The Paradox in Leading Others
By Linda Rex
November 1, 2020, Proper 26 | All Saints—Recently I started an online course at Grace Communion Seminary on humans and salvation. I remember now why it’s been a while since I took graduate level courses—they take up time and require a lot of work and deep thought. But when I am immersed in this way in prayerful thought of God and his work in this world through his Son Jesus, I find myself wrestling in a good way with my motives and heart in pastoring and preaching the gospel.
One of the failures in the western Church today is that we enjoy all the trappings and benefits of the Christian faith while we miss much of the substance. Being relevant to the culture is one thing—being driven by our need for the approval and acceptance of people is another. When we have leaders claiming to be Christian in order to garner votes while their lives and words deny Christ, we are in a dangerous place, for this is something the Lord abhors.
If there is one thing Jesus criticized about the leaders of his day, it was their hypocrisy—their flaunting of the externals of religiosity and their catering to the approval and applause of the people, rather than humbly living out God’s love and grace. They loved the praise of those they lead and enjoyed the financial benefits and power of their positions, but did not always genuinely care about the suffering and struggles of the poor, needy, and disenfranchised, of those in lower social and economic strata than their own.
But I cannot point the finger at others without finding that I have several pointing back at me. In my own life, how have I been more concerned about the approval and respect of the people around me than I have been about their suffering, difficulty, and need? Do I say all the right things but fail to act on what I believe? Too often this has been the case—not because I don’t care, but because I have not always learned to act on what I believe to be true. There has been too often a disconnect between the spiritual realities I believe and trust in, and my living out of these realities in the world in which I live.
We tend to separate the secular or physical from the spiritual, not realizing that in Christ both have come together and have been joined in his person. In the living Word, God has come to dwell with and in man. He has become one of us while remaining fully himself. He, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings our humanity into the presence of the divine, enabling each of us by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, to participate in that intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Our participation in the Triune life is expressed in the way we love God and love others, walking by faith and in tune with the spiritual realities in a world which clings tightly to the tangible, physical realities.
What does this mean for each of us, me included? Living out the gospel in a gospel-resistant world means I may have to suffer the disapproval of those about me, even those I am close to and whom I love. I may have to give up some dearly held dreams or plans so that others may have what they need and so that God’s word can be brought to those who hunger and thirst for it. I may have to do without things I prefer to have so that others can enjoy the benefits of my loss and expense. Am I more concerned about my own financial and physical security than I am the needs and concerns of others? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that, because I’m afraid the answer just might be yes.
Jesus brings us into the paradox of leadership where we find that we bear the responsibility of leading others but we do it humbly, as servants. We do it from a place of brotherhood—of joining others where they are so that we share in their life and struggles, as unique equals in a fellowship of oneness where we offer ourselves as those who serve, give, share, and help. What does this look like in a self-centered, self-absorbed culture? It looks foreign, like an alien in a new land—we don’t fit in, we are the focus of people’s distain, ridicule, abuse, and even rejection. It looks a lot like Jesus Christ.
Leadership in the way Jesus describes it is a humble laying down of one’s life for the sake of those being served. This willingness to be abased, to be the one to serve rather than be served, does not come naturally to us as human beings. But it is the path to genuine leadership. It infuses our leadership with a genuineness and sincerity that inspires others to follow, not because they are intimidated and forced to follow, but because they are compelled to do for others what has been done for them.
Quite frankly, I don’t blame young people today for rejecting organized Christianity, its denominations, and its distinctions. We are earning the consequence of teaching and preaching a gospel we did not live out individually and collectively in humble service and gracious compassion. We are receiving the full measure of payment for our sin, hypocrisy, and religious pride. We are not all guilty, I am sure, but we all can humbly admit that we need to start anew, in a place of grace and humility, beginning again in a spirit of service to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor, no matter whom they are, as ourselves.
To pause and assess the motives of our hearts is a good thing. As leaders or simply as those who influence others in our lives, we can be so busy living or existing that we don’t take the time to look deeply at what is driving us and why we do the things we do. What is the reason we go to work each morning? Why do we battle the traffic each day? Why don’t we talk with our neighbors or family, or participate in the community barbeque? Could it be that we have never looked beyond ourselves long enough to realize there is a world out there God has included us in that we are called to make better by our humble service, compassion, help, and generosity?
Thankfully, when we experience the reality of our failures to love, give, and share with others, we have the grace of God to cover us and enable us to begin anew. Jesus comes to us by the Spirit to offer us new life, a new start—the ability to begin again in him, living out the reality of who we are as the adopted children of our heavenly Father. Paradoxically, as leaders, we can commit ourselves again to the humble service of others in the Spirit of Christ, turning away from our self-centered preoccupation with ourselves, our own comfort and benefit, toward the care and help of those we lead, and therefore serve.
