Download or listen to the Fifth Sunday in Lent: “Servant Leadership?” (Mark 10:35-45)
[Preached at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Red Lake Falls, MN]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In recent years, “servant leadership” has been all the rage. I searched amazon.com for “servant leadership,” and there were 146 records. Frankly, I was surprised there weren’t more. At first glance, servant leadership seems to be what Jesus is talking about in Mark 10. He says to James and John and the other disciples that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and exercise—maybe abuse—authority over them. But it will not be so among you, He says. No, if anyone wants to be great among you, he will be your servant. If anyone wants to be first among you, he will be slave of all. Servant leadership, right? And this has trickled down to business, education, government, and other organizations. Even into the Church! Men training to be pastors and new pastors read books on servant leadership, and they’re told, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That quote has been attributed to everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Martin Luther King, Jr., to leadership guru John Maxwell. All I know is that Jesus didn’t say it. We have some hints that when Jesus instructs His disciples, He’s not talking about servant leadership as the books would have it. First, we should beware any time Jesus’ words are made into universal principles that apply equally in the Church and the world, for believers and unbelievers; concepts that only need to be implemented in order to motivate and inspire people, to get them to follow you, to make your organization successful. Also, why is it that none of these books are called “slave leadership”? Jesus says that the first ones are slaves of all. And, since we can assume that Jesus did what He instructed His disciples to do—in fact, He says, “Even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many”–why isn’t He more successful during His life? Not only do the Jewish leaders and the people not care how much He knows, they don’t care how much He cares, either. Jesus doesn’t just “care”; He has compassion and He loves the world He came to save. But those who are considered to be great among the Jews and the Gentiles don’t care. They kill Him. That’s what “caring” will get you among the people of God.
No, Jesus is not teaching His disciples about two different models of leadership, one of which works, and one of which does not. As if He were saying that the “lording it over” and “exercising authority” model is ineffective, so all you have to do is transition into a “servant leadership” model, and you will inspire and motivate people, and you will have success. He is simply describing what leadership in the Church is like, and it is opposite everything the world has, both secular authority and universally applicable servant leadership. This is just what it looks like to follow Jesus, to serve among the people of God, to do what God has given His Apostles, and later His pastors, to do. Jesus had described this way of the cross to His disciples multiple times, but apparently James and John hadn’t heard Him. They say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Like children trying to get their parents to say ‘yes’ before they say what they want. Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” “We want You to grant us to sit one at Your right and one at Your left in Your glory.” “You don’t know what you’re asking,” Jesus says. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” “Yes,” they say, “we are able.” “You will indeed drink My cup and be baptized with My baptism, but to sit at My right and left have already been assigned.” As one early Christian said, “That was not the time for crowns and prizes. It was the time for struggles, contests, toils, sweats, wrestling rings, and battles” (St. John Chrysostom).
We see what this means in Mark 15, when Jesus is crucified, and they crucify two rebels, two robbers, two criminals, one on His right and one on His left. There is Jesus’ glory, right in the middle of criminals. And whether James and John had bad or good motives—whether they wanted all the glory for themselves, or whether they wanted to use it to exercise servant leadership—they eventually do drink Christ’s cup and they are baptized with His baptism: joined to Him in His death, they die in the confession of His Name, James martyred and John exiled. They share Jesus’ suffering and condemnation, but it is for their eternal life and salvation. Peter, also, eventually understood. He wrote in his first letter to pastors: “Shepherd the flock of God among you…not lording it over the portion [of the flock assigned to you], but being an example for the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3).
You are about to call a pastor to shepherd the flock of God in this place. For some reason, relationships between congregations and pastors often become strained. They become points of tension and conflict, and accusations fly: the pastor is “lording it over” us; “he’s not being a servant leader.” So, in order to prevent such things, the pastor reads books on servant leadership (they never told us what books the congregation ought to read!). He removes anything that looks like a symbol of “bad” authority: he doesn’t commune himself because people might think he’s the only one good enough to do it; he doesn’t wear a clerical collar or vestments, because people might think he’s showing off or reveling in his pastoral authority; he gets other people to read the Scriptures, so that no one thinks he’s trying to elevate himself over the people. But these are not signs of human authority! These are exactly the signs and symbols of the pastor’s service among you!
When he distributes the Sacrament, he’s not lording it over you; he’s serving you by putting the holy Body and Blood of Christ in your hand or mouth. When he wears his collar or vestments, he’s not lording it over you; the stole and the collar are signs of the burden pastors bear on your behalf, reminding him that he is not his own but your servant for Christ’s sake. When he proclaims the Scriptures to you, he’s not lording it over you; he’s serving you by putting the very Word of God into your ears and hearts. As St. Paul says, “We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). And, by the way, if you really want to serve your pastor, besides leaving him financially free to serve you full-time, nothing will cause him to rejoice more than if you faithfully hear the Word of God from his mouth and receive the Sacrament from his hand.
Now, you know as well as I do that your pastor, no matter who he is, will never be able to give himself fully to you. He will not serve you in all the ways you would like to be served, nor even all the ways he would like to serve you. And he will suffer for it, because he is a sinner. Just as you suffer in your relationships because you are sinners, and everyone around you is a sinner. But that is precisely why Jesus is not primarily an example of good “servant leadership.” He is, first of all, not an example at all, but a Savior. He descends into the form of a slave, born of a Virgin, taking on your slavery to yourself, to the world, to the devil, to sin and death. His glory is to be surrounded by sinners, by the sick and the dying, by slaves and criminals. And in this world, in this flesh, He gives Himself as the purchase price for all of us slaves, pastors and people alike. He gathers you to Himself, slaves and criminals, when He baptizes you with His baptism. In spite of yourself, He calls you a son of God and a friend. He serves you with His own precious blood. He lets you share His suffering and death, not to your condemnation, but to your salvation and eternal life. And that is why these congregations exist. That is why Christ gives pastors to people and people to pastors, so that you can gather together around these pulpits and altars, to be served by Christ and then to serve each other in love, breathing together in holy communion with Christ and His Resurrection life.
This is not the time for crowns and prizes. It is not the time for visible glory or worldly success. It is the time for struggles and hard work and suffering and death. That’s what this world means for Christ and His Church. But do not fear, Christ has won a prize and a crown for you that cannot be broken or stolen or taken away. And He has given you His Baptism, His Absolution, His Word, and His Supper to you as the certain promises of His eternal glory, which you will one day see with your own eyes.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/24/12