Orders and Disorders
There are two ideas in contention in the readings this morning, and they are both ideas about authority. Specifically, they are ideas about spiritual authority, and about how authority should work in a community of people who are gathered around the idea of God.
Now, because we are Christian people, we might begin this by wondering whether we really need to have any authority, any structures of authority, in the life of the church. After all, the basic idea of the Gospel that we learn about here on every Sunday morning, the Christian idea that has had so much power to change the world over the long, long course of our history, is the radical notion that human beings are equal in their standing, in their worth, and in their dignity before God.
That is a Christian idea. It is an idea that we take for granted, because we live in a nation that was founded on the premise of that idea. When the authors of the Declaration and the framers of the Constitution said those things explicitly in our founding documents, they were convinced—and rightly so—that they were creating a very new kind of nation on the earth, one based on an idea and not on an identity.
And that idea is our idea—that all people are equal in dignity and equal in worth.
But could we really govern ourselves if we were all absolutely equal? Don’t we have to find a way to gather power and responsibility in some places and assign it to some people in order to get things done? How do we do that and still hold on to our idea?
You recognize in these questions the outline of the things we learned in civics class—back when we all had to take civics class. Down through American history, we’ve had a long and convoluted conversation about how to concentrate power for the sake of getting things accomplished, and how to make certain that concentrations of power aren’t allowed to become too fixed, or too comfortable.
But what about the church? After all, this idea about equality, this is our great insight. This is the thing we have offered human history as God’s great hope for all of us, God’s plan for how we are supposed to live together with each other and live in relationship with the source of our lives and our dignity.
How are we supposed to make authority work in the life of the church?
• • •
James and John are two of Jesus’s disciples. They are also brothers. Have you ever been part of a large group in which a couple of the people are siblings? You know how they always have a dynamic between themselves that is a little different from the way the rest of the group works?
I am hypersensitive about this, because I am an only child, and grew up endlessly curious about the relationship between siblings—and maybe a little envious of it, too. There’s a kind of closeness, a kind of acceptance, a kind of depth to their connection that isn’t part of how the group works.
That’s what I hear when we read this morning’s story about these two disciples sidling up to Jesus to ask for some favors. It’s a pretty bold move. But they have a little bit of the edge of entitlement about them. They are often identified in terms of their father—they are the “sons of Zebedee.” It means something to be the sons of Zebedee; it means enough to be a detail Mark thought worth writing down. Mark didn’t bother with a lot of details.
It matters because it was a shorthand way of saying that these two young men were pretty well-off, at least in the relative measure of the people around Jesus. Their dad had a name. It was a name that was known. They were the privileged kids around Jesus. They came with a kind of...well...entitlement.
And so they ask for a moment aside to make a special request, because they are special people. That’s the way they think authority should be organized in the life of the church—on the basis of who you are, or who you know.
Jesus gives them an answer that is a lot like the answer God gives to Job in the first lesson we heard this morning. It is an answer that underlines human equality by making very clear the vast distance that separates us from God—our capabilities, our understanding, our compassion, our powers. None of us can or should presume to any of that. To put it in other words, our equality with each other has an echo in our distance from God. God is God, and we are not.
There is the beginning of an answer in what Jesus teaches this morning about what we should look for when we look for leadership in the church. Jesus is not talking about whether or not people are ordained; in the community Jesus is creating, leadership can come from anywhere. He is not talking about anything other than the necessity of there being some kind of leadership in any human community.
Just like our ideas of equality are distinct to the Christian idea, Jesus’s notion of leadership is an upside-down way of understanding how power should work in human communities. Because Jesus teaches that the leaders shouldn’t be the ones who are the most powerful, or accumulate the most wealth, or have the most Twitter followers, or have a publicist on staff.
The place to look for Christian leaders is among people who have a reflex about serving other people. The place to find our leaders is by looking for folks who are not that much on the lookout for their own advancement, their own reputation, their own nest egg, their own spotlight.
Now, by saying all this Jesus answers the question we started with. Yes, we need leadership in the church. We need it because churches are human communities, and humans are social creatures who need leadership to thrive in their collective work. Jesus knows this, because Jesus is God, and God made us. Jesus wrote the operator’s manual.
The writer of the message to the Hebrews knows that the people of Israel have inherited a kind of leadership from their covenant history. It is the leadership of the priesthood, the person designated by tradition to make offerings on behalf of all the people in the tabernacle, offerings that are given in the hope of somehow setting aside the wrong things that people have done—each one, and all of them together.
