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.

1 Corinthians 14:1-12 – Pursue Love and Service

Pursue love and use your ambition to try to get spiritual gifts but especially so that you might prophesy. This is because those who speak in a tongue don’t speak to people but to God; no one understands it—they speak mysteries by the Spirit. Those who prophesy speak to people, building them up, and giving them encouragement and comfort. People who speak in a tongue build up themselves; those who prophesy build up the church.I wish that all of you spoke in tongues, but I’d rather you could prophesy. Those who prophesy are more important than those who speak in tongues unless they are able to interpret them so that the church might be built up. 

After all, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation, some knowledge, a prophecy, or a teaching? Likewise, things that aren’t alive like a harp or a lyre can make a sound, but if there aren’t different notes in the sounds they make, how will the tune from the harp or the lyre be recognized? And if a trumpet call is unrecognizable, then who will prepare for battle? 

It’s the same way with you: If you don’t use language that is easy to understand when you speak in a tongue, then how will anyone understand what is said?It will be as if you are speaking into the air! There are probably many language families in the world, and none of them are without meaning. So, if I don’t know the meaning of the language, then I will be like a foreigner to those who speak it, and they will be like foreigners to me. The same holds true for you: since you are ambitious for spiritual gifts, use your ambition to try to work toward being the best at building up the church. (Common English Bible)

Sometimes we need to look at a section of Scripture and see its big picture message, not losing sight of the forest for the trees. At first glance, it might be tempting to question or delve into whether tongues (a private language of communicating with God) and prophecy (divinely inspired speech for a person or group based in Holy Scripture) are for today, or not. 

Please keep in mind that spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy were not the Apostle Paul’s driving concern when he wrote to the Corinthians. Paul wanted the Corinthian believers – who were puffing themselves up like peacocks so that others would admire their gifts and abilities – to grasp a basic important message: pursue love by striving to excel in building up people.

If we miss love, we have lost sight of God’s Word to us. A preoccupation with tongues and prophecy only makes us lose the forest for a few tress. Rather, we are to keep thinking about how we show love for all our brothers and sisters in Christ and put some significant effort into doing our part to encourage them. 

Spiritual gifts are given by God to Christians as a means of loving and encouraging the Church. They are not given in a vacuum, as if those gifts are only for an individual’s help. They’re meant to be directed toward helping and serving others.

For example, I am a teacher of God’s Word. It would be really weird if I jumped out of bed on a Sunday morning, got dressed, looked in the mirror and taught at myself. Then, went back to bed dreaming about what a great teacher I am. Spiritual gifts are meant to be unpacked and used for the community, not self.

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Winston Churchill

One of the great temptations of humanity is to finagle our efforts so that other people will notice and give props to our wonderful work. Indeed, we can write Facebook messages to garner as many “likes” as we can get, or post things on Twitter and our favorite blogs hoping to look smart and funny in the eyes of a community of people we may not even know personally. All the while we may be withholding love to actual people right in front our faces because they may not give to us the attention we crave.

Perhaps with Lent coming in another month, you might want to consider a fast from social media in order to better connect with people within your direct sphere of human touch and influence. Or maybe ask someone close to you what they believe your primary spiritual gifts are, with the expressed intention of using the information to explore fresh avenues of love and service to others. 

Whatever you do, pursue love and excel in building up the church.

Loving God, you have graciously gifted us all for love and service. May we continually see your love expressed to us through Jesus Christ so that we will be always inspired to pass on that same love to others for whom you also love. Amen.

Romans 12:1-8 – On Being Worshipers and Servants

Brothers and sisters, in view of all we have just shared about God’s compassion, I encourage you to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, dedicated to God and pleasing to him. This kind of worship is appropriate for you. Don’t become like the people of this world. Instead, change the way you think. Then you will always be able to determine what God really wants—what is good, pleasing, and perfect.

Because of the kindness that God has shown me, I ask you not to think of yourselves more highly than you should. Instead, your thoughts should lead you to use good judgment based on what God has given each of you as believers. Our bodies have many parts, but these parts don’t all do the same thing. In the same way, even though we are many individuals, Christ makes us one body and individuals who are connected to each other. God in his kindness gave each of us different gifts. If your gift is speaking what God has revealed, make sure what you say agrees with the Christian faith. If your gift is serving, then devote yourself to serving. If it is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If it is encouraging others, devote yourself to giving encouragement. If it is sharing, be generous. If it is leadership, lead enthusiastically. If it is helping people in need, help them cheerfully. (God’s Word)

China and Clay

Every person is important. Everyone is needed. Each individual is to offer their entire lives to God through worship and using their spiritual gifts. Every believer is to be active in building up others. 

When I was growing up, we had a fine China set that my parents kept in a beautiful China cabinet.  The set and the cabinet are old and were a prominent part of our house. However, we almost never used it. I can only remember once or twice that my Mom got the China out to use.

God is not looking for fine China believers who sit unused in a cabinet church. Instead, the Lord is looking for rough-and-tumble clay pots—the kind that can be used every day. God wants ordinary table-wear that can be handled in a crash-and-bang world.

Followers of Jesus Christ are to be like a working kitchen, where well-worn pots are filled again and again to dispense their life-giving contents to a thirsty world; and, where common plates and cups are used again and again to provide a hungry population with the Bread of Life.

