What Will It Take to Reach Others? (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! (The Message)

What will it take? 

What will it take to impact the world with the gospel of grace? 

What will it take to reach your neighbor with the love of God in Christ? 

What will it take to positively influence your relative, co-worker, or friend in grace and truth? 

The answer? It will take becoming a servant to them all. 

Reaching others with the glorious and incredible good news of forgiveness and new life in Jesus requires us to relinquish our rights and freedoms in order to have a ministry of presence. 

Somehow, far too many Churches and Christians have adopted the wrongheaded notion that they can reach people without interacting with them. They wing-it with a few tepid prayers, wishing that people will magically show up their church or event in order to experience their friendliness.

But it takes going to where people are and engaging in real human relationship to reach another person. It ought to be obvious, yet it isn’t for a lot of folks:

We have to be around other people in order to reach them. 

That’s why reaching the party-crowd takes going to the bar. 

It’s why reaching young moms takes sitting with them at the park while the kids play. 

It’s why reaching kids requires getting on the floor with them and playing what they want to play.

This is why it takes being present among the various people, businesses, and institutions in the community in order to reach them.

The goal is not to get other people to show up on our turf and become just like us. The goal is not for us to remain in comfortable surroundings while we expect others to get over their uncomfortableness to be with us.

Rather, the goal is to show up on their turf and relate to them, to become like them.

If it weren’t in the Bible we might think it blasphemous to say such a thing. But there it is, and we must wrestle with its implications for our lives. So, what needs to change?

My wife and I have a lot of experience working with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients – which means we also end up working a lot with their adult children and grandchildren. It’s difficult watching a person who raised you becoming a different person, living in a different world.

Many relatives try their darndest to get mom or dad back into “reality,” to return to their original selves and their surroundings. So, they correct, cajole, and criticize, in order to reach them and pull them back from their supposed mental abyss.

And it doesn’t work. More than that, it’s not only unhelpful, but it’s also often hurtful.

Instead of expecting a dementia patient to come into my world, I must go into their world.

Just the other day, my wife was talking with a self-described “Ninja Priestess.” And this dear woman was refusing to wear her socks on a hospital floor – which cannot happen in a healthcare setting. She didn’t want to wear them because “it diminishes my power and my connection to the ground.”

If we insist on remaining in our world, this immediately becomes a fight. Ultimatums are issued. Policies are pronounced. Security is called because everything escalates out of control.

Yet, if we enter the dear woman’s world, we choose to see things from her perspective and not ours.

My wife’s response? “It’s okay. The socks are cotton. All natural. They won’t hinder your power, at all.” And off they went together down the hall without incident and the patient feeling cared for and empowered.

When it comes to reaching people – anyone, no matter who they are – we must be willing to enter their world and be a part of it, seeing things as they see it, understanding where they’re coming from, without judgment and with plenty of empathy and compassion.

But if we insist on colonizing others in order to harvest their souls for our own spiritual benefit, then we have failed to understand the spirit and intent of the Apostle Paul’s teaching to us.

Being a servant means exactly that – serving others by listening, washing their feet, giving them time, and making compassionate connections.

God has cut us into the action of divine purposes in this world. This is privileged work. So, let’s do it with all the care and concern given us by the Spirit.

Merciful God, help us, your people, to live wisely among those who don’t yet know you, so that they can see the light of Christ in us, hear the words of Christ from us, and experience the salvation of Christ which is in us. Amen.

Matthew 20:20-28 – Leadership as Service to Others

Statue of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, in Pittsburgh, Texas. Photo by Carol Highsmith

The mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the 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 your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (New International Version)

Jesus and his disciples were not on the same page. That’s because they each had differing agendas.

Jesus was clear with the disciples about how things were going to shake out with him: torture, insults, crucifixion, and death was ahead. It seems the disciples and the mother of James and John missed the memo on this. Christ’s words went way over their heads.

It could be the disciples simply did not hear what Jesus was saying to them (repeatedly!). It’s more likely that the message of Jesus got filtered through an existing agenda of how they believed things ought to go.

The disciples, along with a lot of other Jewish folk in the first century, were looking for a Messiah in the mold of King David – a strong leader who would come and beat up the Romans, exert all kinds of power and influence, and establish an earthly rule over all the people they don’t like.

Submission to torture, humility before the very people they detested, and being killed by them were not factors into the disciples understanding of leadership and government.

Much like the powerful Aslan who had a thorough understanding of the world’s deep magic and submitted himself to the White Witch and death in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Jesus knew what he was doing, while everyone else seemed clueless about the true power which exists in the universe.

Let’s be clear about what that true power really is: grace. Yes, grace. Powerful, resplendent, subversive, scandalous, and radical grace.

Mercy was the missing factor in the disciples’ agenda. Jesus is not like other rulers. He does not operate by throwing his weight around to forcefully impose a crushing my-way-or-the-highway kind of rule (even though, ironically, he is The Way).

No, Jesus freely and unabashedly uses grace with its merciful tools of humility, gentleness, kindness, goodness, and love to introduce and establish a new kind of rule which is not posturing for self-serving authority.

Power, authority, and the positions which go with them are to be used for the common good of all persons. To be in any sort of leadership position is to be a servant of grace for the benefit of humanity and the world.

If Christ’s disciples had looked a bit closer into the Scriptures, they might have noticed, for all his power and authority, that King David trafficked in grace.

David, at the pinnacle of power, looked over the kingdom to see who from the family of his enemy, the former King Saul (who was into the power thing for himself) was around so he could show grace (2 Samuel 9). It was typical of ancient kings to secure their rule and power through killing-off rivals and family members of previous kings. Not so with David. And not so with Jesus.

Wherever there is posturing for position, preening for power, and a pestering for privilege – there you will find everything grace is not:

  • Reliance on making and calling-in favors
  • Arrogant and overinflated egos
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Hatred and suspicion of others
  • Judgment and condemnation
  • An insistence on recognition
  • Compulsive manipulation and control over everything and everyone
  • Unilateral decision-making
  • Shaming of others
  • Hoarding resources
  • Coups and in-fighting
  • A demand of rights

We in the western world may not be in the habit of offing leaders and killing others to consolidate power, yet we still too often rely on violent speech and language, partisan policies, and good-old-boy systems which are foreign to the way of Christ.

In contrast to this, grace exists. It is the deep magic which resides within. Wherever grace operates, there you will find the heart of a servant:

Attending to the needs of all persons, especially the least, the last, and the lost

  • Freely consulting and collaborating with others
  • Focusing on responsibility
  • Loving discipline
  • Embracing accountability
  • Pursuing truth and integrity
  • Sharing power and resources
  • Encouraging feedback
  • Giving generously
  • Looking for ways to show mercy

This old world desperately needs leaders with a dutiful sense of public service which is compassionate and kind. Wielding authority is not about a show of strength; it is in the understanding that when I am weak, then I am strong.

Yes, this approach to leadership may bring some short-term suffering. Grace, however, results in longevity of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. True service is being a servant of grace.

May it be so, to the glory of God, and for the blessing of the world. Amen.

2 Samuel 2:1-11 – A Devout Leader

In the course of time, David inquired of the Lord. “Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah?” he asked.

The Lord said, “Go up.”

David asked, “Where shall I go?”

“To Hebron,” the Lord answered.

So, David went up there with his two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David also took the men who were with him, each with his family, and they settled in Hebron and its towns. Then the men of Judah came to Hebron, and there they anointed David king over the tribe of Judah.

When David was told that it was the men from Jabesh Gilead who had buried Saul, he sent messengers to them to say to them, “The Lord bless you for showing this kindness to Saul your master by burying him. May the Lord now show you kindness and faithfulness, and I too will show you the same favor because you have done this. Now then, be strong and brave, for Saul your master is dead, and the people of Judah have anointed me king over them.”

Meanwhile, Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, had taken Ish-Bosheth son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim. He made him king over Gilead, Ashuri and Jezreel, and also over Ephraim, Benjamin and all Israel.

Ish-Bosheth son of Saul was forty years old when he became king over Israel, and he reigned two years. The tribe of Judah, however, remained loyal to David. The length of time David was king in Hebron over Judah was seven years and six months. (New International Version)

Leadership today seems more complicated and compromised than ever. Narcissistic leaders appear to be everywhere. Leaders with competence and integrity struggle to maintain self-care and self-confidence in a sea of belligerent and polarized people.

And yet, there has never been a time with more resources for leaders in the form of podcasts, websites, seminars, books, education, etc. There seems to be an inconsistency, a disconnect between the availability of knowledge and the actual lived experience of leaders.

King David was a great and famous leader. We still talk about him three-thousand-years later! Three essentials made David, and can make us, godly and effective leaders.

A Devout Leader Has a Calling from G-d

David was the youngest sibling in his family. No one saw an aspiring leader, let alone one of the most famous kings in history, in David. While David was tediously tending sheep out in the backwaters of Judah, nobody was aware of his potential greatness. But G-d saw. And the Lord sent the prophet Samuel to anoint him as king.

Through a long series of events, the people of Judah recognized David’s gifts, abilities, and potential. And they affirmed those abilities and chose to place David in authority over the entire nation as king – confirming his anointing from years earlier.

Not everyone is called to a high position. Yet, we are all called to exercise leadership in our respective places and positions. Whether a parent, teacher, church deacon, factory worker – or any other role or vocation – we are in those positions through a divine call. So, we are to be daily mindful of that personal calling.

A Devout Leader Inquires of G-d

King David took his leadership cues from the Lord, and not just on what he believed was the best thing to do. David was both principled and pragmatic – rarely losing sight of principles just to get things done, nor short-sighted on the practical effects of decision-making.

David was able to hold both his biblical principles and keen pragmatism through inquiring of G-d. He was a person of prayer, constantly and consistently asking the Lord about everything. The times David failed to act on principled conviction and pragmatic practice are the events in which he simply did not look to G-d, but instead, rested on his laurels or relied on his position.

A Devout Leader Is a Servant to G-d

Perhaps one reason our world has a lack of good solid leaders is that we aren’t looking for followers who exhibit humility to the Lord through serving the common good of all persons.

David learned leadership through being a servant and a follower of G-d. Once becoming king, David used his authority and position to show steadfast love to the people in his kingdom – rather than focusing on consolidation of power or ensuring the people were serving the king.

A devout leader uses their influence to extend mercy and kindness – making the world a better place through attention to justice and systematically providing for the needs of others.

“True leadership is found in giving yourself in service to others, not in coaxing or inducing others to serve you.”

J. Oswald Sanders

Conclusion

A true leader of G-d is called by G-d, inquires of G-d, and seeks to extend grace to others with the same grace extended from G-d to them.

In other words, character is the essential element for leaders. And that principled leadership is expressed through the competence of loving G-d and neighbor.

Leadership devoid of spiritual awareness will inevitably result in short-sighted and self-serving leaders. Conversely, devout leadership which evidences an integration of mind, emotions, and spirit will surely bring life and happiness to many.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4, NIV)

May it be so. Soli Deo Gloria.

O Lord our Divine Leader, bless human leaders throughout our world, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to one another. Lord, keep the nations under your care. Give grace to your servant leaders, O Lord, and grant them wisdom and mercy in the exercise of their duties. Give courage and foresight to provide for the needs of all people. Help leaders to fulfill their obligations.

And finally, teach people everywhere to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name. For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.

*Above painting: King David Playing the Harp by Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

**Above statue of King David by Italian sculptor Adamo Tadolini, 1856

Luke 22:24-30 – Just Shadow Jesus

Digital painting of Jesus and the disciples by John Mathews

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (NIV)

Jesus is a different sort of leader.

While the kings of his day were concerned with power and using their authority to ensure even more power and privilege, Jesus went about things differently. In a world of patronage where it was necessary for the lower classes to connect with and suck-up to the higher classes, Jesus operated by a different system.

Jesus, Lord of the universe, King of creation, absolute Leader of the Church, and Ruler over God’s realm was and is a servant of the people.

“Follow my example: Even the Son of Man did not come for people to serve him. He came to serve others and to give his life to save many people.”

mark 10:45, erv

On the surface, striving to be the best might seem noble and good. Yes, working toward being the greatest might motivate us to do all things with excellence. It can solve a lot of problems and issues. On the other hand, it may also result in attitudes and behavior which fosters unhealthy competition and an inordinate focus on becoming the greatest.

Think about it. Not everyone can be the greatest. If everyone is, nobody is. This results in lower self-esteem for nearly everybody. And it creates ripe conditions for leadership paranoia in which the greatest is always looking over their shoulder worrying about being toppled from their lofty position. At the least, all this ballyhoo about greatness only takes away from caring for the people who most need our efforts – family members get the shaft from someone with an imbalanced life who is laser-focused on getting to the top and staying there.

It’s as if a person is living a one-dimensional existence in a three-dimensional world. It won’t work. Fortunately, we don’t have to live like that.

Jesus shows us a better way.

Jesus was present to his disciples. He is present to us in the person of the Holy Spirit. Christ encouraged relational connections and using one’s gifts, talents, and abilities for the common good of all people. For Jesus Christ, the dynamics of power and authority are not to be leveraged for personal greatness but for collective uplift. Authority is to be carefully applied for everyone’s benefit, including those we think don’t deserve it.

The disciples understood far too little about the community their leader was trying to build. Judas Iscariot is likely the one disciple who first realized what Jesus was truly up to. The greatest are the least and the least are the greatest. It wasn’t what Judas signed up for, so he cut his losses and betrayed Jesus.

True exaltation is a gift of grace. The kingdom of God turns on mercy and operates on the economy of grace. It is those who faithfully serve who will sit with Jesus, the ultimate Servant, at the table. Peacocks and pretenders will never realize their dream to be the center of attention.

In a great twist of irony, those who wish to compete and occupy a high standing will discover they have worked to obtain the lowest rung on the ladder leaning against the wall of Satan’s kingdom.

Jesus consistently, patiently, and carefully established the kingdom of God on earth. He went about his task in a manner none of us would even consider. He focused on character, not skills; willing hearts, not intelligent brains; new life, not reformed habits. On the job orientation involved following Jesus around everywhere.

Just shadow Jesus.

Here I am washing your feet. Do the same. Here I am being present to and serving the poor, the lonely, the outcast, the moral failure, and the lowest of society. Do the same. Here I am showing sacrificial self-emptying unconditional love. Do the same. Just shadow me. Do what I do, period.

An obsession with greatness will inevitably lead to petty kingdom building enterprises. Instead, we are to love the neighbor next to us. We make room at the committee table for somebody who looks, acts, and talks different than me. We freely let Jesus live through us, thus, giving the gift of him to those we encounter. We purposely look for ways to serve underprivileged communities rather than use the people living there in ways to make us look better.

Indeed, this following Jesus thing is subversive – even for many professing Christians.

What will you do?

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, in the name of Christ. Amen.