5th Sunday in Lent

March 21, 2021


Getting our heads around leadership … once more 

35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you  to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,  

or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.”  And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am  baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is  for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at  James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are  considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be  served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45 ESV) 

How soon should you talk about life after death when people say they are going to die? Let’s say I  have a terminal illness and live another year and Charlotte lives another 40 years, when can she talk  about life after me? When can I? Should it be on the day we get the diagnosis? A week later? A year  later? Should we make the future past my death a taboo topic while I’m alive? Let me simply say that  everyone should have their wills prepared and talking about death and what happens afterwards  should happen well before death. 

But back to the scenario I’ve set up. I do think we’d all feel it wrong or inappropriate or simply  hurtful if, at the announcement of an imminent death, the hearers were already dividing up the estate.  I want this. I’ll do that when I get this.  

And that is sort of the situation we have with Mark’s account of James’ and John’s request of Jesus  that they sit next to him one left, one right in Jesus’ glory. You see the previous verses are Jesus’ third  telling of his forthcoming death – his humiliation, his flogging, his crucifixion – and his resurrection.  And the next verse is James and John – no time reference – did it happen immediately or a few days  later? Are they sympathetic to Jesus’ suffering? Are they understanding the resurrection? Are they  self-serving? Well, the other disciples seem to think so – and I imagine each of them kicking  themselves that they didn’t get in first! 

But the question to ask is ‘Is this leadership?’. 

Depends on your definition, I suppose, but the general idea of taking initiative, being energetic, doing  the job well goes a good way towards it. After all leadership isn’t usually seen in the opposite – only  responding to specific tasks, being lazy, and doing the job poorly! Leadership also involves relating to  people and we can imagine that James and John sitting on Jesus’ right and left would be happy to  want to do the ‘right thing’ by the people sitting next to them because leaders need followers in some  form. 

And that is the aspect that Jesus turns to when the grumbling about James and John begins. Yes,  leaders need positions in the organisation and people to deal with. All groups of people have leaders – the official ones and the real ones – the ones with the titles – and the ones everyone else in the group  watches to see what is said and done. The world and human nature focus on the title and the position – and all with good words – so many of the leadership books in the last few decades, it seems to me, 

have picked up the phrase ‘servant leadership’ which is a far cry from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ – while other leaders have said, “I’m strong and confrontational, stick with me and you’ll be great” – maybe this is man as superman – but what is central remains the title, the position in the group, and  

the power. One of the Reformation challenges to the status quo was the abuse of ecclesiastical power;  not that there was leadership in the church organisation. Jesus isn’t saying that there shall be no  leaders – but that there shall be no leaders as the world has them and so if the focus isn’t on the title  and position and power of the leader – then all that is left is the people around the leader and their  situation, circumstance, and needs – and Jesus simply says, ‘Serve them’. Jesus uses the derogatory  term of ‘slave’ I think to emphasise that it is not about ‘me’ and my control and power in relation to  others but it is the others who determine how I serve. Please note, that I didn’t say ‘tell me what to  do’. That’s never the issue for those who follow Jesus. I said it last week, “Our behaviour is in  response to other people’s behaviour but it is not determined by their behaviour. Think about it.  That’s what following Jesus is about.” That’s what following Jesus is about for Christian leaders. And  this is not just talking about or to office holders only – to me or the congregational chair, secretary,  and treasurer – but to anyone who has someone next to them who looks to them for guidance, support,  encouragement, wisdom, correction, anything – if someone is ‘following’ you, you are ‘leading’ in  some way. And Jesus is speaking to you. 

Leadership has certainly been on the social agenda in this pandemic and while reviews and analysis of  leadership have been postponed in the spirit of ‘don’t analyse the firefighter while there is a fire to  fight’, it cannot be ignored yet in a real sense leadership is assessed all the time but in terms of  character, truth, honesty and a sort of human sixth sense regarding integrity and whether leaders do  serve others or are self serving. That is one reason, I think, Paul reminded Timothy that Christians  should pray for all worldly leaders (1 Timothy 2:1,2) because it can be hard to be a leader, it can be  tempting to go for the title, position, and power, and it can be easy to lose perspective – often when  you no longer have the people you are serving next to you – and I do mean that literally as well. 

But if leadership is regarded as not about a title on a door but is regarded as describing relationships in  which the same person can follow in one relationship and yet have followers in other relationships  then we are negotiating leadership at home, at work, at school, in society, in congregations, in Synods,  in our group sports, indeed in any group we are in and so Jesus’ words to his followers can seem  exhausting but are in effect a good summary of what discipleship is all about – what leadership is  about in Jesus’ eyes – serving those around you in the relationship you have with them. This lifestyle  is not easy – because our default position is that we are number 1 and people have to serve us or do  what we say or comply with our wishes – and yet Jesus calls his people to serve others – often easy to  do with strangers and harder to do with family or friends. 

I am not sure that the disciples understood what Jesus said after James and John’s request about first  being last and greatness is in service – and I think we find it hard to put this into practice – but what I  imagine they might have taken on board as something weird – and it is something that I think all  Christians seriously depend – is that this Son of Man, this Messiah, God in glory figure and allusion  from the prophet Daniel turns life on its head because he didn’t come to be served but to serve and to  give his life to ransom, rescue humanity. Getting our heads around an apparent weak and stupid God  doing that for us is what makes Christianity unique – and it was what makes following Jesus the key  relationship – what makes his words, water, bread and wine so special, and why Jesus’ perspective is  the best way to live each day.

Bible References

  • Mark 10:35 - 45