How to succeed in life … for Jesus

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Mark 10.35-45

Want to get ahead in life? Want to get promoted at work? Want to be in charge? And lead other people?

Well, any look at the non-fiction section of a good bookshop will show you that there are no end of books ready to tell you just how easy it is to become a great leader and get people to follow you and do what you want them to – some of them very well known:

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

How to Win Friends and Influence People

The One Minute Manager

The list goes on. I did a search on Amazon for books on Leadership yesterday. And some of the taglines for the books illustrate just what a fixation our society has for power and control over others: 

Fast, effective ways to become a leader people want to follow

Why the world needs more everyday leaders and why that leader is you

Step into your power, write your own rules and succeed in your career

Now, any of those books may be very good in their sphere. But what really struck me was that the first title I could find that came anything close to expressing the kind of leadership that Jesus taught was way down at number 54 on the list of books that came up in my search:

Servant Leadership: Learn the Most Effective Soft Skills to Become a Servant Leader and Guide Your Team to Success

Now – I hasten to say I’m not endorsing the book – I haven’t read it. But its place, well down on the list, does rather show that when it comes to leadership people tend to think in terms of power and control and status rather than service. 

It has been the same since the very beginning – at least according to the Bible. In the garden of Eden, according to the book of Genesis, the devil in the form of a serpent encourages the man and the woman to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree so that they can become like God. For that, he tells them, is what will happen if they eat. Not content with what God has given they want more – and to be like God, to be equal to God, seemed so desirable – so they ate. And they are expelled from the Garden of Eden as a result of their disobedience. The story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden is what we call The Fall. Even from the beginning, says the Bible, people got the whole idea about status and power upside down. 

In our gospel reading today Mark tell us how Jesus and his disciples discuss the nature of power and leadership in the Christian community that is to be.

Ever since the day that Jesus called Simon Peter, James and John to follow him, he has been at the centre of their lives. Along with the other disciples they have seen him teaching and healing. They have seen him do amazing things like feeding thousands of people with a few loaves and fish. 

Jesus has also warned them about the reality of his mission – that he must go to Jerusalem and die. 

But they still think in worldly terms about power and status. 

James and John, as we hear this morning, want to make sure of that they will have a special place – they are a bit like people who want to be the teacher’s favourites in school. They want to be better than everyone else. They want the status, and perhaps the power, that would come from sitting either side of Jesus.

But no-one likes that kind of person do they, and the other disciples are angry with them for getting above themselves. They really should have learnt from the story of Adam and Eve that trying to exalt yourself and make yourself equal to God – or in their case, sitting either side of Jesus in his glory – really isn’t the way God works.

It’s no wonder the other disciples were angry – though Mark doesn’t say much about what lies behind their anger. Perhaps they were angry because James and John had got in first with the request, and they just hadn’t yet plucked up the courage to ask for themselves.

Well, the argument provides Jesus with an opportunity to talk about relationships among his followers. Mark, who wrote the gospel, is reminding everyone in the Church – you and me as well as those who first read this gospel 2000 years ago nearly – about what it really means to be a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Mark, writing some time after the resurrection,  knows that Jesus is addressing those who in his own time have become the leaders of the new Christian Church. They have come from humble backgrounds. They were a mixed group of people – fishermen, a tax collector, a revolutionary … people you wouldn’t have thought would get along.

They were from a country occupied and ruled by foreigners – the Romans. They have been an oppressed people. But by the time Mark is writing his gospel they now have positions of authority. And by the time they achieve those positions of authority, as leaders of the new and growing Church, they have come to understand what true leadership in the Body of Christ means 

And it’s not about control, and power, and getting people to follow you and do things the way you want them done because you know best. Because Christian leadership is at a polar opposite to the way most people view leadership, as we see when Jesus calls the disciples to him and puts them in the picture. For what Jesus does is to tell them as he tells us, that in his Church things are different. And following the request for positions of power and status from James and John Jesus explains that this is not how it is – because Christian leadership is different.

Christian leaders are not to boss other members of the Church in the way worldly rulers exercise control over their subjects. Christian leaders are not there to get others to follow them – it’s Jesus we all follow together.

And those who are in a position of leadership, says Jesus, must set an example of humble service. And he doesn’t just mean the bishop – or the vicar – or the churchwardens. He means anyone who wants to play a part in running the Church.

If they want to be great then they must be servants, says Jesus. And if they want to be first – well, then must go even further than being a servant, they must be a slave. And they must do this in order to follow the example of their one true leader, Jesus himself, who, Jesus says, “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. The whole of Jesus’ life, ministry and death was an expression of submission, of service to the human race.

He modelled a new kind of leadership. His kingship is one gained through the ultimate act of service, his death on the cross. If his followers are to be true to him, they must behave like him. We Christians – the Christian community – are to be a community of mutual service and love – and that means sharing everything we are and everything we have for our mutual benefit.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that this kind of servant leadership is easy. There is perhaps no other teaching of Jesus that has been harder for Christians to follow. But Jesus showed his disciples that he meant it by washing their feet at the Last Supper. Imagine washing everyone else’s feet! We don’t really like being servants – let alone slaves – to other people. We enjoy our own importance. We like to be honoured by others. We work hard for recognition, and enjoy receiving our due reward.

But just imagine how different life would be we followed the example that Jesus sets us. If we think about it, we can see that an attitude of service modelled on that of Jesus would transform all our relationships, from international politics to family life to our effectiveness as a Church. 

For if we, as the Church of Jesus Christ, in whichever community we live, wish to win friends for Jesus and influence people to live according to his teaching, then the way to do it is to serve one another as Jesus serves us.