Starting Right: Responding to Power and Control in Ministry

We can only use our imaginations as to what the setting looked like. I can imagine a warm, sunny day, given the time of year. Probably similar to my Northern California climate. Mediterranean. High pressures. Paradise. 

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He rode through the streets on a donkey - much to the amazement and bewilderment of those first century onlookers by the side of the road. Old men searching for hope; women holding children in their arms; young kids cheering with excitement - all searching for the nearest broken palm branches to wave back and forth.

“Did he see me?”

“Can you believe this? Is this what we have been expecting for so long?"

“Could this man really be the Messiah?”

“He’s that guy, Jesus. He rose Lazarus from the dead. He's the one the Scripture prophesied about!”

After Jesus reached the end of his ride, he proclaimed, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory.”

All those listening must have raised their voices, shouted with a triumph, hugged, wept, and prayed prayers of thanksgiving. Jesus, their Savior, our Savior, finally entered into Jerusalem after generations of expectant anticipation. The time had approached for the Son of Man to assume his place in history as the restorer, the redeemer, the Savior! Indeed, the time had come.

But it looked quite different from what many had expected.

Jesus announced to them, “My light will shine for you just a little longer. Walk in the light while you can, so the darkness will not overtake you. Those who walk in darkness cannot see where they are going. Put your trust in the light while there is still time; then you will become children of the light.”

John records that after Jesus spoke these words he went away and was hidden from the people, and as quickly as the commotion started, it came to a screeching halt. 

In a matter of hours, the collective emotions of the people raised from a state of sheer exhilaration to utter confusion. Their Savior had entered through those long awaited gates, and the covenant established between God and a man of the wilderness was fulfilled before their eyes, right?

It was as if the wool had been pulled over their eyes. Was this a joke? A magic trick?

Can you blame the doubters and skeptics for not believing in him? John wrote in the subsequent verses of chapter 12 that many of those present refused to believe in Jesus. I don’t blame them. Jesus doesn't makes sense, including what he did next. 

“Follow me up here. I want to share something with you. Please sit. Take off your sandals.”

Here’s how John recorded it, 

“Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave the world and return to his Father. He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end. It was time for supper and Satan had already prompted Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 

"So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel round his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then, he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that he had around him.” (John 13:1-6 NLT)

Jesus then proceeded to wash his disciples' feet one by one. He looked at them, felt their skin, and knelt before them without pretension or prejudice. He loved these men. He humiliated himself into a posture of servitude for one purpose: to demonstrate true love and obedience in response to power and control.

Jesus washed the feet of men who would betray him, deny him, and later die for him. In one simple act, he bore witness to the Kingdom ethics that he had taught and showed them.

He modeled for his disciples in the upper room an approach to 'starting right.’ He knew what lay ahead. Jesus even remarked about it after arriving to Jerusalem on his donkey. Only days remained before Jesus walked to his death. Every moment mattered, and what he did in that upper room forever altered the disciples' understanding of the Kingdom definitions of leadership and power. 

Jesus offered his disciples a response to the brute power and overbearing control of culture. In the moments prior to Jesus kneeling with a towel around him, he arrived at Jerusalem to the praise and admiration of thousands cheering, waving palms, and shouting for his rise and assumption to power over the empire! The people called for his ascent to the throne! Hail King Jesus! Yet, in a matter of just a few verses, he turned those same chanting believers into skeptics. The people wanted a king. Jesus responded through meek gentleness in the form of a servant. Jesus, the Son of God, the creator of all power, knelt down before his rag-tag band of closest followers and negated all prestige and control through the ultimate demonstration of power: humility and servanthood.  He flipped the common, cultural narrative of our human experience on its head. He showed them through the simple act of kneeling and washing feet that virtues such as humility and servanthood possess far greater leadership and power capability than the more overt, accepted dynamics of dominance and control. 

Jesus offered his disciples a third way option way through which to show compassion and care. Jesus demonstrated true restraint by not using his real and deserved power. John recorded this event as the single most pivotal one before Jesus’ prayer discourse and passion. It is the linchpin between Jesus’ ministry on earth and the final enactment of God’s redemptive plan through the cross and resurrection.

Jesus demonstrated a blueprint for what his followers ought to do in the face of power. In a brief moment within the setting of human history, Jesus stood in the gap between the Kingdom of Heaven and the powers and principalities of our world. He thwarted the culture, thereby displaying a concrete example of what living into the right order of life and faith looks like.

Jesus commissioned his disciples into servant leadership. He lived out an ethic to which we may now respond in the midst of our highest highs and lowest lows.  Disciples everywhere know both of these realities all too well. The disciples experienced the highest high of acclaim as they journeyed into Jerusalem accompanied by their lowest low of Jesus’ death a few days later. Like you, I personally experience the constant wave of highs of power and admiration and the lows of failure and turmoil - sometimes even in the same day. Those of you in ministry know exactly what I mean. As quickly as their adventure with him began, it ended. Seven days later, Jesus launched them out into the world to keep the redemptive mission of God going. Through this simple act, Jesus showed them all about how to start right.

You’re part of this long lineage of Jesus followers called to leadership within his church! Your next days and weeks ahead matter - both for your people and for you! It's imperative that wherever you are in your faith adventure with God - whether you're a Pastor, volunteer, or caring adult - that you start right! 

You will undoubtedly face flirtations with power and control within your ministry, and it will probably happen sooner than you think. Literally days after I started in full-time ministry, I began facing temptations to use my power and control in ways that would undermine my church and call. At that time, I faced the all too real question, 'in what god do I place my trust: God the Father or the god of my desires?’ The line between the two can seem at times almost indistinguishable - until we remember that God the Father actually demonstrated for us how to respond in the face of power and control. Knowing the distinctions between manipulative power and the right use of God's power used through you - and then making the decision now to start right - will mean all the difference in the world for your life and call to ministry. 

Starting right means setting into motion the same Kingdom ethic that Jesus modeled during his life and ministry on his way to the cross.

Starting right means incorporating prayer and spiritual disciplines into your life now in order to best safe guard your life and call. 

Starting right means doing the hard work of study and preparation.

Starting right means approaching the new systems and structures of your church with humility and gentleness, learning the ways and means of the community, and serving those with whom you work. 

Starting right means listening to every “Congratulations” and “We’re so glad you’re here” and “You’re so much better than the other guy” with an ear of gratitude, respect, and a short account. Those kinds of compliments possess potential to undermine your true call if the power and prestige behind those words penetrate your heart too deeply. 

Starting right means living a life worthy of the calling to which you have received. 

So, get on it and start right... 

QUESTION: What practical safe measures have you put into place to guard yourself against the temptation of power and control?