Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37
Today is the last Sunday before the season of Advent, which in the Western church is themed, “Christ-the-King.” For whatever reason, the framers of the ecclesiastical year decided a long time ago to devote this Sunday to the Lordship, Monarchy, and sovereign rule of God in Jesus Christ over all creation, history, and people. It gives me an opportunity to reflect on something that has been bothering me lately, which is the nature of leadership in the emerging church.
Bob Dylan once famously sang: “Don’t follow leaders; watch your parking meters.” By which he may have meant (to the degree that anyone ever knows what Dylan means) that instead of blindly going along with and obeying those we find in authority over us, we need to pay very close attention to both the restrictions on our freedoms, and the disposition of the money our leaders receive from those restrictions. In other words, he is saying, “Be suspicious of leaders; watch where their decisions touch your lives, your freedom, and your wallet.”
God is suspicious of human leaders as well. From the very first, God’s plan is that God be the Ruler of Israel. In the whole Torah we find rules about the priesthood, but none about any kind of king. At most, the Israelites are governed by elders selected by Moses who was himself selected by God. The Israelites have no hereditary monarchy; neither are they told to elect their leaders by popular will. Instead, the people choose to follow the one with the most profoundly demonstrated spiritual gifts, the one who clearly has the most intimate relationship with the Lord.
God presents them with this polity of decentralized tribes, led by charismatic figures whom God raises up when necessary. When they get to Canaan they are about deposing and even executing kings. The Torah works to undermine any congealing of economic or political power in one class or person. When God does grudgingly allow them to have a king, it mostly doesn’t work out. Chapter after chapter of the Bible is about the failures, shortcomings, excesses, and injustices of the kings of Israel and Judah.
When Jesus comes he is thoroughly allergic to being called a king or even a Messiah, if people understand these as powerful, leadership positions. Jesus reiterates and fulfills the demands of the Torah that there not be any “fathers” or “rabbis,” in the sense of absolute (usually male) rulers, in the Kingdom of God. His gathered disciples are a communion of equals. Even Jesus himself confesses that he only wants to do the will of his Father in heaven.
The Bible does not propose a leaderless community. God is not allergic to leadership of any kind. God is the leader. God is the King. God is the ruler on the heavenly throne. Human beings are all together and equal on the same far, far lower level, compared with God, our only Sovereign. We, all the peoples of the earth, are one community, under God.
What happened is that, because of our sinfulness, people slid easily from the idea that “God is our king,” to the lie that “our king is god.” It’s like: “‘The king is god!’ (I’m the king and I approved this message)”. In other words, we transferred to human rulers the authority, sovereignty, and power that only truly belongs to God. And we invented systems which chronically place one person, one class, one family, one race, one civilization, one nation, above everyone else. This is in direct contradiction to what God is explicitly about or intends.
God alone is our Sovereign Ruler. Yet even within God, in God’s very nature, we see not monarchy, not a single Executive, but a community. For we Christians understand God as Trinity. At its heart the Trinity is a communion of equal personal elements comprising the One God.
The early church referred to the relationships within the Trinity by the Greek term perichoresis, which literally means “circle dance.” It is a continual exchange, sharing, interaction, reciprocality, dance of joy within God. It is God. God is this dance. The Trinity is one mysterious and unknowable eternal knot of love with three distinct, mutually dependent strands of sharing in perpetual, shining motion. For Christians, the one God is a set of relationships, a community, a gathering.
This Trinitarian nature of God as a community is something that God imprints or inscribes or embeds within everything that God makes. God makes the whole universe, the whole creation, the whole planet, for community, for sharing, for interaction, for this eternal dance of relationship. And that, of course, includes us. We’re all in this together. We all relate to each other. We’re all participants in the cosmic dance.
When God enters our world in Jesus Christ, God becomes our dance-partner in a very literal and real way. Christ does not come into the world at the top, as a king, a leader, an executive officer, an emperor. For the dance is not about dominance and control and exploitation. Paul reminds us that the dance is one of self-emptying. Jesus leads… but he only leads by giving, by making room for others, by welcoming, healing, and empowering others.
That’s what leadership is, according to Jesus’ example. It is not a top-down, command-and-control organizational system. If it were, then the Jesus Movement certainly would have died out upon his death. Jesus’ movement isn’t organized in this way. He distributes power and authority. He gives it away. He enables his disciples to do what he does. Finally, he gives his own life away to us so we can share it with the whole world. We his people become his Body.
When Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, questions Jesus, Jesus says that his kingdom is “not from this world.” Meaning that it is not a kingdom according to how the world normally defines, understands, and experiences kingdoms. His proof of this is that his disciples are not acting like violent revolutionaries trying to overthrow Pilate’s kingdom by force and replace it with another. His is not a kingdom characterized by violence and domination. It is not from this world. It is not that kind of kingdom.
Christ’s kingdom is different. It is a kingdom where God alone is the King. And in Jesus Christ we see more of what that means. Because in him it’s not just the literal written words of the Torah that are important. Jesus sees that people have cynically learned to interpret the law for their own ends. They could technically follow the letter of the law and still end up imposing on people a corrupt, unjust, dominating regime like that of Pharaoh, which the law was given explicitly to prevent.
Jesus reminds us that God intends a flat, distributed, non-hierarchical, decentralized, open-source, communal – even tribal – polity for the people. That’s what God gives them in the Torah; that’s what Jesus restores in a transfigured way in his ministry. His intention is to undermine the legitimacy of Caesar by gathering among the people, in the villages, an alternative network of small communities. In these gatherings, Jesus’ followers would share in forgiveness, healing, acceptance, blessing, mutual support, prayer, and love. They would be the community of peace/shalom that God originally intended not just in the Torah, but in creation.
In these communities, God, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, would be the only Sovereign and Monarch. And discerning God’s will by listening carefully together to God’s Word and Spirit, and reflecting together on our own experiences of God’s love and the effectiveness of our own witness, would be the purpose of gathering.
The leader in the church who most follows Jesus’ example is the one who exhibits authority and power, not by bending others to her or his will, not by getting their agenda accomplished, not by having the most connections and influence, not by winning… but by losing. The true leader in a Christian community is the biggest loser. The leader is the one who shows true power by giving power away and empowering others, and true authority by giving authority away and authorizing others.
So we can even identify a healthy gathering of Jesus-followers by noticing how equally shared is the power. There is not one person who is the focus, but the focus has been distributed around to everyone. Everyone is valued. And the ones with the greater gifts have therefore the more to give, and they do so. And the ones with lesser gifts or who are not as far along on the journey are not second-class participants. But they are allowed to grow in their faith because of what they receive.
This is the church we see in Acts and the rest of the New Testament. This is the church we see in some healthy movements in history, like that of Francis of Assisi.
And this is what Jesus does. He keeps back nothing for himself. He is the fullness of God and he is continually dispensing healing and acceptance and forgiveness and empowerment to others. The most complete picture of Jesus is when he is on the cross, because that is the final self-emptying in which he gives us his all. He gives his life for the life of the world. He is the perfect conduit, the most free channel of God’s love. God’s love is poured into the world and into our lives through him.
And Jesus Christ is God. This self-emptying and dying and giving of his all… this is not something Jesus does while God watches as (at best) a spectator from his throne in heaven. Jesus Christ makes visible what God has always invisibly been. God has been giving and emptying and blessing forever, beginning with creation. Taking on our flesh as a historical, mortal human being is the most radical manifestation of God’s self-emptying for us in love. But God has been loving and losing for our sakes since before the beginning. In every moment of every day, God has included the whole universe, including each one of us, in the endless, eternal circle-dance of love.
I do not believe God even wants the church to have “leaders,” as we understand the term. God wants disciples. God desires obedient followers. God comes into the world in Christ so that people may imitate him. Christ teaches that people strive must first for God’s Kingdom. I think that means living in a gathered communion of people giving away all that God has given them to others, and so receiving from others all that God has given them. We live in an extension of God’s circle-dance; our sharing, our giving and receiving, our welcoming and our forgiving, our gratitude and our grace… these are extensions of God’s love, even God’s self, into our world.
I hope we strive first and foremost to be disciples. The Kingdom of God is made of disciples, people who know themselves to be equals under the sovereignty of God. In my view we have enough leaders and people trying to be or wishing to be of conniving to be leaders, both in the church and in the world. What we really need are followers of Jesus. Let’s focus on that. Realizing that God is our only sovereign, and that we are all equal under God, and God’s will is for the emancipation of all, let’s focus on following Jesus.