The Paradox of Christian Leadership
What Being a Pastor is Teaching Me About Idolatry and Humanity
This blog post is a reformatted sermon, based off of the lectionary readings for Sunday, March 11, 2018.
Someone once called me a “prophetic leader,” and it’s taken me some time to really think about what that means. When I think about the passages that I resonate within the Prophets, I come to Isaiah, Jeremiah and sometimes Nathan. In college, I took a class called Hebrew Prophets and we ended the class with a book by Walter Brueggemann called “The Prophetic Imagination.” I will admit, honestly that I only skimmed it. I will purchase it sometime in the future and actually read it — it was a really good book, from what I skimmed.
Luckily my class notes helped me fill in the gaps a bit. So here are some things I think prophetic leaders should do:
I believe pastors should speak prophetically and being a prophet means observing the unpleasant realities of our world and allowing them to stir so deeply inside your heart that it bursts out of you — your discomfort then becomes what people are uncomfortable hearing.
I believe pastors should have a perpetual heartache, a consistent beating passion for the God’s people and the condition of their hearts towards the Lord in just and righteous living.
Prophets were always pointing to someone other than themselves, reminding God’s people to circle back and remember where they are from and who they are meant to be. They saw the ways in which the people gave in to the cultures around them — adopting false gods and sinful practices — and pronounced judgment from God. Often they lived out experiences that were meant to illustrate how broken the heart of God was for God’s people.
So one of the biggest things I question and wrestle with is whether a pastor is a prophetic leader. I am learning how to be a pastor after having spent a great deal of time analyzing destructive leadership and power dynamics within institutions — including The Church. So I am tempted to want to do things a very different way. So becoming a “leader” when you believe that everyone should have a seat at the table seems to clash with my ethos.
We build idols so easily, you might say it’s as easy as breathing, we worship anyone and anything that seems to present the answers we need. Our hands and feet were made for good work and instead we build kingdoms and empires, we fashion gold and silver, dollars and coins (and now bitcoins?!). Everything that comes into our grasp can so easily be elevated to the place of worship in our lives. It’s not an Old Testament thing. It’s a 2018 thing.
Just look at the modern day marvel of the celebrity pastor and dwell in the conflicting paradox of their ministry and the public lives. Crazy things happen when we like what we hear; when we find someone new to follow and when we are so far removed from them that they appear perfect. It doesn’t just become idolatry for us, it becomes dehumanizing for them. The critic that surrounds these leaders every move, the ways in which their every word is scrutinized for their accuracy, and the disappointment we experience when we fall — reminded yet again that they are human beings, capable of sin…especially if sin is what we’ve decided as a collective is the most grievous offense.
So yeah, I’m a little bit afraid of this kind of veneration. Especially if that’s what I am looking forward to. So this past week’s message was right in line with what I’ve been processing. As I read Numbers 21: 4–9, I thought about how tempted Christians are to judge the people in the Old Testament, as if the actions of the Israelites are not just ancient equivalents for our modern culture. As if we would be any different and as if new revelation makes us any more enlightened about our human condition…
Anyways, God doesn’t merely send a means of death that is instant and painless. The death that comes, is a slow and painful one. Venom attacks the blood and makes you bleed to death throughout your entire body. In some cases, your body swells up causing excruciating pain as the pressure builds up, leading to tissue and blood vessel damage.
I do not have any personal experience dealing with snake bites. I am not very adventurous, so I wouldn’t be found anywhere near a venomous snake — this all based on research. So, if you are an adventurous person and you plan to go somewhere where you might encounter a venomous snake, #1, don’t invite me because I will say no. And #2, I would advise that you look at the list of things you cannot do to treat a snake bite. But one of the fascinating things to me is that you can’t use ice or a cold compress on the bite. The only treatment is to take the cure.
Without the cure, the victim of the bite is hopeless, left to experience the symptoms of a slow and painful death. When someone is dying this way, the only interventions prescribed can slow down the death and the ones to be avoided would only quicken the spread. The only treatment is to take the cure.
Also, nowhere on the list of first aid list is there a suggestion to make a copper snake and set it up on a pole. Much less, a solution fashioned in the likeness of the thing that kills. (Romans 8:3, Phil 2:7)
We see in Numbers a people go have grown impatient on the way, so much so that they spoke against God and Moses. They took for granted the ways in which God provided for them: specifically, the manna that sustained them, they grumbled, calling it miserable food. God’s response is to sent venomous snakes to bit them. Some were bitten and they died. Some pled with Moses to intercede for them. Then God tells Moses to make another snake, then those who were bitten by the snake looked upon the copper serpent and lived. They were regenerated.