Jews and Gentiles

Within the ancient Roman Church were both Jews and Gentiles – two groups vastly different from each other.  They tended to keep to themselves and only operate within their familiar and comfortable circles of friends and relatives.  But the Apostle Paul wanted them united through using their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the entire congregation, and not only within their respective groups.

We are to give ourselves in service to one another because of God’s mercy in Christ. Since God has saved us from our guilt and shame, we are to have a grateful response of worship that is dedicated to serving everyone. 

Worship and Service

The word “worship” in today’s New Testament lesson is where we get the word “liturgy.” That is, Paul’s vision for the church was to have daily liturgical rhythms of spiritual worship, not just on Sunday when we might pull out the fine China and try to impress people.

Paul did not guilt people into serving. Rather, he straightforwardly exhorts all Christians to appropriately respond to God’s grace by offering their lives in sacrificial service as a form of gratitude to God. For this response, our mental faculties must be renewed through saturation in Scripture. It is here we discern our spiritual gifts, know what God wants us to do with those gifts, and use them effectively in the church and the world. 

Grace and Gifts

Grace is given to every believer in Jesus, not just a select few. We all have different gifts and are graced with abilities for the benefit of other, without exception. When everyone collectively exercises their spiritual gifts, then there is clarity in knowing the will of God.

All Christians must share and work together by utilizing God’s grace, instead of getting burned-out because others are not serving. Grumbling about what others are not doing begs the question of whether we are over-functioning, or not.

It could be that we have succumbed to the danger the Apostle Paul warned us about: thinking so highly of ourselves that we believe our gifts are superior to others, so we need to maintain our control and hegemony in the group. This is a terribly misguided notion. 

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 4:10-11, NIV

We belong to one another. Therefore, one major way of giving to God is through offering ourselves to each other with equity and without favoritism. We must not separate Christ from his church. To say that we need God, but do not need the church is to really say that we do not need God because the two are inseparable. Nowhere in Holy Scripture do we find individual Christians doing their own thing, isolated from a committed group of people, the church.

When Jesus called people to follow him in service to God and a world in need, some gave him excuses that they were busy and had other pressing matters to attend to before they could follow him. Jesus simply left them and told them they were not fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:57-62)

When people were pre-occupied with building wealth, or gaining power, or jockeying for influence, Jesus told them to stop it, exercise some faith, and seek first the kingdom of God.  Build your treasure in heaven, Jesus said, because it will be permanent; and, not on earth where it is temporary. (Matthew 6:19-34)

Spiritual Gifts and Abilities

We are graced by God with abilities which God fully expects us to use. “Cheap grace” is merely embracing Christ as a personal Savior but not welcoming him as the Lord in whom we must sacrificially give our lives to service in the church and the world. Spiritual health and vitality cannot exist apart from every person using God’s given grace to contribute to the functioning of the Body of Christ. 

The list of spiritual gifts Paul provided is not exhaustive but represents a combination of speaking and serving gifts necessary to bless humanity. Paul exhorted the church not to restrain people’s service but let them go at using their spiritual gifts, full bore:

  • Speak what God has revealed. Prophets do not foretell the future. Rather, they have “inspired speech” from God that addresses what God’s people are to do in consideration of Scripture. 
  • Serving. Servants give themselves to all types of hands-on service. 
  • Teaching. Teachers instruct the faithful in all the revealed will of God. 
  • Encouraging others. Encouragers both speak and serve, coming alongside others and helping them to do something with both verbal coaching and tangible help. 
  • Sharing. Givers live a simple life so they can give generously and contribute to the needs of others. 
  • Leadership. Leaders get out in front and show the way in obtaining the will of God. 
  • Helping people in need. Helpers show mercy by seeing down-and-out hurting people and being a conduit of God’s grace to them.

There is no one person who possesses all these gifts. That’s why everyone must work together to have a spiritually healthy community. A spiritually toxic community is the inevitable result of only a few people using their giftedness.

To avoid relational toxicity, and embrace communal harmony, our minds need transformation through renewing practices of godly sacrifice, regular worship, pursuing unity, and becoming aware of our spiritual gifts.

Here’s three ways we can discover our gifts:

  1. Pay attention.  Every spiritual gift reflects God’s grace and character, and so, you will find joy and satisfaction in expressing it. Your spiritual gift will be a place of deep spiritual formation and growth in your life, as God uses it both to powerfully connect you spiritually and to expose areas of your soul that need forgiveness and redemption. 
  2. Try. Give it a whirl. Volunteer. Connect with a service or ministry or try doing what you feel might be something God wants you to do. Gifts are primarily discovered from others observing and affirming your gift and not so much by going through a research process. The encouragers among us will be happy to affirm the gifts of others.
  3. Develop. All spiritual gifts need growth, cultivation, and development. Paul told his young protégé, Timothy, to fan into flame the gift of God. (2 Timothy 1:6)

We will find our greatest delight in life through engaging in worship of God and service to others. That leads to a spiritually healthy Christian community that loves God, loves one another, and loves the world.

God of grace, stir up the spiritual gifts of your people. May the gifts your Holy Spirit has decided to give us be activated and used for your glory and the edification of others. May you grant peace and joy in churches everywhere so that no one will be jealous or covetous about anyone else’s gifts. May these gifts grow and develop in love so that the fruit of the Spirit will be truly manifested. May you receive all praise honor and glory through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  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