Heavenly Father, thank you for being our true father, the Source of all. Thank you, Jesus, for being our leader, our teacher, Savior, friend and brother. Grant us the grace and humility to lay down all our hypocrisies, self-centeredness and pride, replacing them with your real presence, genuine love and service. We receive anew your grace and peace, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13 NASB
See also Matthew 23:1–12.
Just As You Are
by Linda Rex
Sometimes it’s hard to accept the reality God knows us much better than we know ourselves. We like to believe we are good, well-meaning people who will always do or say the right thing in every circumstance we face. We hope we would never do or say anything cruel or hateful. We think in our heart of hearts we would never betray a friend or ruin a friendship because of greed or resentment.
But indeed, God does know us better than we know ourselves. One good example which comes to mind at this time of year is the story of Peter, Jesus’ disciple. Here Jesus was facing his death by crucifixion, knowing the reality of what he would be facing in the next few hours at the hands of people like you and me. He’s giving his disciples his last words, and says, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
Peter is a good friend of Jesus—a real pal. He says to Jesus, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” (John 13:37) Peter is in earnest. He really means it. He’s going to be the best friend Jesus ever had—he’s going to go all the way with Jesus. He’s just like you and me. We have the greatest intentions in the world to go all the way with Jesus, to go all the way with our family, our friends, our spiritual community.
But Jesus is very pragmatic about our humanity. He says to Peter, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.” (John 13:38) Jesus just calls it as it is—“Peter, you don’t really know yourself as well as you think you do. You’re going to betray me and deny me just like any other human being would.”
Indeed, Jesus knew and accepted Peter’s brokenness as a part of who he was at that point in his life. Jesus knew in a few short hours, he would be on his own, wrestling with the evil one in a spiritual, physical and emotional battle he did not humanly want to fight. He was not unfamiliar with the failures of the human race, but felt keenly the weakness and frailty of his flesh.
It is instructive that Jesus quoted from Psalm 22 during his last hours on the cross. I was reading this psalm again this morning and was struck by the way King David put down in words the way we as human beings would treat the Lord when he came in human flesh. How many times as he was growing up did Jesus hear this psalm read? Did it put him in mind of what he was going to have to endure at the hands of the human beings he came to save? This psalm certainly describes in many ways what Jesus ended up experiencing before and during his crucifixion.
Isn’t it interested how the God who inspired this psalm, knew us better than we know ourselves? In fact, he inspired the writing of this psalm, he ensured it was preserved, and he used it as an instructive tool during his last moments before he died. The Word came to earth, knowing we would do these things to him. He was not put off by our brokenness or our capacity for betrayal and animosity. He allowed none of our human capacity for evil to prevent him from keeping his word to us that he would save us from evil, sin and death.
That the Word who is God would take on our broken humanity expresses the true reality of God’s love. As God, he had the capacity to submit himself to our human experience while remaining pure of heart, soul and mind. Rather than rejecting us or turning away from us, God joined us in our darkness and brought us up and out into his Light.
It is unfortunate that often we portray God as being so offended by sin he cannot be in the presence of it. If that were the case, we all would have been annihilated millennia ago. Seriously—what makes us think God is this way?
I think one thing which makes us think God is this way is we are this way. We get offended by a person’s problems or faults, and so we reject the person who does not meet up with our standards. We draw lines in the sand and when someone crosses them, we count them unworthy of a relationship with us.
But God doesn’t do this. He comes into our brokenness and works from within to transform and change us. He sends his Spirit into faulty human hearts so God can take up a permanent habitation there, healing us and transforming us from the inside out. He comes to the one, who like Peter, betrays him or denies him, and reconciles with him. On God’s side of the equations, there is nothing left standing between us and him.
Because God already knows us so thoroughly and completely, and loves us anyway, we can be upfront and honest about our failures and weaknesses. We can own our brokenness, telling the truth about our “messies” to God and to others. One day there won’t be any secrets—so we might as well learn how to be transparent, open and honest with ourselves and one another—living in the grace and love of God now as we will for all eternity.
Our heavenly Father has not allowed anything to come between us and his love. There is nothing which stands between us and him. This Good Friday we remember the gift of love God gave by embracing us in our broken humanity and drawing us up into life in the Father, Son and Spirit. We are beloved, cherished and held in God’s love and life, both now and for all eternity. Praise God!
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take all our evil and broken ways upon yourself and redeeming them. Thank you, Spirit, for working all this out in Christ and in us. For your glory, God, and by your power, in your name. We thank you. Amen.
“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations.” Psalm 22:27–28 NASB