Saturday, January 05, 2008

A New Kind of Leader

Isaiah 42:1-9

Here the Prophet talks about a new kind of leadership. It's not exactly clear whether he has an individual leader in mind, or whether he envisages a reinvigorated nation of Israel offering that leadership to the peoples of the world. What is interesting, however, is the kind of leadership he talks about, which will be characterised by a gentle but persistent quest for justice.

How different this is from the vainglorious leadership which characterises many of our leading politicians. The mock documentary 'The Thick Of It' depicts shallow politicians and their advisers who are motivated solely by tomorrow's news headlines. They don't shape opinion; instead they slavishly follow it. 'The Thick Of It' was supposed to be a spoof of real political life but, to the horror of its creator - Armando Iannucchi - many politicians and political commentators wanted to know who had told him what was going on!

In contrast to these false leaders, the Prophet describes the new, gentle but just leader as a living embodiment of God's covenant, or promise, to the people of the Earth. The leader's mission is to give the world a new vision - to show its people how things could be different and open their eyes and minds to new and challenging possibilities, thereby releasing the downtrodden from the dungeons of despair.

Again, the new leader could be a single individual - and Jesus comes to mind. But it could be an entire nation which is being called to create a template for real justice here and now. Or the new leader could be a community, like the Church, which is - after all - the Body of Christ on Earth, with its own mission to carry on his kind of leadership and be yeast in the leaven, or salt, or light for a needy world.

Acts 10:34-43

This sermon preached by Peter, one of the first leaders of the Christian community, describes how Jesus can be understood as the new kind of leader expected by the Prophet. Like the second Prophet Isaiah, Peter talks about a leader who is characterised by justice. However, he introduces two new elements into Isaiah's vision of godly leadership.

First, Jesus is clearly a more spiritual leader. His kingdom is not of this world. He can't be followed around by journalists making "a day in the life of" documentaries and he doesn't go on national campaigns to get himself elected. He is more likely to 'appear' to people now when they share bread and wine with him in Holy Communion.

Second, he is a leader who has been made powerful through suffering and death - which is a more dramatic form of gentleness even than Isaiah had dared to picture. But this means that he can also be lord and judge of the dead, as well as of the living.

Jesus' message of peace was directed first to the nation of Israel but God shows no partiality and so it was always intended to be made available, through the inspiration of his Spirit and the preaching of his followers, to all people who believe in him and accept his offer of forgiveness.

Matthew 3:13-17

Matthew describes how God's new leader was anointed not by holy oil in a splendid coronation service, but by the Holy Spirit at his baptism in the muddy waters of the River Jordan. Kings of England once imagined that they had been anointed by God's Spirit too, with a divine commission to rule over the English nation on God's behalf, but their actions often defied that belief. By contrast, Peter is able to explain in his sermon how the validity of Jesus' anointing was demonstrated by the good that he did and by his ministry of healing and reconciliation. This proves that he really is the Beloved, chosen leader whose every word and action was pleasing to God.

Argument raged for a long time as to whether Jesus was part of what it means to be God before his baptism, and even before his birth and conception . The prologue to John's Gospel goes so far as to say that Jesus must have been part of God even before the creation of the Universe, whereas some early Christians were content to say that Jesus became God by adoption at his baptism.

It might seem a rather abstruse and pointless argument, but actually a great deal hinges on it. The Christian understanding of God is that, in the person of Jesus, he closed the gulf which separated himself from humankind and the rest of the created order. But is that really possible if Jesus only became divine by adoption? In the end, most Christians agreed that true incarnation requires a complete identification of God with human existence and creation. And for that identification to be absolutely complete, God has to be inseparable from the person of Jesus even before Jesus existed as a distinct individual and, in fact, for all time. In other words, God must always have known what it means to live and perish as a human being.

No comments: