Matthew 20:20-28, I Peter 5:1-11
September 12, 2010
We are all called to serve. And at times, we are called to lead. But what is leadership? Over the years I’ve noticed some trends in Church leadership that have been troubling. And I have to tell you that those trends often happen when God’s people have forgotten the Church’s model for leadership, and have taken on the world’s model. I’d like you to consider today the difference between the two. And I know I’ll be generalizing here. Please forgive me on that. But I think this is a way to focus better on what God wants us to be as leaders.
Jesus said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… and their great men exercise authority over them…” (Matthew 20:25) That’s a great description! And I’ve seen leaders in the Church, at various levels, who act as though it’s their job to “take charge” and “lord it over” others. They think they’re supposed to “exercise great authority,” to “order others around,” and to leave no doubt about “who’s in charge.” They should read the words of Jesus!
In our reading for today from Matthew, Jesus gives some important instructions about leadership to his closest disciples. And remember, these would soon be the leaders of the new Church – his ministry that would continue beyond his earthly life. But they had it confused that day, as they too often did! And I want you to notice how he took this opportunity to contrast earthly leadership with his view of leadership.
Now you know this story. The mother of James and John had asked Jesus if her sons could have “special positions” in his kingdom. (Like a good Jewish mother, she wanted her boys to succeed!) But the other disciples became indignant! They became embroiled in the worldly understanding of leadership. As Tony Campolo pointed out, they were concerned with who would share power with Jesus in what was their vision of the new kingdom. They still didn’t get it that it would not be about an earthly kingdom. And Jesus’ vision of leadership would not be about power!
Jesus responded with these amazing, and mind blowing words. And again remember, we know what’s coming here! And we often read this with our “Bible voice.” So we often miss the power of how these words must have sounded, hearing them for the first time. We miss the “shock and awe” of these words! Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them… But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave…” (Matthew 20:25-27)
That’s such an important concept in church leadership! The last shall be first, and leaders must be servants! We cannot let that be lost in the church! I’ve entitled this message “Humility: the Highest Calling” and I believe it is. Humility is what we are called to do and to be. Are you ready for that, you new Trustees, Deacons, and Elders? How about you who are already serving?
Another thing that happens in the worldly model of leadership is that people act as though being leaders means they are always right, and they cannot ever make mistakes. And if they do, they think they will be viewed as “bad leaders.” The problem they have is “Pride.” I think it’s no wonder that pride is seen as one of the “Seven Deadly Sins.” And the pride I’m talking about is the pride where we “think too highly of ourselves.” It’s the kind of pride that gets hurt when we are forced to admit to being flawed and making mistakes. That kind of pride gets in the way of letting on that we are human!
In our epistle reading today, Peter is explaining good Christian leadership and he uses again this most important word “humility.” “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” That’s actually based on a quote from Proverbs 3:34. (There’s a lot about humility in the Proverbs!) And I hope you see there that the word “pride” set as the opposite of “humility.” “It shall not be so among you!” Jesus said. “Whoever is great must be servant, and whoever is first among you must be your slave.”
In Christian leadership we are called to humility. And it is the highest calling! We are called to model Paul’s words that none of us “should think more highly of ourselves than we ought.” (Romans 12:3) “But in humility count others better than ourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) Does that mean we are to beat ourselves up? No. But it does mean that we are to build others up. It does mean that we step out of the spotlight. It means we set aside our pride! And perhaps more than anything, it means we are simply to stand in humble amazement of the wonderful creation God has made in us!
Now, the other big word Peter uses here is “example.” In the earthly model of leadership, too many people tell others to do what they wouldn’t do themselves. Here, Peter sounds like he’s repeating Jesus’ words! Listen to this. “…being eager to serve, not ‘lording it over’ those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” I’m sure we could all tell stories of leaders we have known who have humbly, and sometimes bravely, done what they expect others to do.
I think this is one of the hardest parts of this model of Christian leadership. It is hard to be that example. Church leaders, the ones in office, and the ones you just installed, are called to live differently. And I know we’re all called to live differently! But our leaders are to be the examples of that, as Peter tells us.
That doesn’t mean that our leaders act better or “more holy” than anyone else. (That wouldn’t be humility, would it?) But they do need to strive to be the examples of what we are all called to be. The end result is not that they will be more holy, but that we all will be more holy! Our leaders are called to be humble, and to model that humility as they lead. Humility is the highest calling! So, you who have just been installed and ordained now have 3 years of that responsibility. (or more!) Is that a scary thing to you? It ought to be!! Does anybody want to reconsider? (Too late!!!)
Christian leaders should also be models of something else that is very much needed by the Church. This is something we talked about last week at the first service. That day, Jack talked about the need to be God’s people 24/7. He said, and I agree (and I’ve been saying this for years!) that we cannot possibly hope to be very effective Christians if we practice our faith only one hour a week on Sunday morning! (Or even every other Sunday morning!)
As leaders, we need to be modeling the daily Christian experience. We need to be here as often as we can on Sunday to show the joy of living the faith 24/7. We can’t just “talk about it.” It doesn’t work that way. As leaders we need to live it! Now are you scared? Again, you should be! I know I am when I think of that part of Christian Leadership!
The last thing I want us to consider this morning is another of the words Peter uses here. It is this word “Grace.” Grace is “undeserved favor.” “God gives grace to the humble.” And we should strive to “give grace,” ourselves. Grace is loving and forgiving one another – no matter what! It is giving people “the benefit of the doubt.” It is looking for and encouraging the highest and the best in people. It is being slow to anger and quick to forgive.
Those are things that seem to be opposite to the world’s mindset. The world seems to say, “It’s ok to be quick to anger and slow to forgive.” “It’s ok to remember past sins and hold grudges, and to look for and dwell on the worst in people.” (That’s why negative news sells!) Jesus calls us to forebear one another, to be gracious and forgiving. Those are opposite of the worldly mindset. And they are hard! And they are things we need to choose, because they don’t happen all by themselves. Our leaders are called to make those choices – as they lead us to make those choices, too!
Anybody want to reconsider? I hope not, and I pray not! I hope and pray that you all will now be open to, and seek the support of, God’s spirit. For it is in his spirit that we have the strength to grow in these things. And I encourage us to pray for and encourage these leaders, looking to their example, being humble, being gracious, and forgiving one another in love. And may God’s grace, mercy, and peace be upon you who are called. As you look to our guide and model, Jesus Christ, our Lord!
Guide us, Lord, in being the kinds of people you call us to be. Help both those who lead and those who support them, to have the strength and courage and humility to live the life of faith every day. May we know your grace and peace no matter what the circumstances of this life. For we pray in the name, and for the sake, of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.