Sunday’s Sermon: Who is Christ? The Servant Leader

Today, we begin our winter preaching series, which will take us up to the Sunday before Lent. Together, we will focus on several aspects of Jesus’ character. We will take a look deep inside the many facets of Christ’s character, which will help us understand what these mean for us in our communities, our churches, and our personal lives.

There is much we could focus on, but we will limit ourselves to a few topics during these next five weeks. We will look at his role as a teacher. His work as a healer. The counter-cultural nature of his ministry. We will examine the fullness of Christ, who is both fully human and fully divine.

There are multiple purposes for this series. First, it helps us prepare for the season of Lent. As we understand the fullness of Christ, we will better understand and appreciate why Christ died for us, and we’ll better understand the full impact of the resurrection.

As well, when we are grounded in our love and understanding of Christ, it helps us to not be swayed by bad teaching and theology. There is much in the way of bad theology and teaching today when it comes to the Son of God. We have made Jesus be what we want him to be to fit our needs. We place Jesus in a box, so to speak, to make him more comfortable and approachable. We want Jesus to be more Republican or Democratic. We want Jesus to be nicer. We want Jesus to be cool. We want Jesus to be our “boyfriend.” By doing this, we’ve separated Jesus from the Gospel and used him as a tool to promote our own understandings, ideas, and desires.

We must never disconnect Christ from the Gospel, for the Gospel proclaims the truth of Christ’s love – why he came to earth, how he points us to the Father, and how he is present today through the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Today, we begin to wrestle with the fullness of Christ. We do so with one of the most difficult aspects of Jesus’ ministry – the call to be servants. It’s a difficult call. This isn’t because we haven’t heard about Christ’s servant nature. We have, and those stories are central to our faith. It is difficult, because it runs counter to our basic human nature and it is uncomfortable. To be a servant means we must deny our own wishes, ideas, and desires and see others as more important than ourselves. To be a servant means taking on the posture of humility so that we might share the love of Christ with others.

We all want to be servants in our lives, but, to be honest, each of us struggle daily with being servants in the name of the Lord. This is because to be a servant is to run completely counter to the world’s message. The world has unique ideas about service. Its message says we do things so that we can receive the honor and glory. In other words, we do things so that we can receive accolades and respect from others. We give money to causes, because we can receive a tax break or because someone told us it is what “good people” must do. Service and helping the world is not about our neighbor. It is about us.

Our culture has even given us an unique perspective on leadership. Those with true power and influence are those in the highest positions of authority – politicians, teachers, and pastors. Because these people hold an area of influence, we look to them for guidance and direction. We should. Unfortunately, this trust is misused by those who are more authoritarian in their approach. We have a leadership problem. It occurs when leaders, whether it is by their place of authority or by the position given to them by culture, such as celebrities, consider themselves as the helpers of the “little people,” without having true concern for those whom they desire to help.

With the world’s ideas of service and leadership so prevalent in our midst, it is no wonder that we in the church struggle with being leaders who are servants. We have little understanding of true service and true leadership, and we struggle to put these concepts together our life and in our witness of Christ’s love and desire for the world.

Fortunately, we are not alone in struggling with being leaders who are servants. The Disciples struggled with it as well, and they were right next to Jesus, who is the greatest example of a servant leader. The Disciples struggled with placing these concepts of service and leadership together, just as we do in our own lives. Many of the questions between the Disciples and Jesus centered on this idea of how to truly live out our call to be leaders who are servants.

In our passage today, the Disciples are, once again, trying to understand this idea of being leaders who are servants. This time, they do so in the Upper Room during the Last Supper with Jesus. They were attempting to figure out who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. It’s a scene that is much similar to Mark 10:34-35 when James and John ask Christ to give one of them the privilege of sitting at his right hand. Here, however, the disciples knew that Jesus was inaugurating the Kingdom God on Earth. They knew someone had to be in charge, so why not one of them? The Disciples wanted the authority of leadership and wanted to be seen as great among their fellow people.

Jesus doesn’t give into their wishes. He desired something different from them, and desires something different from us. Jesus wanted them, and wants us, to be great, but not by the world’s standards. That is what the Disciples, and perhaps we as well, were attempting to do. Jesus explains a contrasting situation that we see in our world today. To follow Jesus’ line of thinking, leadership to the world is about lording our acts of charity and good will to others because they are the “little people” who “can’t help themselves.”