Reading this passage at first glance, you’d think that being bitten by venomous snakes was probably the lowest point in the story. However, I would argue that the real low point is the misery of comfort. The hell found when we grow impatient on the way, in the spaces between victories.
Perhaps what should scare us most on this earth is not death or any kind of physical/situational suffering but that the reality that what is equivalent to hell on this earth creates such a complacency in us that we grumble and speak against God. That we can find ourselves swerving away from our walk without any apparent discomfort. That we would so easily push aside the bread that sustains us and find ourselves looking for something more…I am saying that the hell we should be afraid of feels so good that it puts us in a place where we can make our own bread. A place where we give in to the illusion that we need no relationship with God.
They were in the space between victories — God quickly became associated with the trials they underwent and the stories of triumph that followed when they depended on God. So naturally, they grew impatient on the way, in the space between victories.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.
The Gospel reading (John 3:14–21) in the lectionary was about a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin (the ruling council), a ruler of the Jews, a Pharisee comes to Jesus. A man whose name means “victorious among his people” comes to Jesus with questions, I imagine he’s spent his whole life trying to live up to his name. His statue in society made it so that he was ashamed to be seen with Jesus, so he comes under the cloak of night, saying, “I’ve seen your miracles…I know what you can do, so you must be from God.”
Which is indeed a rational deduction based on the signs of the prophets, which he as a Pharisee knows so well. Only when Jesus tells him he hasn’t even seen the kingdom yet because he is not born again. Nicodemus fails to come to an understanding of what Jesus means.
But Jesus continues….in the way that Jesus continues to speak to us, showing us grace despite our inability to understand:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Followed by John 3:16….which many of us can quote.
I am compelled by Nicodemus, primarily because I’ve heard many sermons on John 3:16, but I have grown to think Nicodemus was dumb simply from the perspective of an outsider looking in (same with our critical lens on Old Testament people).
He appears three times in the book of John: He was one of the rulers who delivered Jesus into his death (Luke 24:20), but we also know from John that he pleaded with the other members of the council to listen to Jesus before they condemned him (John 7:50). Lastly, Nicodemus took care of Jesus’s body right alongside Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:39). I try to imagine what it must’ve been like for him to see Jesus’s lifeless body. I wonder if he was recalling the conversation they said. I wonder if he was expecting Jesus, in the same way, we do in this Lenten season, to rise up in the way he proclaimed.
As he faces Christ’s body, does it help or hinder his ability to see Christ as savior? Does Nicodemus, a man named victory of the people to see the triumph of Christ when he is raised up on the cross?
Jesus never mentioned pain and suffering when he spoke to Nicodemus. I wonder if it was supposed to be assumed. After all, the bronze serpent had to be beaten in order to be fashioned into its form. But I imagine that Nicodemus, a logical thinking man would run from pain in the same way we are inclined to.
After all, we’d be quick to apply a cold compress to a snake bite if we haven’t done our research. When we feel pain our first response is to numb it. This is my interpretation (my blog, my interpretation — take it or leave it.) I don’t only see atonement in the snake Moses fashioned. But I see atonement in the way that the Israelites were awakened to pain and desperate need for God, so much so that they would look to him and live.
I am not asking that God sends fiery snakes down to bite us. I am not a bronzeworker. It’s the one crafty thing I have yet to try — so I cannot fashion a snake made of bronze or copper for us. Especially if it’ll eventually need to be destroyed since we would worship it too, as is our nature.
I recently finished a book called Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland. She’s a social psychologist, one who I might be tempted to fashion an idol out of as I speak of her education and career. She is deeply concerned about reconciliation. As a person who studies people, I can relate to what Christena has observed about our habits. And when she talks briefly about the fine line between religion and culture. Both have ways of uniting people with symbols and practices. We can find ourselves so deeply embedded in the narratives of our cultural and religious stories that we grow defense when they are attacked.
The Israelites created a narrative around what happened with the serpents, one that forged a narrative strong enough that their habits and practices formed a religion around the object used in their salvation: Nehustan, they called the bronze serpent, offering sacrifices to it.But it was eventually destroyed somewhere in 2 Kings under the reign of Hezekiah.
Why would Jesus compare himself to the serpent that was eventually destroyed?? Maybe Jesus knew we’d take the cross and hold it up and worship it and worship him in in the same way.
