On His Majesty’s Service: A Sermon for the Pandemic-Disrupted Church
As the pandemic still rages on in America, many churches have had to abruptly transition to new forms of ministry they were not prepared to do in the first place. Countless preachers and ministry teams have scrambled to get high-quality online worship services available, Bible study groups and youth groups are meeting via web calls, and other organizations that traditionally use churches for gatherings (Alcoholics Anonymous, Boy Scouts, Young Life, etc.) have also been hit. The pandemic has in a biblical sense, forced Christians into an exile of sorts. However, I think this exile will chasten us into the kind of Church we should have already been: a church that is boundless, and not tied down to a brick and mortar location, and a church that is dauntless, instead of mired by the struggles of this world. In other words — actually living out the Kingdom of Heaven.
As Americans, the phrase “On His Majesty’s Service” (abbreviated in gender-neutral form as “OHMS”) is not one we are familiar with. It is found all over the place in Commonwealth countries that have government services that are formally or informally connected to the British monarchy. The point is that our unfamiliarity with living under a monarchy puts us at somewhat of a loss when reading the Bible, because the Bible contains story after story of kings and queens. Culturally, the biblical world is very foreign to us.
Even in the Reformed Protestant theological tradition (of which many American denominations are a part of), the idea of a monarchy is distasteful to us because we don’t have a bishop or a pope as our authority. Presbyterian polity for example, which greatly influenced the government of this country, was built to function as a parliamentary system. So the idea of living and working under a monarchy just isn’t part of our DNA. It’s not who we are. We just don’t do kingdoms, we do republics. We elect our officials. We have a Constitution made by and for the People… which is all the more reason why understanding the Kingdom of Heaven is so significant to our faith.
The Kingdom of Heaven is one of the most provocative concepts in Christian theology, particularly for Americans, because it disturbs every aspect of our lives and worldview. It disturbs my nationality, my politics, my economics, what I think are my rights and privileges, my individuality, and it also disturbs my ethics in terms of what I think is fair, and what I think I own and what is mine to give. Because in a kingdom, you don’t get a vote. You are a subject, not an object. Your titles, your lands, and your freedoms are what the king has granted, not what you have earned. Moreover, you don’t tell the king how you want to serve, rather your service is at the king’s pleasure. When he calls, you obey.
I can understand why our Founding Fathers fought tooth and nail to pave the foundation of this country, because who wants to live under a monarchy? Yet as Christians, that is precisely how we need to be living when it comes to our spiritual disciplines, and how we engage the culture. And to maybe point the finger of blame at the pulpit in general, the Kingship of Christ is honestly something I’ve never heard anyone preach on. In the Reformed Protestant tradition, we’ve done a great job proclaiming the Gospel, and extolling Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and we’ll go crazy celebrating the Resurrection — but a lot of that energy fades by the time we reach the Ascension.
Jesus is not our President. He’s not our Prime Minister. He’s not a Ruling Elder, nor a Deacon. He is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. That seat means he is not only the head of the Church, but the King of Heaven. We seem to only recognize this whenever it’s Advent season and we attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah. So the irony of all of this, is that the Kingdom of Heaven was the one thing Jesus kept coming back to during his earthly ministry. The parables of Jesus were not about liturgy, or elements of a worship service, or polity, but the Kingdom.
To think about the Kingdom is to see the Church as part of a feudal system of government. As human beings, we are all vassals to our King in Heaven. When God created us, he wanted to colonize the Earth with us. God granted us dominion expressly for this purpose. Angels were not fit for the job, only we were, and still are. Because feudal systems of government are predicated on land ownership, we have to recognize that this land is not ours to do as we please. In the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, “this land was made for you and me.” We are merely stewards, who have been tasked by God to work the land, to harvest, and to bring forth fruit from our labor. In the Bible, we can see feudalism as one of the defining themes that goes hand in hand with the covenants. It starts in the beginning:
Genesis 2:5–8 (NIV) 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.
It should come as no surprise that the Garden of Eden was in fact a garden and not some Sandals beach resort. Reason being: gardens require a lot of work to keep up with. Any gardener will tell you that. You want some wine, grow some grapes. You want some bread, grow some wheat. You want a margarita. Grow some agave and limes.
