October 18, 2009
I can hear it today as clearly as I heard it 37 years ago. It was a warm May night in a crowded Idaho church building. Our small graduating class was seated on stage enduring a rambling one-hour-and-forty-minute sermon. An hour into the sermon I heard the voice that only I would recognize. My mother, making sure my nearly deaf father would hear, “whispered,” “Why doesn’t he just shut up and let them graduate.”
That was my mother, always on the lookout for her son. And though Mark doesn’t mention it, Matthew informs us that this exchange between James and John and Jesus was instigated by their mother. She was looking for positions of power and prestige-possibly positions of posterity- for her boys. Instead, what the brothers received was a life lesson in leadership we all need to hear.
The leadership Jesus models and inculcates in His followers is servant leadership. The royal leadership of the kingdom models the heart and character of Jesus.
I. The servant-leader submits.1
Paul Cedar, in Strength in Servant Leadership (p. 69), says, “The temptation, even among church leaders, is to go on an ego trip and to work at building our own kingdom rather than the kingdom of God. Such leaders are more concerned with their own agenda than God’s. They seem to enjoy controlling the lives of other people more than setting them free through faith in Christ.”
Jesus’ teaching is clearly the opposite perspective. He submits His role to the role of His Father (v. 40). Leaders in the kingdom are challenged to cultivate and maintain the same humble spirit of submission not only to the Father but also to the needs of people. Jesus models such a spirit of humility in becoming a servant (
II. The servant-leader serves.
Hanging on the kitchen wall in a small church in Northern Indiana is a ceramic dustpan with the adage, “Blessed is he who cleans up.” I’ve seen that come to life as elders in the church washed dishes, preachers swept floors and deacons emptied trash.
God stresses task, not position; service, not office. Hans Kung, the Roman Catholic author says, “Authority in the community is derived not from the holding of a certain rank, not from a special tradition, not from old age or long membership in the community but from the performance of a ministry in the Spirit.”2 Wise churches turn servants into leaders; they recognize the futility of seeking to make leaders into servants.
III. The servant-leader sacrifices.
Jesus’ self identification is that of a servant who willingly gives His life in exchange for others (v. 45). Rarely are we called to make that significant a gift. But we are called to daily sacrifices of life’s moments and goods.
Once again it’s Paul Cedar who says, “The servant leader must be ready to give to others whatever God has given to him or her. The servant leader owns nothing; all he or she has comes from the Lord and is readily available to be given to anyone who needs it.”3 I vividly remember watching Donald McRae “work the crowd” on Sunday mornings. As an elder in our congregation he would seek out those with specific needs and, through a handshake, leave behind a monetary gift.
It always costs us something to love people. You can’t invest in the lives of others without paying for it in some way.
It may be sleepless nights, broken dreams, tear-stained cheeks-but it will always be something. And, if necessary, it may be nail-scarred hands.
The church needs leaders but not leaders who succeed on “The Apprentice.” The church needs leaders who succeed in the gutters of Calcutta.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren. Not in the former but in the latter is the lack. The Church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and human conceit, but the word of the Good Shepherd. The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word.”
1. In the early 1980s Dr. Robert Lowery (Lincoln Christian Seminary) published a paper based on the parallel text in Matthew 20. The following structure is taken from that article.
?2. Hans Kung, The Church, 401.
?3. Paul Cedar, Strength in Servant Leadership, 85.