Maybe Jesus could see how his sign would become the so integral to our worship that we would miss what he was pointing to. We would miss his prophetic witness. We would build, as is our nature, more idols.
We want to go from victory to victory. Pillar to pillar. Numbers 21 begins with a people between victories. Between the promised land and the land they left, but also after a recent battle they won. Nicodemus was named “Victory of the People,” and he was raised up, perhaps looking and longing for the next victory. There are so many stories of people digging wells and building pillars in places where victories happen, then those places become towns and cities. Like I said, building is naturally what we do.
I think what unsettles me, after spending four years in college and 3.5 years learning religion and history is how much I have to unlearn.
What Jesus is doing in his conversation with Nicodemus, this scholar, is helping him unlearn. He grew up learning that being the victory of the people meant that he would be raised up to the highest possible office — and he did that. And now Jesus is telling him everything he’s built has been in vain. I think when Jesus tells him “you are a scholar and you do not know” is perhaps one of the most liberating moments: Nicodemus is being taught to see in a way he’s probably never had to see before. A means of life where he is dependent on a savior, as a baby is dependent on its mother — he is being untrained in the way of seeing victory.
Jesus is constantly reteaching me and life is an endless series of Nicodemus moments. Perhaps the scariest part of being taught how to do leadership right is realizing I don’t know. What I admire about Nicodemus in his second appearance in Jesus’s story is beyond his ability to listen to Jesus, he convinces others to consider what he is saying. Before Jesus is tried and led to his death on the cross, Nicodemus tried to convince his fellow council members to allow Jesus to testify.
Furthermore, in his search to discover who Jesus is, he shows up again, preparing Jesus’s body for a Jewish burial. By purchases myrrh oil, which was used for weddings and celebrations (Psalm 45:7) Nicodemus declares that the wedding between God and man has been consummated. But interestingly, myrrh was bought by the wise men to newborn Jesus. Is Nicodemus displaying with his actions that he believes Jesus will rise again? Leading him and others in the way of being born again? Is he seeing Jesus’s death as victory after all?
We still don’t know if Nicodemus ever becomes a public follower of Jesus, but Nicodemus’s story is beautiful to me — even if it’s all based around the inferences I’ve made by reading these three passages.
What I see in Nicodemus is a man who has power who had never truly been empowered. As long as his people were oppressed by the Roman Empire and as long as his power was only recognized by them he would continue to live in bondage. His actions to me reveal a hope — even if it is a secret hope — that he could one day regenerate. It shows a possibility in a life where he looks to Jesus only.
I also see in Nicodemus a man who carries the pressures of leadership, who is looked up to and venerated in the same ways Christian leaders often are. One would think that being told you must be born again was a “disenfranchisement.” But I see the work of Jesus calling all to be born again as a way of calling all of us into power — not our own, but his own, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, Jesus sees how easily we build pillars, making idols and long for victories. But I think what he sees is a way for us to start over. It means the destruction of what we are already building, death to the ego and power we possess inside of us that so easily grumbles. But his regeneration and ushering in of the kingdom levels not only everything we build — it levels us.
Seeing Jesus this way put everything he did into perspective: when he raises up the poor and tells the rulers they do not know, he is leveling us. By leveling us, he recovers our humanity. Yes, Justice is embedded in the salvation we receive because as long as structures exist that stratify humankind into categories of separation and inequality, we are so far from being truly human.
So when I think about what prophetic leaders look like, I don’t just see pastors. I see individuals empowered by the Holy Spirit. I see people coming to know Jesus, the one who invites us into a relationship with him. One that unfolds like a love that levels inequality, from the pulpit to the last row in the sanctuary.
As a leader, that is what I see myself doing. I’ve become part of this Christianity thing even though I sometimes wonder if we’ve taken the “in the name of Jesus” thing too literally. . Even though I criticize my own Body, the Body of Christ for our complacency in defaulting to a silly, stationary cult as we celebritize Jesus. I want to be part of recovering the humanity that is lost in the celebrity of leaders, and that includes Jesus. I want to be part of recovering the humanity that is lost in the submissive people who follow them, sitting in power they’ve never been taught how to use.
I want to be part of Christ’s victory, the victory that sometimes looks like death.
I want to live like Christ, the life that often feels like death.
I want to run alongside those fellowship under the need for this miserable bread, those who are empowered to run to the ends of the earth to make his name known,
until every knee bows and every tongue confesses —
because when Jesus is Lord, it levels all of us.