That sort of leadership will be needed in the new community, because the coming of Christ does not mean that people no longer make mistakes. But it does mean that the whole idea of sacrifice, the whole purpose of it, has changed.
Christ himself has been the sacrifice on our behalf; there is no more need for us to make any more sacrifices in the hope they will appease God. What we need now are people who will remind us—remind us effectively, remind us in ways we can grasp—of the sacrifice Jesus made, not just abstractly but for us, on the Cross.
First, they will be the sort of people who lead by serving. They will make a sacrifice of something of their pride, something of their need for control, something of their own ego or their own desire for advancement in order to help everyone else find and lay hold of their own gifts, their own graces, their own life in God.
They will be people who aren’t just faithful, but who share their faith with others. They will be people who live lives that are transparent, like windows through which you can see what it’s like when God is at work on someone, and imagine how it could be true for you, too.
They will be people who remind us of the sacrifice made on our behalf by recalling it whenever we gather as God’s people on the day that Jesus walked out of the tomb and defeated death for us forever. And they will be people who invite everyone into that encounter with the reality of both the sacrifice and the victory, by inviting them to the table and the bread and wine.
Over these past months I have had the gift of reflecting pretty deeply on just why we need this kind of leadership in the church. It has come alongside the experience of being a candidate to be elected for a different kind of leadership in our church, the role of a bishop.
All of that exploration, all of that discernment, has been grounded for me on the work we have done together here, to reimagine just how it is we might share the work of ministry together if we couldn’t afford the model of ministry we used to have. When you can’t do everything, you have to focus on what is really necessary—what is really essential—about the leadership of ordained ministry in the church.
What I have come to realize in these past months of discernment is the truth that ordained ministry is grounded on what the author of the Hebrews writes about the priest in that tabernacle: “He himself is subject to weakness, and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.”
When we are baptized, we all take on the work of ministry. Ordained ministry is grounded first and last on a primary identity of being a person who is baptized and yet unfinished, redeemed and yet sinning, a striving and yet a stumbling child of God.
The leaders God wants us to have, and to follow, in any of the circles of our life—the church or anywhere else—are people who are first, last, and always rooted in the identity we share as people who are ultimately equal in our need of God’s grace and God’s forgiveness.
When we don’t look for such people to lead us, when we follow people who don’t or won’t claim this identity, we fall into a kind of disorder. We may still seem to prosper, but something about our whole possibility is not being realized. We forget that essential equality that binds us and all people together as God’s children. We fall into the easy temptation of believing that the differences between us somehow change our relative worth to God.
No matter what your place on the political spectrum is, it would be hard to deny that we see that happening in our national life today.
Leadership always has a purpose, a purpose for which the leader is the means, and not the end. The purpose of Christian leadership is bringing all people to a deeper encounter with the holy, loving, creating, forgiving, striving reality of God. Sometimes that is a first encounter. Sometimes—in our case—it is a deeper encounter.
But there is always a purpose to be served, and that purpose has to do with God’s plan—nothing more, and certainly nothing less. It is not about the institutions we build, or the privileges we create, or the customs we cherish.
It is first and last about whether we make progress on the work that God has given us to do. And that work is to help Christian people live more and more like disciples, and through their work and witness to bring others to the knowledge of God, and the world to the hope of God.
That’s why we have orders of ministry; it’s the best way we have figured out to make all that happen, how to organize the people of God to accomplish God’s purposes. When we get it right, when we understand this gift of ordering gifts in the best possible way, it is purpose-driven, not privilege-driven; it is centered on service, not eager for distinctions.
And when we go looking for it, the telltale sign is that it is more inclined to sacrifice its own interests, and to make time and space for others, than secure its own stature.
So now I have been called to offer the lessons we have learned together here, and the example all of you have given me for how to build and sustain a Christian community, in a new ministry. I have been elected to serve as the next bishop of the Convocation of our churches in Europe, a new and different sort of ordered ministry.
We have time, a good deal of time, to sort out how we will take our next steps together. I have been sheltered and supported by this community for many years. I am in no hurry to go.
But if I have any wisdom to offer, if I have any leadership to exercise among those good people in that place, it will be because I have learned here, from all of you, the truth that leadership in ordained life works best when it is shared, and is best rewarded when it helps others flourish. So, my friends—flourish. Amen.