No matter how much “system” we try to build into our systematic theology we will never get past the mystery that is God and his kingdom and until we come to grips with this uncomfortable truth we’ll constantly be stubbing our toes on the “stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall.” Nothing is more puzzling than God’s apparent commitment to the non-use of direct power in order to get the world out of the mess its in. For lots of skeptics, this strange non-action calls into question God’s character and competence, even his very existence. For some one like me, who makes a living serving Christ’s Church, it challenges my instincts as a leader and often puts me in a position where I find myself at odds with him. Let me try to explain…
The model of the successful pastor that’s been set before me, even in a laid back movement like ours is big on power and image. Be assertive, in control, and of course, stay busy (the thinking is, if you’re busy you must be good at what you do and therefore successful and in demand). But the problem I have is that this American “pastor of action” doesn’t jive with Jesus. Especially when it comes to how I use the power vested in me to carry out what I’ve accepted as my pastor-of-action’s job description: getting things done, solving problems, fixing people and righting wrongs. In all honesty, compared with the pastor-of-action, it seems to me that Jesus often deliberately chose an entirely different approach. Unlike the pastor of action, he was unhurried and seemingly uninterested in using direct power.
I can read your minds. Some of you are thinking, “Whoa, hold on a minute, Mike! How can you say that? What about all those miracles and assortment of direct interventions in the gospels?” Well Pastor John’s thinking would say that these displays of power were only signs of what he was up to not the program itself. For instance, after dazzling the crowds with his miraculous feeding, they were ready to crown him king right there on the spot. But he stopped them dead in their tracks and made it clear that he wasn’t interested. He hadn’t come to be some flashy superhuman welfare king. No he had bigger fish to fry. He had a more comprehensive program in mind. His ultimate saving action on behalf of the world would be the puzzling, weak and foolish exercise of passively surrendering himself to be killed, and if they wanted to get in on that “action” they too would have to surrender themselves and their take-charge ways as well. The crowd couldn’t accept such an unmessianic-like king who would insist on doing such an unmessianic thing as dying. That’s no way to lead. So they left him flat. Only the twelve were left scratching their heads, and I have to admit, many times I am too.
What do we make of this bizarre, up-side-down approach to power that Jesus was so committed to? Who, in ordered to straighten out this messed-up world would rather wash feet than knock some heads together? Why doesn’t God just use a bit of straight-up, strong-arm intervention to put things right? Well Martin Luther said it was because God isn’t like that, he’s completely the opposite, and that this use of direct power (he called it ‘right-handed’ power) or, better put, misuse of power, does not achieve God’s objective. God uses his power in a paradoxical way: Luther called it “left-handed power” and that it’s part of the mystery of the kingdom.
If Luther was right – and I think he was because this left-handedness helps me make some sense out of so much of the “not yet” of the kingdom such as the continued existence of evil and suffering in the world – one of the questions I have to ask is: What are the implications of this for those of us who have given our lives to getting things done for the kingdom? In my next post I’d like to start exploring this.