29th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
How kind of the church to give us a lesson on leadership just a couple of weeks out from election day. It is perfectly fair to want our leaders to lead with the character and goals of Jesus Christ. But that is not the only leadership we need to concern ourselves with. We are all leaders. When we were baptized we were anointed with Chrism to conform to Christ as priest, prophet and king, so awesome is the dignity of that moment. Every Christian is called to be a leader in the classroom, on the job, among our friends and in our families. Can we lead like Jesus?
First off we must define what Christian leadership looks like. I think when people think of Jesus as a leader, they go to two extremes. One is fire and brimstone Jesus who has clearly set out rules that must be obeyed or we will perish in agony. Jesus’ leads by withholding love, mercy and salvation. The second extreme is hippie Jesus. Sure he has a point of view but he is mellow about it. “Hey man, here is what I think, but if you are not down with it, that’s cool; we can still be bros.” I hope it is apparent that both ideas are off base. Jesus cared passionately about our response to his offer of salvation and peace, but always did it with love and generosity.
So let us dismiss the myths (a lot easier to write by the way than to say.) I can understand how some perceive Jesus as filled with anger, a harsh judge. He is strong and forceful in his words and bold in his actions. Yet, he decries the leadership of the gentiles who “lord” their power over those they rule. He castigates them for how “their great ones make their authority over them felt.” In other words, they enforce with punishment and threats. Their authority is not based on love and justice. It is simply “Might makes right.” But when did Jesus did not care for love and justice? Jesus, the mightiest one insists on another way. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” The only way Christian leaders make their authority felt is complete responsiveness to the needs of those they serve. It is the story of Christ, who “came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
At the other pole is hippie Jesus. It seems to me that this misperception comes from a failure to distinguish that there is more than one kind of power. Just because someone does not use coercion, does not mean the subject is not critical. Jesus demanded a response of his call to repentance and belief and he thought a matter of life and death; actually something more important than that – eternal death or eternal life. The fact that he will not force people to choose him does not mean making the right choice is less imperative.
So what does this Christ-like leadership look like? I can think of at least four distinguishing characteristics. First, it is always non-violent. Yes, that means physical non-violence but it also excludes threats and manipulation. Jesus insists that we are free to love for there is no other way to love. He is seeking conversion, a new person with a new heart, not a prisoner following against their will. He recognizes that how you attain your followers as a leader will dictate what kind of followers you will have. Only loving leaders have loving followers.
Secondly, the leader must be a servant leader. In other words, no one is beneath putting away the chairs. If there is a job under the purview of the leader, the leader should be willing and able to do it. Concern with status is the mistake of James and John when they asked to sit at the right and left of Jesus in his glory. There should be no separation between the leader and the people of the shepherd and the flock as we have learned painfully in the church. Otherwise, you are left with unconnected ivory tower leadership that looks down and does not understand the people they lead. That is the worst kind of leadership.
Thirdly, the leader must be willing to suffer. When Jesus asks James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” the brothers do not understand the cup is suffering and the baptism is the cross. The leader who does not accompany the slowest and the weakest, who fails to protect the most vulnerable is not worthy of the position.
Finally, the only measure of the Christian leader is how they loved and served and it will be reflected in how those who follow love and serve as well. This is a very different metric of leadership, but it is the one most needed now.
We will not always succeed. Sometimes I want to coerce and manipulate. Sometimes every cell in my body wants to give a massive guilt trip to anyone who has stopped coming to mass. Sometimes I fail at the other extreme and fail to share a hard truth with people I love. But when I have led well, and more often when I have been led well, it truly is Christ leading us to peace and light. Lead like Christ, and your life will be a parable as to what it means to be the servant of all.