All Saint’s Leadership; a Matter of Integrity

Posted: November 1, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 21A

Matthew 23:1-12

All Saint’s Leadership; a Matter of Integrity

Two of the readings assigned to this week by the lectionary mirror each other, one from I Thessalonians and the other from Matthew 23. In the case of the Mathew one where Jesus’ description of the religious leaders, the suggestion is that their errors come from a number of areas. The first being separating themselves from others, and the second from claiming a special position in relationship with God, and thirdly from assuming a type of authority that is beyond human reach. Here is the challenge that comes with being charged with a teaching and influencing role like sharing the good news, we need to share it with humility and for the well-being of others and not our self-aggrandizement or ego-boosting. We are mere mortals, and yet we have been entrusted with a message that joins, rather than separates us, from others, its task is a binding together in brokenness and healing. It does imply however in raising the error that we can as Thessalonians and the words of Jesus suggest, mediate the good news through words of wisdom and love, and this should be our goal, whether teaching, preaching, or sharing with one another. Sharing the gospel is not about telling others what we have but rather inviting others to walk the journey with us. Let the gospel speak for itself as opposed to telling others what we think it is.

Is this leadership challenge just about the minister or is it all of us? When we talk about leadership is it leadership by the Saints for the saints? I think that we need to put down the status issue for a bit and see the challenge of leadership being a challenge to all people. To see that leadership is not just about some being out front but also about all being up front, leadership is not just about introducing the new and novel but also about making it stand on the old and become something new, not just about assuming the risk associated with something new but also about deconstructing the risk. Not just about presenting the Way of Jesus but making it authentic, Leadership of all the Saints is a matter of integrity. My claim for this view is that the Greek word behind leadership concept is simply leader which is more likely to be a reference to anyone in a position of authority. The problem that Jesus is addressing in this passage is not the specific words that we use to address those in authority over us. But rather how leaders of one kind or another act towards people over whom they have authority. Jesus is not calling us to avoid having leaders, he is calling us to have leaders–and to be leaders–who are humble, who have the best interests of others in mind at all times, and who are constantly listening for the voice that ask the question, ’Who benefits from this claim, suggestion, assumption or invitation? This is very likely a timely text for the church today as we wrestle with what the gospel is that we share, what is the good news we want to share? And if we think we have a handle on that how do we go about getting others to walk that path with us?

 

We are very aware that in our time, in this particular period of human history the church is in a time of transition, a time where many are feeling dissatisfied with the interpretation of the Gospel message that satisfied previous generations. Many no longer participate in what we know as Church. And among those who do participate many feel that the church needs to drastically rethink its theology and mission. Alongside both those groups is the group that fears such rethinking as ‘watering down’ Biblical truths and consequently condemning ourselves and our world. The reality is however that whatever camp one is in there is a dramatic shift underway and the common question is ‘what does it mean to be a Christian.

As good strong Presbyterians we are also aware that how we read the Bible is key to how we understand our faith. If you take the Bible to be directly and literally applicable to our lives today, you have to either take the whole thing literally (which most of us would agree causes a LOT of problems), or we have to pick and choose the bits we think are relevant (which then means we have interfered with God’s literal word and so caused a lot more problems). Alternatively the Bible can be seen as a collection of historical documents – poetry, folklore, songs, stories, historical accounts – making up a rich and fascinating history of God relating to people. Those who still hold to a theistic interventionist God can hold on to this selection of writings can be God-breathed, inspired and relevant but never intended to be an instruction manual for life. Those of us who question a theistic interventionist God can still value the bible as material depicting the thoughts and aspirations of the time of their writing as they interpreted who Jesus was for them and what the gospel was. And we can take responsibility for what he means to us and what the gospel is that we share and today. And with today’s text we can find a way to show leadership in this scenario.

Matthew as storyteller is quite blunt about how to go about leadership, he does not tolerate fools easily, and he will not countenance smugness and elitism. He has Jesus passing comment on some of the Jewish leaders of the day: “do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach”. Matthew’s Jesus, says that leadership is a matter of integrity where one’s inner life and external behavior are in synch. Or as one commentator has put it: “Without orthopraxis [right action], orthodoxy [right belief] is of little value.” (Epperly.P&F web site, 2005)

And like all challenges Jesus left with his people and subsequently with us nothing is easy. Clarity about what to do always underestimates the nature of change. We here in the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand had an inkling of this when we remember what welcome Lloyd Geering got when he asked the church to look at the story differently. And Australians learnt this when Francis Macnab, called for ’a new faith for the 21st century’, “a faith beyond orthodox Christianity”. We here in the New Zealand church put Lloyd on trial while the uniting Church wrote pastoral letters and called for the parish to withdraw its advertising on the grounds that ‘it gave offense to Jews, and many Christians’. It didn’t offer any proof that offence had been taken but then being right transcended having integrity. Phrases like “outside the teachings of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, and “contrary to the scriptures” were used and isn’t it interesting that similar phrases have been used to ban gay and lesbian from Ministry in our church. Again the gospel is built on a fallible status given to the bible. One that disallows interpretation in favour of manipulation. In essence the shame of it all is that both the theological student and the thinking lay person has been denied any option other than conservative orthodoxy.

Last week in the lectionary Sunday was reformation Sunday and it was in September 1965 that Lloyd Geering wrote an article for Outlook for Reformation Sunday where he asked the question: “Is the Christian faith inextricable bound up with the world-view of ancient mankind, which has now been superseded, or can the substance of it be translated into the world-view of twentieth century mankind? (Geering 2006:131)

 

Some readers heard this and reckoned what he said was ‘the word of God for our age!’

But it was the second article six months later, on ‘the resurrection’ which had others reacting furiously! Even the editor of the mag Outlook, on receiving the original article, felt uneasy. So much so that not only did he seek advice from his Board, he also sent a copy of the article to Professor William Barclay in Scotland, to obtain his opinion. Barclay wrote back that Geering’s article “largely represented his own views, but that he would never dare say so publicly in Scotland!” (Geering 2006:134)

And here we have it, the question of leadership that Jesus addresses through Matthew Never dare say so publicly… Even though one of his university colleagues, Gregor Smith, had just published a book called Secular Christianity, with similar views, and the book “never caused so much as a ripple in Scotland.” (Geering 2006:134) Another note of interest was that when the NZ Moderator issued a Pastoral Letter to the Church membership back then, he confessed: by saying what Lloyd had said; ‘the gap between the pulpit and pew in the understanding of the Bible has been too great for too long.’ (Geering 2006:134)

For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity. For Macnab, Geering, and many, many others leadership and integrity and honesty must all be in synch. Anyone who believes that the Christian faith is a pre-packed and unalterable teaching, doesn’t get it! For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity. And so it should be for us. Amen.

Notes:

Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne. Abacada Press, 1971.

Geering, L. Wrestling With God. The Story of my Life. Exeter. Imprint Academic, 2006.

PS: A colleague, John W Smith and I, have edited a book, published by Polebridge Press. The book’s title is: Why Weren’t We Told! A Handbook on Progressive Christianity. This book contains an interesting chapter written by Paul Alan Laughlin on ‘progressives’ reclaiming the ‘heretics’.

 

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