Sunday, September 23, 2012

Leadership and Love

There is a brutal honesty and winsome humility in the Gospels – indeed, throughout the whole Bible – in that the heroes, whether Old Testament figures or the disciples of Jesus, are presented not only as sinful, but also as stupid! (Had we been contributing to the compilation of these documents, I’m sure we would have smoothed out some of the murkier details so as to present the heroes in a better light.) 

In today’s Gospel (Mark 9:30-37) the disciples are so embarrassing. 

They were walking from Caesarea Philippi in the north, through Galilee, to the small lakeside town of Capernaum. Jesus had been talking about his suffering and the death that he was to endure. 

Then there is an argument among the disciples themselves. When they arrive in Capernaum Jesus asks them what they had been discussing, but they cannot answer him. Not surprising, really. It says: “on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest.” 

You’d think that after the kind of things Jesus had just shared with them they’d have been sympathetically encouraging one another to surrender to his love, and to “take up their own crosses.”

Jesus obviously knows what they had been discussing, but instead of losing his cool as we might have done, he simply points out that leaders in the Kingdom of God are to be servants. Then, most likely from among the entourage travelling with him (which clearly consisted of more than just “the twelve”), he puts a child “in the midst” and with his arms around him, says, “whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” 

What Jesus did was quite shocking. In the mainstream Jewish culture of his day children didn’t really count. They were certainly not a great focus of parental energy. Infant mortality rates were so high in that part of the world that up to 60 per cent of children died before the age of 16. In fact, while still a minor, a child was really on par with a slave, and could not inherit the family estate. Without power, and often unprotected, children were - along with women - regarded as possessions of men. 

So, the child in today’s Gospel symbolizes powerlessness and vulnerability. Jesus is saying “this is the person with whom I identify,” the implication being that those who belong to the new community of God’s Kingdom should both BE like the child, as well as be more concerned with embracing the poor and vulnerable than with gaining positions of power and importance. 

None of this is to say that authority is unimportant, or that there does not need to be government in Church life. But to glance over Church history is to become aware that so often – even at its best – the Church has rarely got the “authority” thing right. 

Authority – governance – is necessary in order for relationships and community to flourish. Jesus himself exercised authority. Then there is the authority of the Apostolic Tradition in the Scriptures, as well as the authority of the accumulated discernment and understanding of the Spirit-filled Church on her journey through the centuries. Truth can never be simply the averaging out of all available opinions. Nor is the right to freedom of behaviour unfettered. It needs to be tempered by a concern not to destroy our inner lives or to hurt those around us, both concerns being expressed in moral codes that arise from the Scriptures. So, we need authority. 

Over the last couple of years I have made a new in-depth study of all the ARCIC# documents, and some of the background materials. After reaching “substantial agreement” on the Eucharist and the Ministry, the rather more difficult area of authority had to be tackled, giving rise, eventually to the document titled “The Gift of Authority.” 

That title surprised some people. Well, authority in the Church IS a gift if what we are talking about is servant leadership. That’s why we need to keep in mind the other recurring word that is a feature of the ARCIC dialogue: “communion”. At the heart of the universe is the communion of shared life – the Holy Trinity. Through faith and baptism we are made part of this shared life, with the communion of the Church in this world being an actualised expression of the communion in God himself. 

One reason Jesus stressed “servant leadership” is to help us understand that AUTHORITY EXISTS IN ORDER TO NOURISH AND NURTURE COMMUNION. Growing and deepening communion with God and with one another is the whole point of the Gospel. Unfortunately, in secular society as well as in the Church, that saying often seems in practice to have been reversed by the way the “system” works, so that it looks as if COMMUNION EXISTS IN ORDER TO BOLSTER AUTHORITY, with authority becoming ugly, exploitative, self-serving, and a means of crushing other people. What a terrible distortion within the community whose God is love. 

We are all leaders in one way or another – even if we don’t want to be. We live in relation to others in our daily lives, and we are responsible for channeling God’s love to all those whose lives touch our own. Let’s take to heart the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, and ask him to use us in drawing others into his healing love. 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
 where there is hatred let me sow love,
 where there is injury let me sow pardon,
 where there is doubt let me sow faith,
 where there is despair let me give hope,
 where there is darkness let me give light,
 where there is sadness let me give joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may
 not try to be comforted but to comfort,
 not try to be understood but to understand,
 not try to be loved but to love.

Because it is in giving that we receive,
it is in forgiving that we are forgiven,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

(St Francis of Assisi)

 # Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission


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