Ever since the Fall, God has been trying to get us back to Eden, a time and place where everything was in good order. That’s what the Promised Land was supposed to function as for the Israelites. The Kingdom of Israel was supposed to be an Eden 2.0 where God’s people could live in harmony, and be a light unto the world. And when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and the Israelites were sent into Exile by the Babylonians, God raised up prophets to tell the Israelites that a Messiah was coming, and that he would usher in a new kingdom.
We know this Messiah as Jesus, and the Kingdom of Heaven that he preached as like an Eden 3.0, but it is not a kingdom we would traditionally recognize. It has no borders. Its currency is charity. Its language is love. What we call the Church is the bureaucracy. And we each have a ministry that we’ve been assigned to do, one that includes but extends beyond the confines of our local church.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are On His Majesty’s Service around the clock, and around the world. Our duty to the King is to be His courier. We’ve been given a special parcel to deliver to everyone we know, the contents of which include the Gospel and an invitation to enter the Kingdom. “We are all missionaries,” as Eric Liddell once said, “Wherever we go, we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel people from Christ.”
In this way, our local church is like an embassy embedded in a foreign country. Christians then ought to act as ambassadors for the Kingdom, who have been tasked to share the values and customs of the Kingdom with our host nation. As American citizens, our host nation is a pretty good one; and thankfully we still have a great deal of freedom in this country. So as Kingdom citizens, we need to protect those freedoms, and we should never take them for granted.
In China in particular, the Church is considered a threat to the State, and even though it’s not against the law to be a Christian — just imagine what it would be like to have a representative from the government sitting in the pews, making sure we didn’t say anything we weren’t supposed to say. Consider also countries where Sharia Law is imposed, where it is flat out illegal to be a Christian. How would you practice Christianity if you were living in those countries? How would your current actions in this country, as a courier or ambassador On His Majesty’s Service be fit for use to our King in those countries?
How wonderful it must be that we have the privilege to complain about a pandemic disrupting our Sunday routine. How wonderful it must be that we can take a Bible into a coffee shop and read it without getting arrested. How wonderful it must be that we can listen to a Christian radio station without State propaganda mixed in. We have it so good.
In the coming months, as we slowly open local churches back up for programming, I sincerely hope we do not return to the same old same old. I hope our faith is expressed in a way that is new and different, changed by what this pandemic has done. I hope we will see our local church not as a hospital, but as a medical school: a place where we not merely experience the healing power of Jesus, but where we learn to become practitioners who share that healing power with others.
I hope we will see this church as an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven, an outpost that is behind enemy lines: a place where we can regroup, not to simply to give each other hugs, but where we can charge into the community in the name of our King, on a mission for our King, for the glory of our King.
This image is one that C.S. Lewis used in Mere Christianity, writing “Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery.”
I want to expand on this idea that Lewis has, that being On His Majesty’s Service means we are participating in a great campaign of sabotage. I think what Lewis is referring to is the spiritual warfare that Paul wrote about in Ephesians 6:12 “It is not for us to wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the forces of darkness in this world, and against the spirit of evil in the heavens” (my translation based on an interlinear Bible).
Based on this verse, I’m led to ask: where are you wrestling right now? Where are you engaging in acts of sabotage? With all this free time that you have, how is your Bible reading coming? With all the money saved from not eating out, how is your giving looking? On your social media, what ideas are you promoting the most? I am just as guilty as most when I say this pandemic has lulled me into a false sense of what my priorities are. At times I have gotten caught up in what’s happening in the world, and have paid more attention to the headlines rather than the Bible’s lines. In a way, I’m letting the world sabotage my faith, rather than using my faith to sabotage the world.
Those acts of sabotage have to take place beyond these walls, they have to take place in our homes, at our workplace, at our schools, on our streets. We can plant bombs of grace and love in systems rigged for exploitation and oppression. We can tell the world that real power doesn’t come from fame and fortune, but from radical acts of kindness that serve others. We can be a voice for the voiceless. We can tell the world that we are a people who have chosen life and liberty, rather than death and destruction. We can tell the world that healing begins when we look for mercies, rather than faults.
We can tell the world that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and that we can be the church by living it out, by being a courier, ambassador, and saboteur On His Majesty’s Service. Amen.