We all want power in our lives. Whether it’s our workplace, our church, our direction, or even our relationships, the quest for power over such things feeds an inner need for security that often transcends logic. If I could only make my boss do this, or make my pastor do that, then all would be right in the world and the church. Maybe the internal dialogue is more narcissistic? Well, if I was in charge, this wouldn’t be happening, and we’d have order, direction, and things would be better. The truth is, the pursuit of power is not only a worldly path to “freedom,” which fraught with an abundance of social issues, but it is also antithetical to the Gospel.
In the Gospel accounts, Jesus makes it abundantly clear: his mission is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Lk. 4:43). Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, and miracles are all signs that Kingdom of God is breaking into the world, and his role as the Messiah becomes clearer as time goes on (Lk. 11:20). The disciples, however, are still confused by the nature of the Kingdom of God and its messiah, confusing such things with the politics of the day. Where Jesus preaches a heavenly, transcendent kingdom erupting into the earthly plane, they see a physical Kingdom in the vein of Rome (Lk. 19:11). Where Jesus preaches a suffering messiah, they see an impenetrable conqueror coming to establish a new political order in Israel (and eventually the world) (Lk. 22:49-51). As such, the disciples begin to see their own role as “princes” in this new political order, not as messengers of good news. And like the princes and politicians of the world, they begin jockeying for position and power within the group.
Things come to a head one day on the road. Jesus overhears the disciples arguing, and then asks them to explain the matter. They ask Jesus, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Undoubtedly from the passages in Mark and Luke, we are to understand they were arguing with each other over who was the greatest but failed to admit that in their question to Jesus. In either case, Jesus knew their hearts and replied, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He then took a child and said “whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me” (Mk. 9:35-37).
Servants and children? What is Jesus talking about, the disciples must’ve thought. Servants and children were the bottom end of the social order. Why should Jesus’ closest friends have anything to do with that, especially when Jesus was about to establish his kingdom? What seemed confusing to the disciples makes sense considering Jesus’ grander discourse on the kingdom of God. It is an upside-down kingdom, where “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16) and “the poor in spirit” and “meek” will inherit everything (Mt. 5:3-5). And yet the disciples failed to fully understand, even after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter becomes jealous of John (Jn. 21:18-20), and the mother of James and John (the sons of Zebedee) wants to know which son will sit at Jesus’ right hand (Mt. 20:20-23). It is interesting that in both cases, Jesus is emphatic: those who wish to be first in the Kingdom must suffer as he has. To follow Christ is exemplify Christ in his humility and service, unto the point of death. Nowhere is this made more clear than Philippians 21-8:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Christ had every right to come down in the vestiges of a conquering king, who would lord his power over all the nations of the world. But he didn’t. He rejected this as a temptation of Satan (Lk. 4:5-7). To pursue power and control was akin to Devil Worship, which had plagued humanity since the beginning. Jesus came to establish a new paradigm for humanity, one that would lead to a a love-filled world and would be so different from the status quo that the kingdom of God couldn’t help but be rooted in our reality. Jesus is explicit about this difference:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mt. 20:25-28)
The Kingdom is not about the pursuit of power, it is about becoming a servant, nay, it is about become a slave to others. This is strong language, but it overstates an essential aspect of kingdom economics: only those who serve out of the humility of heart will rise to the top. This is the path of Christ from heaven to earth to heaven again. How many of us are willing to put our desire for power and control on the backburner to follow the sacrificial path of Christ?
What Now? Sacrifice in the Church Body
If we are people of the Kingdom of God, but find it difficult to release ambition, power, and control, how should we proceed? First, I believe it starts with an understanding of the Church as a Body. Paul makes it abundantly clear that the Church is a body (Rm. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4-5). As such, the members of the Church cannot be jockeying for power, politicking, or suppressing those they loath. Rather, according to Paul, members of the Church, in reflection of their belonging to the Kingdom of God, “belong to each other” (Rm. 12:5). Our objective is not conceit or power over others (v.4) but serving others in our unique calling (vv. 6-8).
Why should we serve others? It’s like a body, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). We are all called to serve others for the greater health of the Body, that is the Church. The moment a Christian pursues their own interests or dominance over others is the moment the Body (the Church) becomes unhealthy; toxic even. Churches or Christian organizations plagued by the disease of self-interest conform more to the pattern of Adam and Eve and Satan than Christ. Self-interest leads to polarization and ultimately tribalism; a kind of breaking down of the body into fragments that compete for life. Conversely, churches or Christian organizations cloaked in a communal practice of servitude and sacrifice reflect the core values of Jesus. These communal practices of servitude and sacrifice ultimately acknowledges that we all have a part to play, even those of us who feel insignificant. They also acknowledge that as Christ is the “head of the church,” he has called us to belong to each other in love. This acknowledgement of belonging, one to the other, has a cauterizing effect on damaged relationships. I cannot hate or supress what is a part of me, no more than I can hate a part of my body. My only choice is to love.
This is where things breakdown. Love is hard. It’s also easier to serve from sense of “duty” than it is to serve out of a genuine love for people, especially those who have hurt you or think differently than you. How do we get to a truly meaningful, selfless, love-oriented posture of service?
The path to service and sacrifice, which is born of a selfless love for the other begins in understanding our own need of grace. Paul states it more succinctly:
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4:31-42).
There were moments in the past decade where I was consumed by negative feelings towards those in the Church who had wronged me. It was not until I understood the depth of my propensity to hurt the heart of God (and others), and then experience his overwhelming grace in Christ, that I could journey from rage to compassion and from selfishness to a willingness to serve even my “enemies.” In fact, as difficult as the process was, it was this revolutionary grace that gave me a desire to see such enemies as family. As such, the thought of wanting to see others fail for the hurt they caused me, gradually turned into wanting to see others succeed, and ultimately offering what little skillsets I had to see that happen. Was it easy? No. Was it necessary for me to reflect more of the selfless image of Christ? Absolutely. But getting there was a slog, and there are still days when I struggle to get there. Understanding that I needed far more grace from Christ than even my enemies required of me is great starting point.
The missional consequences of pursuing sacrifice and servitude (as opposed to self-interest and power) cannot be understated. Jesus himself tells us that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). Jesus says this after demonstrating the kind of love he was referring to by washing the disciples’ feet. If the world is going to believe in the Kingdom of God, and that it has truly arrived, it’ll need to be established through people willing to wash each other’s feet.
The foot washing imagery is provocative. There is a sense of intimacy and purity, two concepts which are rarely connected. Jesus’ display of intimacy demonstrates a level of love and trust we often fail to experience in Christian community. And sometimes it’s not contingent on whether we trust someone. Jesus washed Judas’ feet despite his pending betrayal. This is the kind of humble, no-holds-barred love that is laid out for us to play out. As such, we are talking about a familial intimacy, the kind experienced between siblings. Despite scraps, arguments, and bruises, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for my siblings, even give my very life itself.
Added to this is a sense that foot washing acts as a purification ritual. My intimate, familial love, my closeness to my Christian family, is a healing balm; righting my relationships with others, even those who have hurt me. It confronts my bitterness, substituting rage for compassion, skepticism for hope, and ashes for beauty. It is the resurrection power at work in the body of the Church.
Missionally, this is so antithetical to systems of this world that when the wounded forgives the wounder, the world gasps with wonder. Forgiveness and love of this level is so compelling, and against human nature, that for the first time, a sin-bound human recognizes something has occurred outside human ability, something utterly supernatural. It’s a flash of life in dying world, a blip of a heartbeat after a long straight line. But it only happens when we lay down our ambition and desire for power over ourselves and others.