Monday, January 06, 2014

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. 

There  isn’t an absolute convergence of the two styles of leadership, but last year’s celebrations of the political leadership of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela surely come to mind when we are thinking about Isaiah’s new style of leadership. One political commentator remarked that both men were characterised by a huge ego, a sense that they were destined to lead their people; so much so in Nelson Mandela’s case that - to the astonishment of his fellow prisoners - he predicted quite early on during their imprisonment that one day he would become the first Black president of South Africa. And Martin Luther King, in particular, did ‘make his voice heard in the street’ unlike the new leader in the prophecy. But, said the commentator, at least their egos were harnessed to an idea. Yes, they wanted to be leaders - not people who are led, but they dedicated their ambition to the service of great ideas and particularly to the gentle but persistent quest for justice and harmony.

How different this is from the self-serving leadership which characterises many of our leading politicians. The mock documentary 'The Thick Of It' depicted shallow politicians and their advisers who were motivated solely by tomorrow's news headlines. They didn't shape opinion; instead they slavishly followed 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 his vision of a 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 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 in which they might otherwise find themselves entombed. 

Again, like Mandela and Luther King, the new leader could be a single individual - and Jesus comes to mind. But it could also 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.

Part of the greatness of Mandela and Luther King was that they each managed to persuade a great many people that we all have a role to play in bring justice and harmony about. We are all destined to play a part in bringing about the Prophet’s vision of a new 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 is more likely to 'appear' to people now when they share bread and wine with him in Holy Communion. 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 or even - like Martin Luther King - to overturn an unjust law. Jesus’ attitude is that he will leave politicians to deal with political issues and concentrate on transforming individuals and communities from within.

Second, he is a leader who has been made powerful through suffering and death. Second Isaiah talks in some of his other poems about a suffering servant who may even have to die for God’s cause, but Peter takes this idea one stage further and says that it 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.

Of course, leaders since who have wished to mould themselves in his image have had to embrace Jesus’ idea of sacrificial leadership and be ready to face rejection and even death if necessary in order to advance the cause of gentle justice. Nelson Mandela spent many years in prison and Martin Luther King was assassinated, but the same principle applies in its own small way to each of us. As the Covenant Prayer in the Methodist Worship Book reminds us, disciples of Jesus may have to endure things which we don’t like, we may be disregarded instead of being valued and we may end up with nothing tangible to show for our efforts. That is the nature of following him.

Matthew 3:13-17

In her Christmas message the Queen evoked the memory of her coronation in Westminster Abbey 60 years ago. 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 and Queens of England have often believed 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 have sometimes defied that belief. 

By contrast, Peter is able to explain in his sermon how the validity of Jesus' anointing was demonstrated throughout his life and death 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 in the Church 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 and Jesus’ gentle quest for justice must have been part of God’s nature for all time.

(This is a revised version of an article which was first posted on 5 January 2008)

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