Servant Leadership

The Church - 6

Servant Leadership
The Community that Exists for Others
(John 13:12-17)

Today, as in the ancient world, people are busy advancing themselves and climbing the ladder of success. Jesus revolutionised our understanding of leadership by standing such ideals of self-advancement on their head. Instead, he advocates an approach to leadership based on attitudes of servanthood, a willingness to take on menial tasks, and the surprise value of deeds of kindness. In this message, sixth in a series on ‘The Church’, given in St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 29 August 1999, talks about the transforming impact of servant leadership.

Room Service

The weather is hot and the roads are dusty. The travellers are sweaty and grimy from a long journey on foot. They’re tired and in no mood for helping each other. The room service is non-existent at the low-cost hotel. So the team leader takes a plastic container and towel and individually washes his followers’ smelly feet. One of them objects. ‘You’ll never at any time wash my feet!’

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet it wasn’t just an insult to Peter’s pride. It was an offence to the attitudes of the entire ancient world. It would never have occurred to anyone in the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, where a third of the population were slaves, for a leader to take the role of a slave. Manual work was regarded as below the dignity of free men, let alone a distasteful, menial task like washing feet. When Benedict in the sixth century included manual work in his new Rule for monks, it included manual work - an unprecedented thing for free citizens to be asked to do.

Down the centuries menial work has remained an offence to aristocratic and cultured people. The nineteenth century German philosopher Nietzsche hated the ‘slave mentality’ which he saw commended by Christianity. The Presbyterian Church in New Zealand has been running seminars recently on ‘Servant Mission Leadership’. They’ve been criticised for being politically incorrect. But are we any different? How many people at a church camp volunteer to clean toilets or urinals?

God’s Way of Being Among Us

The washing of feet in the ancient Middle Eastern world of Jesus’ day was an unpleasant, menial, but necessary task, normally done by a domestic slave. But what makes this example so much greater is that it was done by one who calls himself their ‘Teacher and Lord’. This example is that of the Son of God himself. ‘I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you’ (John 13:15). This action is totally surprising. It demonstrates God’s way of being among us. ‘What if God was one of us?’ sings Joan Osborne. This is how God would act if he was one of us. He would get on his knees and serve us.

What extraordinary humility! What intimacy! What an affirmation of us!

Our Pattern of Leadership

Jesus’ action also provides us with a pattern of leadership to emulate. Today we are commissioning new elders. Being an elder is demanding on time and energy. Paul says that elders are to ‘keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock which the Holy Spirit has placed in your care’ (Acts 20:28). Every Christian is responsible for keeping watch over themselves. Elders have the additional responsibility of keeping watch over others in the church as well. This involves a burden of responsibility. We, the congregation, should honour them and pray for them. And they, the elders should give a lead in serving us.

Jesus gives every leader a challenging standard to live up to - or, perhaps we should say, live down to. Jesus calls us to have no airs, to be willing to take the lowest place and do menial tasks, in short, as my sister Natalie Yule-Yeoman puts it in one of her songs, to be ‘downwardly mobile’:

Now there was one who came right down to earth
He never put himself into first
And he was downwardly mobile and he gave all his love
while others had theirs in reserve.
There were many don’t like his choice of friends
But he stood with them right to the end
For him the only way round was with those who were down
And he calls us now to live his life again.

At the bottom of the pile
He’s sure to change your style
He has no bottom line

(Natalie Yule-Yeoman, ‘Downwardly Mobile’, from album Laughter and Pain, 1989)

An Effective Way of Reaching People

Jesus’ action also provides us with a very effective pattern of witness. Serving others is a surprisingly effective way of reaching people. If each of us were to take initiatives in unexpected acts of friendship, kindness and caring for those around us, there is no telling how many unchurched people in the community would be influenced for Jesus Christ.

Graeme Reid is now on the staff of Spreydon Baptist Church in Christchurch, heading up their almost legendary Community Ministries. He came to faith as a result of a number of women from the church praying for him and demonstrating their compassion by leaving steaming casseroles on his veranda. He hated these women, but loved their casseroles! He didn’t want to acknowledge that he couldn’t manage his own life or look after his own family. But finally their love, expressed in these practical acts of kindness, brought him to a change of heart and he was dramatically converted. He is now on Spreydon Baptist’s pastoral team.

Let’s prove and demonstrate the famous dictum of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Second World War, that the Church is the only organisation that exists for the sake of those outside it. The are many ways of doing this. Not only by a casserole service. Also by baby-sitting or child-minding, by mowing people’s lawns, by cleaning their house, by repairing their equipment, by helping with their computers.

It’s the very unexpectedness of practical service like this that is such a powerful witness. When you consider how busy everyone is living their own lives and doing their own thing, it is quite surprising, even miraculous, for people to encounter such selfless behaviour.

An Antidote When Life is Trying

Life today is full of busyness, stresses, uncertainties over employment and income. We all face a dramatic shortening of discretionary time. It’s easy to think we don’t have time or opportunity to help others. There are too many things to do.

But think about Jesus’ example. This was the opening episode of the final chapter of his life. The foot washing took place at the rendezvous Jesus had arranged with his followers just before he died. He had set aside time to meet with them, to share his last will and testament. At the very point when he could have been expected to be thinking of himself and his own forthcoming anguish and death, he was thinking of others instead.

Many of you are doing outstanding deeds of kindness for others. Keep it up. Others of you think you have not enough time. I challenge you: do something for someone else. It’s is a wonderful antidote to listlessness and boredom.

Rob Yule
29 August 1999

© 1999, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand