Recently, someone asked me whether the term “Christian leader” wasn’t an oxymoron, an internal contradiction.
The question wasn’t unreasonable. After all, Jesus, the One we confess as our Lord and God, was a servant “Who,” [according to Philippians 2, despite being] in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant...he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” This, the apostle Paul tells us, is how you and I are to be with each other in the Church, humble servants (Philippians 2:5-11).
Is it possible then for anyone to be a servant and a leader as a Christian?
In Romans 12, Paul gives a list of seven spiritual gifts God grants to individual Christians for the benefit of the church and how the people given those gifts should use them. “If [your gift] is to lead,” Paul says, “do it diligently.” So, it appears, one can be a Christian and a leader. (Romans 12:8)
The reason that the phrase Christian leader may seem like a contradiction, I think, is that we get confused by what the world says a leader is. The world tells us that a leader is a kind of dictator who always gets his or her way.
But even without delving into the Bible’s understanding of leadership, the world’s definition doesn’t pass muster. A friend of ours, General Curtis Scaparrotti, the son of the congregation I formerly served in Logan, Ohio and today the commander of NATO, once told me that even a general must rely on more than power to lead people. You can hold a title, but you only earn the right to lead others by being a servant. Leaders never ask those they’re called to lead to do things that they themselves are unwilling to do. And so when he was second in command in Afghanistan, General Scaparrotti regularly jumped out of aircraft with his paratroopers. Friends, nobody is worthy of designation as a leader who is not first of all, a servant.
That’s why I was happy to see the lessons from the Bible chosen for Pastor Hanson’s installation. It shows that he has a healthy, Biblical understanding of what it means to be a Christian leader who is a servant and disciple of Jesus Christ!
Our gospel lesson, Mark 10:42-45, teaches us all what it means to be a disciple and a leader in Christ’s Church. Just a few verses before, Jesus has told the disciples that soon, in Jerusalem, He’s going to be rejected, arrested, crucified, buried, and then, raised by God the Father. According to the gospel of Mark, this is the third time that Jesus told the disciples about His impending cross. They’re at least as oblivious this time as they were the previous two times. They don’t even react to the prediction. The idea that the Messiah--the Christ, God’s anointed King--would be overcome by opposition is so foreign to them that Jesus’ prediction of a cross doesn’t compute. “There He goes again,” they may have thought.
Just how little they thought of Jesus’ words can be seen in what happened immediately after He spoke them. Two of the twelve, James and John, brothers, make a request of Jesus: When He becomes king in Jerusalem, they want to become His right- and left-hand men. The vision that James and John, and apparently the other ten apostles, have of the kingdom Jesus has come to bring to earth is pretty much the same as all the other kingdoms in the world, only with Jesus and them in charge. They envisioned a reign in which they would have a piece of power, prestige, and patronage.
It’s in the midst of this confusion that Jesus brings clarity about what life in His kingdom is all about. Take a look at our lesson, starting at verse 42: “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
“The Gentiles, the pagans, the people who don’t know God or His amazing grace,” Jesus is saying, “have their own ideas about what it means to be important, to be a leader. They go around barking orders, always seeking to get their way.” But this is not how it is when you belong to the God we know in Jesus Christ.
This God sets free all who dare to trust in Jesus Christ, the One Who bore our sin and the punishment for it we deserve, death, so that when He rose from the dead, He could offer new and everlasting life to all who repent and believe. The only sermon given by Jesus that is recorded by the author of today’s gospel lesson, Mark, is contained in just one verse. Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) That’s it!
We can do nothing to make ourselves fit for life with God. We can’t be good enough, influential enough, enough of a big shot, enough of anything. Only Jesus Christ and our faith in Him can make us fit for His kingdom. Only Jesus can justify sinners and make them forever new. And Jesus’ salvation can come to all kinds of people when they daily believe in and follow Him: big shots, little shots, no shots.
So, in the Kingdom of God, there’s no reason to push or shove. When I trust in Jesus Christ, I already have the kingdom of God and because of that I can be a servant, accepting whatever role that Christ has given to me. When you know you belong to the King of all creation, you’re not particularly concerned, as James and John were, with the seating arrangements. And speaking only for myself, I would say that in light of what a sinner I know that I am, I’m so content to be a saved child of God that I have long been cured of any human desire to be a big shot. That’s what it’s like to belong to a servant Savior in Whose kingdom the first are last and the last are first.
Because we know how much God loves us and all that He has done for us in the crucified and risen Jesus, the Christian can dare to pray the most revolutionary of prayer petitions, “Thy will, Your will, and not mine, be done, O Lord.”
That’s the prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray, of course. But, servant-leader that Jesus is, it’s also the prayer He offered in the garden as He prepared to go to the cross for you and me and for all who, without a relationship with Jesus, would face a Christ-less eternity.
Jesus has the authority to tell us to fall into the arms of God the Father because He dared to do just that on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday!
And, Pastor Hanson, you will have the authority to call this people to follow Christ when they see that you, however imperfect and human you are, seek to follow Christ yourself.
Dear people of Grace Lutheran Church, you’ve waited a long time for this day. I’ve been following your journey and praying for you and I know how difficult it has been for all of you. But God has blessed you with a servant leader. He clearly understands what it means to be a Christian leader.
- I ask you to pray for him and honor him for what he is for you, a gift from God. I ask you to pray for Kelly and him as they adjust to their life in a new place.
- I ask you to take it upon yourselves to be servants of Christ in serving and working alongside them.
- I ask you to honor his work here, the same work which the young pastor Timothy was reminded to do in our second lesson: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)
Pastor Hanson, I ask you to be a servant of Christ to these people and this community as you seek to be faithful to the Lord Who has set you free from sin and death by grace through your faith in Him and has brought you to Grace Lutheran Church.
Galatians 3:28 tells us that in Christ’s Church, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Understanding that the only way to freedom from sin, death, and darkness is in following Jesus Christ as the Lord over our lives, Martin Luther once remarked that, “a Christian...is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian...is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”
In the freedom that comes from belonging to Jesus Christ for all eternity, I urge you, people and pastor, not to be afraid to serve each other, to pray for each other, to listen to each other, to worship together, to confess sin and be absolved from sin together, to work together, to witness together, doing all of this knowing that while you may differ in the functions to which God has called you in Christ’s Church, you do not differ in status. You are all redeemed children of God called to join together in telling the whole world the good news of new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus Christ.
God has called this congregation and this pastor and his wife together in partnership for one purpose and one purpose only: to be and to make disciples of Jesus. Dear servants of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One, since that is your one and only mission: Have at it! Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
[Welcome to Pastor Dwight Hanson, installed today as pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Eaton, Ohio. The clergy of our Southwest Ohio Mission District are incredibly supportive of one another and a contingent was able to be present there today. Clergy l to r: Brian McGee, Dean Haferman, Heidi Holst, Alan Knoke, Dwight Hanson, me, David Matevia, and Marv Hileman. (Thanks to my wife for snapping the pic.)]