Living and Leading in the Kingdom of the Joyfully Double-Crossed!

Next week our seminary campus hosts the Symposium on the Pastor as Shepherd-Leader.  Since leadership is a “hot topic,” the world trumpets one new theory after another about the essence of leadership. Even within the church we often wrestle with defining and carrying out pastoral leadership.

Yet this is clear: when God through his Church calls someone to pastoral leadership that person will have some (perhaps many) of Jesus’ sheep following him.  By how we preach and by how we teach, by how we counsel and by how we encourage, and often even chiefly by how we live and by how we deal with life’s challenges, we are always influencing, for good or ill, the souls entrusted to our care.

That explains Jesus’ strong rebuke to Peter in Sunday’s gospel (Mark 8:27-35).  As Sunday’s gospel opens, divinely worked faith enables Peter to proclaim that Jesus is “the Christ.” Yet simul justus et peccator Peter proved immediately how much he still needed to learn about what it meant for Jesus to be “the Christ” and for him to be Jesus’ disciple.  As he listened to Jesus speak more openly than before about what it meant for him to be “the Christ,” Peter couldn’t bear to listen.  Suffering? Rejection?  Killed? Never! So, Peter rebukes the promised Messiah as if that Messiah were his wayward and confused child!

Then notice what Mark uniquely tells us: “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter” (33).   The strength of Jesus’ reply to Peter (“Get behind me, Satan!”) was not just for Peter’s sake.  It was for the sake of the other disciples for whom the same temptation to reject a cross for Jesus – and for themselves – was very real.  Peter was leading, alright, but this leading would be disastrous for him and an offense to all who followed!

What was at the heart of the potential offense Peter was giving?  “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (33).  Before Peter rebuked Jesus, Jesus had unveiled to the eyes of his disciples how the sparkling jewel of God’s eternal saving plan would come to its gory but eventually glorious completion.  But those “things of God” were being overwhelmed in Peter’s heart by “the things of men.”  Dancing in Peter’s heart were visions of worldly honor and glory, of acclaim and acceptance by the crowds, of outward success for Jesus and those who followed him.   Peter’s fascination with “the things of men” shouted such a loud “No!” that it spilled from his mouth to Jesus’ ears and – worst of all – to ears and hearts of others who struggled with such “things of men.”

Where, may I ask, does Jesus need to warn us of that same danger?  Do you hear Jesus’ voice speaking to you through Mark’s inspired words:  “My dear under-shepherd, where is love for ‘the things of men’ harming your own soul and the souls I’ve entrusted to your care?”

Could it be that at times my people get the impression that I’m more invested in the prospering of my retirement accounts than in the gospel’s prospering in the hearts of straying and lost?  Might they be confused when my most animated conversations with them vividly capture the astounding comeback of my favorite team while my proclamation of the gospel is too often content to limp out onto the field in  trite and predictable language?  Do they find me more concerned about guarding my self-protecting conviction about my level of achievement as a (preacher or teacher or counselor or leader… feel free to fill in the blank) rather than humbly seeking out constructive criticism from the flock that just might reveal places where I could grow in serving them with the gospel?

Where is your Peter-like nature clinging to these or countless other “things of men”: its seeking of status in acceptance and praise, its never-satisfied craving for ease and comfort, its sedating of our hearts’ true hunger by exalting life’s passing pleasures to center-of-life status?  And even if we somehow did not care about that for our own souls (that would be, of course, a huge warning sign!), look behind you brothers:  there are others following behind you whose sinful nature will imitate our dangerous “things of this life” fascination.

And there has ever been and forever will be only one thing that can cure that: it is God’s plan to double-cross you!

First, his cross.  Nothing else can relieve our hearts of the soul-killing burden of our fixation on  the “things of men” more than learning anew each day the far greater beauty of the “things of God.”   In Sunday’s gospel one little word from Jesus rises above all the clamoring “things of men” to win us to delight in the boundless rescuing love of “the things of God.”  It is that little Greek verb δεῖ that governs the four infinitives that follow it.  It is nothing short of eternity altering that God’s own gracious heart would make suffering, rejection, crucifixion – and yes, finally resurrection! – “necessary” for his eternal Son.  Nothing forced his hand to do this.  It does not reach to the fullness of the reality of divine grace to say that our sin made it “necessary” for God to act.  Nothing but the deepest longings of his own merciful love made all these things “necessary” for his own Son.  At the heart of the “things of God”  is this eternally-strong-to-save pent-up flood (Isaiah 59:19) that God unleashed when the Son of God became the Son of Man.  The more we ponder the astounding beauty of those “things of God” the more we learn to see by comparison how frail and fractured and frivolous are “the things of men”!

And then Jesus double-crosses us!  Each day, as we glimpse again the beauty of the “things of God,” our Lord Jesus reveals another gift to aid us in the fight against the alluring “things of men.”  The gift is this: his cross inevitably brings with it our own.  While this gift always appears fearful at first, grace teaches  us to look past our cross’ rough edges to find at its heart our Savior’s gracious purpose.  Under our cross, patterned after his own, he teaches us to run to his strength (since our own will fail us!).  Only there do we find strength to say “no” to our sinful nature’s stubborn love affair with “the things of men.”  And right there we also learn this  difficult yet immensely comforting lesson:  when we embrace our cross we find to our surprise that we are actually embracing God’s love in Christ that surpasses in beauty everything else that can be known. And so, our souls are won to follow him as we learn the secret of contentment under his cross and ours!

And…oh yes…you are a leader in the church.  So, this double embrace of this double-cross has eternal significance far beyond yourself!  My brothers, you are privileged to invite others to join you in this dying to the sinful nature’s love affair with “the things of men.”  You are privileged to invite others to join you in fearing less and less to embrace the rough edges of their own crosses as they find the glorious surprise that what they are really embracing is the One whose love embraces them.  You are privileged, my brothers, to invite others to follow Jesus as the only life worth living – as it will be more than evident forever! And, when those who follow you wonder just what your words may mean, you, my brothers, are privileged to show them with your life!

Such is the double blessing of living and leading in the kingdom of the joyfully double-crossed!