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Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of the Way

Now that I have become a grandfather, I am reconnected with the world of children and their games. I have been reminded of the games I used to play when I was young and carefree, games that allowed me to pass the time with great joy and satisfaction. I listen with quiet glee as my grandchildren and their friends rehearse the old rhymes while jumping rope. To my amazement, the words are still familiar to me, still rhythmic, still able to bring smiles and eager participation. The new, electronic games are fun in their own way. They make noises I never heard in my youth and display lights and images that probably would have scared my generation to death. Sometimes I am so relieved to see that these modern inventions have not replaced the classic exercises of mind and memory and creative invention. From what I observe, there still is nothing quite like a good game of hide and seek, and nothing quite as challenging as going to a public park for a good old fashioned round of follow the leader.

Follow the leader is so incredibly democratic because everyone who wants to can fully participate. All you have to do is get in line, go where the leader goes, and do what the leader is doing. How beautiful it is to see a small army of children going up and down the slide, around the sandbox, and under the swings, happy to be a part of a group on the move, content to allow the imagination of the leader to shape their experience of play, and perfectly willing to even risk staining their clothes and scuffing their shoes if that's what following the leader requires. The leader can get everybody into trouble, or the leader can safely take everyone on an exciting journey through the wonders of the park. Follow the leader is so much like life itself. How blessed we are when we can trust the hearts and minds of good and faithful leaders.

On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples a question, a question that is designed to examine their fitness as leaders: "Who do others say that I am, and who do you say that I am?" The Greek word for 'you' is plural in this case, and the question is addressed to all of Jesus' followers, even his followers today. In every generation, this is the defining question concerning our ministry in the world. How do we speak of Jesus? What do our words reveal about our faith concerning him? And perhaps even more important than our words, what do our public and private actions reveal about our convictions concerning Jesus' true identity, Jesus' interests, and Jesus' intent toward the world today?

People outside the church have an abundance of opinions, and we encounter them constantly. Leaders of most major world religions today are willing to speak of Jesus with great respect. Some describe him as a holy prophet, a wise teacher, an enlightened spirit, a bearer of ancient truth, and a master of the sacred mysteries. Often, though, their followers are left with vague images of Jesus, images that neglect the witness of the sacred story and the imperatives of the gospel's mission. The Jesus that they speak of may never challenge the world's narrow individualism, rebuke the world¹s political apathy, nor identify the consequences of the world¹s indifference to the suffering of others. Their Jesus does not force people to examine their cravings for wealth and power. Their Jesus may never speak of sin and the spiritual consequences of wicked and foolish behavior.

People tend to say whatever they feel like saying about Jesus, according to their moods and their subjective interpretations. But leaders who speak and minister and work in the name of Jesus have to come to terms with the fullness of his identity, the Anointed One who would suffer rejection and shame at the hands of religious leaders, be crucified, and on the third day rise up victorious over the power of death. Peter's response to Jesus' prediction concerning these events reflects the difficulties so many of us have in grasping the totality of who Jesus is and an understanding of what he requires of his disciples. It can be so easy to ask Jesus to meet our needs and fulfill our expectations, and yet so difficult to follow his leadership when his way appears unpopular, uncomfortable, and uncompromising. No wonder our maturity as Christian leaders comes only through an ongoing process which requires constant openness to the Holy Spirit, faithful devotion to the biblical word, and honest confession as we discover how easily we leave God's side and get into Jesus' way.

According to Mark 8, Peter is able to confess the profound truth: "You are the Christ. You are the Messiah." He uses the right words, but he has trouble accepting their full implication. Jesus has to confront him, even rebuke him, and demand that Peter recognize the danger of his confusion. Get behind me, Satan! These are some of the strongest words in all of scripture, spoken to a man we know Jesus loved with all his heart. The work of the kingdom of God is this serious, and everyone who is baptized into Christ has to learn to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

In the church of Jesus Christ, we participate in our own version of follow the leader. Sometimes the work of Christian leaders is focused on training and mentoring and encouraging new leaders. We share leadership so that people will come to recognize and utilize their gifts as leaders who are called to a variety of ministries. At other times, we prepare ourselves for one kind of leadership only to discover that God is drawing us into areas of service that demand far more from us than we ever thought possible. As we follow the leader who liberates our spirits, we can be drawn into the struggle for justice and become leaders who God uses to help liberate others.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a professional theologian. During World War II, he could have stayed safely in New York and participated in stateside efforts to combat Nazi tyranny, but he chose a path of leadership that took him home to Germany where he became a courageous leader of the church's resistance. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer shows how his leadership was rooted in the conviction that to endure the cross is not a tragedy, it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident but a necessity. How is the Christian to know what kind of cross is meant for him? He will find out as soon as he begins to follow his Lord and share his life. This indestructible faith allowed Dietrich Bonhoeffer to face death as a martyr, secure in the promise that his living was not in vain.

Harriet Tubman was a brave woman who escaped slavery during the Civil War. Despite a huge reward for her capture, she returned to the slave-holding states over nineteen times to lead hundreds of African-Americans out of slavery's clutches into territory where they could live with liberty. Harriet Tubman was a Christian and she became a great warrior in the battle to dismantle the cruel institution of slavery. When asked about the source of her fearless strength, she would always say: "It wasn't me, it was the Lord. I always told him, ?I trust you. I don't know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me.¹ And he always did." Harriet Tubman, the Black Moses, was never captured, and there are countless stories like these, and new stories are being told daily. They are the stories of Christian people who learn to lead because they keep rediscovering what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Personally, I would never want to found standing in Jesus' way. I can't imagine rebuking the Lord and telling him that his words are false and reckless and misguided. Yet, every time I join my congregation in an act of public confession of our sins, I am acknowledging my own failure to love God with my whole heart and to love my neighbor as myself. I am admitting that left on my own, I am not on God's side, despite my best intentions. I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself. I am a leader who is standing in Jesus' way.

But as the old song goes, Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work's in vain; but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. When we say to one another: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all, we are expressing a promise that revives and restores leaders who have lost their way. We are calling on a power that can make a way out of no way and certainly make a way out of the mess that human leaders can make in their failure to stay on God's side. We are being renewed because the One who conquered sin, death, and the devil is still leading, forgiving our faults, and reviving our souls again and again! And so the church continues to sing its song of faith: Lead on, lead on, O King eternal through days of preparation, your grace has made us strong.

If we were to read ahead to Mark chapter 9, it would seem that the disciples are still standing in Jesus' way, for we find them rebuking the people who are bringing children for Jesus to touch and bless. And we find that Jesus is indignant at their poor leadership, and he has to instruct them: "Let these children come to me and do not hinder them because they are your leaders today and they know how to receive my kingdom. You must learn from them." Isn't this the beauty of our calling? For we can paraphrase the African proverb and say that in the church of Jesus Christ, it takes a whole village to raise up the leaders. What can the children teach us that we never knew? What will the elders show us and remind us that we should never forget? Who is willing to listen? Who is willing to follow? And who do you say that Jesus is?