Summary: Using a Servant Song of Isaiah 50 and Paul’s self-defense to the Corinthians, this sermon lays out the basic marks of a Christian leader.
How do you recognize a Christian leader?
A sermon on Quinquagesima Sunday
John Maxwell is the head of an organization called “Maximum Impact,” which from its website appears to have the mission of turning men and women into "impactful" leaders. One ministry web site calls him one of the contemporary church’s leading authorities on leadership. I do not mention John Maxwell in order to criticize him, for to be honest, I know very little about him. I do know that his website and similar websites tout one of his books entitled “21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.”
I was honestly surprised by the number “21” in the title, knowing as I do how much premium is usually placed on brevity and conciseness and memorability in modern communications. Three indispensable Qualities of a Leader” would have been more like it. But 21? How can you keep all those in your head at once?
I’m not surprised that John Maxwell seems to have a thriving enterprise. When you survey Christendom today, particularly American Christendom, leadership seems to be one of its major problems. A man I greatly admire once remarked that Protestants do not have a pope, they have thousands of them. And, perhaps, that would not be such a problem if it were not for the fact that few of them seem to be like any of the others. The Catholics have just one, and that has to be something of an advantage.
But, we are not Catholics, and whether we pay our spiritual allegiance to one pope or a dozen popes, or a hundred popes, we have to ask ourselves this question: how is it that we are to evaluate those all around us who offer us leadership in spiritual things? I know I put myself at some considerable risk of misunderstanding by raising this question with you today, for in the polity of our church I am the most immediate Christian leader you have to deal with. But, the readings for today, particularly Paul’s comments to the Corinthians, more or less force my hand.
You see, Paul’s leadership of the Corinthian Church – his standing as their Bishop, as it were – was under attack by men within the congregation who had some pretty biting, harmful, and rebellious things to say about Paul. They diminished, criticized, and dismissed Paul in order to enhance their own standing within that congregation. Paul writes this section of the 2nd Corinthian Epistle to answer them.
And as it is prescribed for our Prayer Service today, I intend to take a look at what Paul has to say, and then to apply it to those around us who claim our attention to their spiritual leadership. Paul is defending his credentials as an apostle, as the Father of the Corinthian Church, as the leader of the congregation to which he writes. What, then, does he say about those credentials? How are we to recognize leaders like Paul when we encounter them?
The first credential of a leader that emerges here is knowledge of the mind of God. In the contest Paul engages, this credential has the form of direct revelations and visions from the Lord. His detractors are boasting that they have had visions and revelations from God, and on that basis they put themselves forth as leaders and criticize Paul’s leadership.
Paul’s response is a curious mixture of personal embarrassment and oblique testimony about himself. He feels shame at having to mention the revelations and visions he has received, so much shame that he won’t even report them in the first person. He says, “I know a man …” and then goes on to relate the barest outlines of the things he has seen and heard. The reference to the Third Heaven is a colloquial term for the very throne room of God Himself, the Holy of Holies in the Highest Heaven.
It is an astounding claim. And, unlike those in Corinth who boast of what they saw and heard in their visions, Paul will say nothing about what he saw and heard. Indeed, he insists that such a report would be both impossible, and if it were possible, it would be unlawful.
So, Paul makes clear that he has just as much – if not more – standing to boast about visions and revelations as anyone. He knows God’s mind about a great many matters, but he does not boast about it. Why? Because it show him to be what a bona fide leader of Christians should never be: prideful.
A Christian leader must know the mind of God, AND secondly, he must show himself to be a humble steward of it. Paul says, “For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.” Paul did not want anyone to think more highly of him than what would be seeing and hearing him as it is. Paul is one of those “what you see is what you get” kind of guys.” Paul was insisting, “take me as I am, not as I claim to be based on things you cannot verify” – such as these claims to visions and revelations. This is humility, this is the opposite of prideful boasting, which Paul insists he will not engage in, though his detractors engage in it constantly.