejoice
There can be no doubt that the sermon at the Queen’s funeral service was rich with reference to Christ Jesus. Justin Welby articulated a full orbed Christology, boldly declaring the divinity of Christ and the centrality of His person and work to the life and ministry of Queen Elizabeth II. The sermon embodied the restrained passion one might expect of a state occasion, but there were bright jewels set in this crowning moment of the whole service. The Queen was established in the first instance as a follower before she was a leader, one who pledged allegiance to Christ before she received it from her realm. This was extraordinarily powerful and masterfully executed – the Archbishop walking the thin line between the honour that Christians are called on to give to those in authority, and the potentially subversive notion of the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ. This was, of course, made all the easier by the Queen’s own clear understanding of her office and power being subordinate to that of Christ Jesus. This was a beautifully balanced section of the sermon.
Mention was also made of divine judgement qualified by mercy, and there was a thinly veiled invitation to faith in the words, ‘we will all face the merciful judgement of God: we can all share the Queen’s hope which in life and death inspired her servant leadership.’ Bearing in mind the global audience, the billions of people attendant to the Archbishop’s words, this is cause for great gladness. A sermon lasting barely a few moments can only hope to plant seeds, but those of Christ as God, Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as well as the Day of Judgement as a prospect for all, have the potential to bear an abundant harvest in the hearts of those who heard.
All of the above is not to be taken for granted. The sermon could easily have lapsed into bland obsequiousness, or moral platitudes about service divorced from the gospel. Justin Welby is to be warmly commended for including allusive tribute to the Queen’s work while centring her Saviour throughout his message. It is my belief that much good can come from what was shared in Westminster Abbey today.
The Who and the How
For those reading this post who are not familiar with the Christian gospel, there are a couple of areas in the Archbishop’s sermon that might bear a little elaboration. One was his assertion that ‘Jesus…in our reading does not tell his disciples how to follow, but who to follow’. In a context of high religiosity, where the emblems and artefacts of centuries of church tradition were most fully on display, this was an understandable line to take. The Archbishop insisted that the person of Jesus, and following of Him, be prioritised as the way to abundant and eternal life, rather than rite or ritual.
I am deeply glad that he said this, but it is important to note that the context of his text (John 14:6) directs us to see that, away from tradition and trappings, the Who and the How are really one and the same. Jesus is THE Way, and His claim to bring us to God is exclusive. Whatever means lead us to faith there is a how of becoming a Christian – that is, repentantly believing in Jesus Christ for salvation from our sins and the judgement they entail. There is no other way. Such faith entails the fact that the Jesus of John’s gospel would go to the cross to bear our sins in His own body, and rise gloriously vindicated in His claim to be only Way to know and enjoy God.
The Archbishop’s assertion early on in his sermon that ‘[The Queen’s] service to so many people in this nation, the Commonwealth and the world, had its foundation in her following Christ – God himself’ lent exclusive weight to his final appeal and assurance ‘Service in life, hope in death. All who follow the Queen’s example, and inspiration of trust and faith in God, can with her say: “We will meet again.”’ The ‘God’ of whom the Archbishop speaks is not a generic god, an aggregate god of all faiths and none, but uniquely Jesus Christ Himself. It is only through faith alone in Him the we can enjoy the blessings the sermon described.
It should be noted that everything shared above is neither critical nor corrective of what was a truly excellent homily in the circumstances. My prayer is that God will use the Queen’s funeral sermon, and the reflections that will inevitably amass around it, to lead many to consider the Queen’s King, the Lord Jesus Christ, and put faith alone in Him. He is our only hope in the face of the judgement the Archbishop mentioned, He is our only Way to God and to forgiveness.