Jesus says the world sees greatness as what we can do for them, because the world needs us to live better lives. It is a self-focused way of living and leadership that says we are the answer to the world’s problem, and without us, others would have nothing. When we say this, we place ourselves above the needs of others and remove any potential for relationship and sharing of life with others. Servant leaders share life in humility with others in order to bring the hope and the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all.

True leadership, and true greatness, Jesus points out, is about something else. To be truly great, to be true leaders, we must be willing to lay down our lives for others. We must see others as more important than ourselves. We must share our faith in acts of love, kindness, and mercy out of our common humanity that comes from God and love for one another. We must be leaders who are servants.

This means we must live our lives as servants in the name of the Lord. It is a style of leadership, and a way of life, that says it is not about us. It is not about our glory or having our name proclaimed. Being leaders who are servants is about humbling ourselves by taking on the lowest position. This is so others might be cared for and see Christ’s love working in us to impact the lives of others. We are servants who give Christ the glory, for he is worthy of our honor and praise.

Please do not think that I believe the call to be a servant is only for those in places of leadership. It is for all of us. Jesus’ call for us to be people who are humble isn’t limited to those in places of authority. Our entire life is to be wrapped up in this idea of serving others out of the basis of our faith in Christ. We are called to be servants in all aspects of our lives, whether it is in our homes, our schools, or our careers. We are all called to be leaders who are servants.

Thankfully, Christ shows us the way to this type of leadership. The entire New Testament is filled with Jesus’ interactions with the people of that time that highlights this servant nature to leadership. Paul writes in Philippians 2 that Christ did not see his divinity as something to be handled as a prized trophy. Instead, he took the position of a servant and came into the world. We are called to imitate Christ by being servants who are obedient to the call of Christ to see others as more important.

Servant leadership, Christ shows us, is about taking on the position of a server in order to care for the needs of others. He does this so beautifully in John 13. Before the Disciples enter the Upper Room, Jesus washes each of their feet. He cares for them in the most humblest of ways, because of his love for them. No one would expect the leaders of this world to get on their hands and needs to do the most menial tasks. They would consider it beneath them. Yet, Christ says it is his honor to humble himself, to care for the needs of others, to show his love by caring for them.

Christ shows that being obedient to God is not about us. It is about taking on the lowliest of positions in order to serve the needs of others and share the message of Christ’s love to all people. Those who have done just this are truly remarkable people who are worthy of our admiration and respect. I can think of Mother Theresa, who took on the position of a servant to help the poor in her native India. Even parents who were less concerned about their own needs in order to provide for their children.

For us, we are called to do those things that no one would expect us to do so that we might share the Gospel of Christ’s love with others. Where are the places we might be called to humble ourselves? Where are the places we might walk in a posture of humility? Who are the people who need to see a dedicated group of believers truly practice and believe that Christ called them to serve instead of to be served?

The call to be servants may seem like a high and lofty goal. It may seem impossible to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ’s path of obedience, even to the point of death on a cross. Yet, when we deny ourselves and take on this posture of humility, some great things can happen. It is not about anything we did, but about God simply working in us and through us to inspire others to the cross.

There are some final points we should make regarding this nature of servant leadership.

We cannot do this alone. Leaders who are servants are not lone creatures. When we are out on our own, we can easily take the message about being humble in life and in service to others and make it a point of separation and bragging. Instead of being concerned about the needs of others, we can become more concerned about having others “look at me” and distancing ourselves from people who “are not doing it like I would do it.”

We must be servants together in community. There is a reason Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to serve others. We need partners who will help us and guide us. We also need the encouragement of others to help us, especially in discouraging times. Henri Nouwen writes that “We cannot bring good news on our own.” We need each other. This is one of the great strengths of our connectional system in the United Methodist Church. We are not alone in ministry and service to others. As we go out to serve, how can we partner with each other in our church, our charge, and also with the greater witness of believers throughout our community? This is a question for all of us to think about.

This must be an act of mutuality. This is probably the hardest aspect of serving. We must see the other as valuable, because they are created in the image of God. So often, we have the problem of seeing the person we are serving as “less than.” Instead of taking this posture, we must see them as someone of value and as our friend. This means forming relationships with the people we are serving, so that we might learn from them and share life with them. What good is it to serve if we are unwilling to share our lives with one other? The life of Christ is about relationships, and we must follow into that as we serve and interact with others.

As we go forth today, we will each have opportunities to inspire others and to make an impact in someone’s life. How will we do so? My hope is that we will do so as true witnesses of Christ’s character, who are servant leaders. When we do, I promise you true opportunities will be created and true sharing of life will take place.

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