Rev’d Jonathan Gale
I woke early on Monday morning to look up the latest on the rescue operation in Thailand and found this article, which says better than I could what I was trying to convey on Sunday:
Jesus sending out the twelve reminds us of the Great Commission – Jesus’ instruction to us all to go out and share the Gospel. Of course it’s not just about the Good News. The Great Commission instructs us to baptise and to teach everything Jesus taught. In other words we are to model and teach discipleship – following in his footsteps.
Doing that means we are all of us influencers, and if we are influencers, we are leaders.
There is a common truism that says that leadership equals service. And of course we know that genuine leadership is just that.
What is less spoken of is that leadership involves discipline and suffering. It involves opposition because sometimes followers don’t want to be led and sometimes when they are, things don’t turn out as the leader might have envisaged.
King David found this, especially before he became king of all Israel. In spite of having been anointed as the next king by Samuel, he was hounded from pillar to post by King Saul, and eventually forced to seek shelter amongst Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. It was during this period, you may recall, that his men wanted to stone him to death and we read that wonderful phrase, David comforted himself in the Lord his God. (1 Samuel 30: 6b).
David led a very tough life. His virtual occupation was being at war with the Philistines and at the same time, fleeing from his own failed king, Saul. David’s leadership certainly involved suffering.
Until he came to power, that is.
There is a difference between being a random victim of suffering or bringing it upon oneself on the one hand, and experiencing it as part of faithful leadership on the other.
When he was anointed as king over all Israel, David was keen to consolidate and hang on to power at all costs. The rot set in when he overlooked the murder of Saul’s army commander, Abner, by his cousin Joab. Later when he committed adultery with Bathsheba (he was taking it easy in the palace while his soldiers, young and old, were away fighting his battles) he was in a position to get Joab to arrange for the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, his faithful soldier Uriah. Joab could hardly object, having had David turn a blind eye to his own act of murder.
Hence David brought the suffering that ensued, upon himself. Things simply got worse when his son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar and another son, Absalom, led a costly rebellion against him. And so it went on.
As Lord Acton famously said, “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” David had begun well but his power corrupted him.
If you were fortunate enough to see the lovely film, The Book Shop, recently, you would have seen a good example of how power corrupts.
Paul did a bit better than David did. In spite of the magnificent revelations God gave him, they didn’t go to his head. Mind you he had a reminder that kept him from getting too big for his boots in the form of this mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’ which people have speculated about, but never quite identified.
Paul knew that God is best served when we are most dependent upon him:
9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
The power Paul was concerned about was the power of Christ, and that is anything but self-serving. It was Paul who had written to the Philippians describing Jesus as someone
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2)
And Paul very much promoted following the example of Jesus.
But what of Jesus and power? Well, of course, as God in human form, Jesus demonstrated a great deal of power. A knowledge of his sinless nature might make us expect that he would demonstrate it quite happily and legitimately. But did he?
Not in the form we might expect, and certainly not in the form some nationalistic Jews of his time expected. Typical of Jesus is the occasion on which he was arrested and Peter drew a sword in his defence. Jesus turns to Peter and says,
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him. “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Are you not aware that I can call on My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way? (Matthew 26:52-52)
Jesus used power for healing, feeding and delivering people from the effects of sin.
Jesus’ power depended to some extent on the faith of his hearers. 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.
I wonder had we been in Jesus’ sandals, how we might have mobilised our followers to carry out our mission? I’m pretty sure we’d have been tempted to give them the kind of power that would have set the world ablaze with people flocking to join our movement.
But when you think about it, that is exactly the kind of temptation placed in front of Jesus himself when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for 40 days. Do this spectacularly! But Jesus resisted that.
He sent the apostles out two by two. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.
None of the trappings of traditional power here, whether religious or political.
He did give them the power to resist evil. He gave them authority over the unclean spirits, we read in the Gospel.
Is it any wonder that our self-emptying Messiah’s life and ministry led to a death on the gallows? God’s ways are different from ours.
I’d like to conclude with a comment on politics and that highly divisive topic of Donald Trump and people like him.
I can understand where Donald Trump is coming from (and I don’t simply mean his using the naive to gain power for himself). I have some sympathy for and can understand:
- why people are sick and tired of their culture being threatened by large migrations of different cultures into their countries,
- why people are angry at large corporations running roughshod over the common person in their greed,
- why people are fearful of a changing balance of power in the world as new world powers grow incrementally,
- why people feel helpless to do anything about these problems in spite of living in a democracy,
- why people are simply over political correctness,
- why simple folk want to turn the clock back,
- why people feel overwhelmed by the knowledge explosion, in particular the rampant advances in technology, and
- why people feel overwhelmed at the rate of change in general.
In 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock and predicted much of what we are seeing today. In 1945 George Orwell wrote Animal Farm and in 1949 he wrote Nineteen Eighty Four, a novel many believed he should have called Two Thousand and Eighteen. Both Orwell’s books depict societies which promise freedom but deliver autocratic enslavement. At the age of twelve I read Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World (far too young I might add as there were aspects of that horrendous social model I loved). The ‘brave new world’ was a society that had developed complete totalitarian control in order to create an economic paradise. In the process it created a hell.
When a politician arises who postures and brags, who plays loose with the truth, who admires dictators, who has the morals of an alley cat – but who promises – (and here’s the thing) to sort out the country’s problems with prejudice, force and an inordinate use of power, nuclear or otherwise; we should be very concerned.
It takes hard work, integrity, intelligence and courage to work out the complex problems of 2018 in a compassionate and sensible manner. When any politician demonstrates characteristics which firstly are simply not Christian, but more especially involve a straightforward abuse of power, we have a duty as Christians to speak out against that.
I have no obsession with Donald Trump in particular. I merely choose him as one glaring example amongst quite a few current world leaders.
I say today that the way of Jesus is diametrically opposed to any approach which does not attempt to deal justly with world problems. And I don’t mean rolling over and submitting to the forces that threaten healthy societies. It’s not a matter of left or right wing; it’s a matter of sensible justice. It’s a matter of being Christian in word and in deed.
One of the crying shames of our time, is the degree to which some Christians, especially in North America, have compromised the way of Jesus by snuggling up to power. The church has always grown best under persecution. It has only corrupted when politically powerful.
What is needed is repentance, not a continued self-justification of the Trump regime because in order to do so, more and more lies need to be told.
The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. It doesn’t take short cuts to achieve self-serving objectives. It places a vision of God’s kingdom of justice and love before all else.
May we, who call ourselves Christian, be challenged by the way Jesus conducted himself, and find ways to influence other people, whoever and whatever they are, that enhance rather than tarnish the Gospel.