A Sermon for Queen’s Platinum Jubilee
Preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 5th June 2022
1066 And All That is the title of a spoof version of English history, written by W. C. Sellar and R. J Yeatman. Published in 1930, it promised readers ‘A Memorable History of England, Comprising All the Parts You Can Remember, Including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates.’ Famously, or infamously, in the book, all monarchs mentioned are summed up either as ‘good’ or as ‘bad’. For example, Arthur was a good king, but King John was a bad ‘un.
Since they published their book twenty-two years before HM Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, Sellar and Yeatman never got the chance to assess her reign, though they did rate her 16th century namesake, Elizabeth I as ‘in every respect a good and romantic Queen.’
No matter what view we take of the institution of monarchy, from ardent royalist to convinced republican, or something in between, I suspect that most or all of us regard Queen Elizabeth as ‘a good Queen,’ and do so with a much greater seriousness than Sellar and Yeatman brought to their task. But what makes our Queen a good Queen? Why might we want to sing, as we will have the opportunity to do later in this service, of our hope that she enjoys a long life and a long reign over us? If we can figure that out, if we can articulate what makes our Queen a good Queen, then we will also be better able to judge how others in positions of authority should behave.
By ‘others’, I’m thinking here national governments (of whatever political persuasion) and of local government. But I would also include other authority figures: managers and medical experts, teachers and parents, police officers and media editors; even ministers of religion and other church leaders. How they and we wield power and influence matters. As the Apostle Paul says, every governing authority ‘is God’s servant for your good.’ (13:4) So what makes the Queen, and, by implication, any other authority, ‘good’?
And the answer to that is ‘service’. It is serving others that makes an authority, either individual, or corporate, a good one. You might think that’s an obvious answer, but if you do then you are taking a lot for granted. Authorities have a recurring tendency to expect people to serve them rather than vice versa. They are known to enforce that point of view. In the first century AD, the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Rome, advocating a very positive view of governing authorities. Yet it’s thought that those Roman imperial authorities executed him just a few years later.
Kings and Queens might be good, but history provides us with many occasions when they have been just the opposite. So when Jesus sat down with his closest followers, for what turned out to be their last-ever meal together, he was able make observations about political realities, and also to embody and advocate the better way.
It all started with an argument about which one his disciples sat around the table that night, ‘was to be regarded as the greatest.’ (22:24) Such things mattered, even at meal times. At the conclusion of this service there is a celebration lunch in the church hall. We will not be dictating who gets to ‘graze’ first at the buffet, and who follows next, on the basis of social status. Things don’t work that way around here (or shouldn’t), but that wasn’t the case in the ancient world. Social status dictated who sat closest to the host. So to answer the question about who ‘was to be regarded as the greatest’, set the seating arrangements for the meal.
We’re told that Jesus used this social climbing squabble to comment upon monarchy and government, and how things should be done – by monarchs and others – when God is sovereign. He said to them, ‘the kings of the gentiles lord it over them … but not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and leader like one who serves.’ (22:25, 26) Then, having made this statement, Jesus went on to demonstrate how he practised what he preached.
This time he asked: ‘For who is greater, the one who is [sitting] at the table [in their socially appointed position], or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table?’
Well, yes, of course, according to the ways of the world, that’s the case, but it is otherwise in God’s kingdom; in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. For immediately Jesus then pointed out, ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ (24:27) In fact, given that the setting for this discussion was the Last Supper, it was Jesus – their master – who had just been serving them the bread and wine.
So what sort of royalty do we want? What do we need monarchy to model to governments and other authorities? We want and we need a Jesus-like, servant-monarchy, and to a significant extent that’s what we have been privileged to get from HM Queen Elizabeth. Her reign has been characterised by her sense of service.
On any number of occasions the Queen has spoken about her own faith convictions, and it’s always heart-warming and affirming for other Christians when a public figure does that. What we are celebrating today, though, extends beyond statements about religious belief which Christians happen to find encouraging.
Crucially, it is about how the Queen practises a servant like approach to wielding authority whilst in an office. In this she applies a core teaching of Jesus that has profound implications for wider society; that ‘the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.’
Neither the Queen, nor any other person in authority, has to be a paid-up Christian, accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord, in order to act in such a servant-like way … but it certainly helps. In fact, as our society drifts further and further away from its Christian heritage, and from knowledge of Jesus’s being and his teaching, it’s likely that servant-leadership, as advocated and modelled by Jesus, will seem a stranger and stranger idea.
Yet there is a crying need for authorities to practice it. The Apostle Paul understood governments to be a gift from God. He recognised their role in maintaining peace, and their need to find resources, through those perennially popular practices of taxation and revenue raising. But he was also clear that authority – the sword – is wielded, and financial and economic powers deployed by those, who whether they know it or not, are, ‘God’s servant’ for our good’.
Her Majesty the Queen is very fortunate in not having at her disposal all of the powers that her predecessors possessed. Consequently, she is spared from facing some temptations that, for example, her Prime Ministers must confront. That said, it then becomes more urgent that political leaders, and others in authority, rise to the challenge of being leaders who serve. There are many who would do well to note the Queen’s example of integrity in office, and dedication to her task, and apply this in their own situation.
On this occasion of her platinum jubilee, let’s be grateful for her Majesty’s example of serving whilst in a position of authority. Whenever she has succeeded in doing this she has exemplified for us something of the call of Jesus Christ. Thus, we can look to her example of service on those occasions when we wield authority, either formally or informally. So today let us thank God for appointing the Queen to her office, and in her continued practice of serving others, long may she reign. Amen.