Editor’s Note: The following post is based on a short talk by Richard Underwood at PRC At Home 2021, developed and expanded by Richard Collins.
Competitiveness in the church.
The very idea is distasteful. ‘Surely not,’ we say, ‘aren’t we all on the same team?’ Of course we are.
And yet . . .
During lockdown, who knows what’s going on out there? It’s enough to get the mind buzzing. Perhaps when we return to the building, the churches we serve will be half the size they were before. Where have all the people gone? Who will pay my salary? Why is the church down the road filled with my former church members? Was this because my Zoom services weren’t appealing enough? (See my post called Coveting during Covid.)
Today, some wonderful (expanded) reflections from Richard Underwood to address our insecurities.
From the first moment I considered the subject of competition, my mind immediately went to John 13 – the foot-washing incident. It is well known to many Christians, and communicates so much about service and humility. But, as with many of the things Jesus did and taught, there are deeper truths to be mined.
Three things struck me . . .
Jesus serves out of a sense of his identity. I’m struck by the way that John emphasizes what Jesus knows. In verse 1, we read,
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. (John 13.1a)
Jesus’ knowledge surfaces again a bit later. In verse 3, we read,
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal . . . (John 13.3 & 14a)
The conclusion we should draw? Jesus acts in the light of what he knows. About his future. About his Heavenly Father. About his calling and destiny. In the gospel of John, we see Jesus’ relationship with his heavenly father most clearly, climaxing in his prayer in chapter 17. It’s tempting to conclude that Jesus, in his divine nature, just coasted through life. He was God after all, we say. But that’s not how he lived at all. Instead, he provided a model for us of what it means to trust God. And he trusts because of what he knows about his Father and himself.
What about us? What do we know about ourselves?
Our identity, to the very core of our being, is ‘in Christ.’ So we must learn to serve out of our identity ‘in Christ.’ I love the way Jesus describes his disciples as ‘his own.’ We belong to him. We are his. We are safe. We are treasured. How reassuring that is. When we see ourselves that way – ‘his own,’ we’re released to serve without strings. We have nothing to prove and nothing to lose.
Competition is based on winning and losing. In sports, this is celebrated; in business, it’s the way of the world, but in the church, it has no place. Because we ALL belong to Jesus. We are secure and safe and our service is for him, and for his glory alone. That’s liberating.
Don’t for a moment think that this self-knowledge insulates Jesus from the pain of his circumstances. John tells us that Jesus was ‘troubled in spirit.’ So . . .
Jesus serves even when he’s under pressure. Here is the Lord Jesus on the threshold of his own torment. And yet he’s the one who gets up from the table and washes dirty feet.
This virus has called us to serve others even when our own hearts are breaking . . . to comfort others even when we feel desperately in need of comfort . . . to strengthen others even when we feel pitifully weak. We must learn to serve even when we’re under pressure. 2 Corinthians 12 immediately comes to mind.
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12.10).
This is the way of God. In his upside-down kingdom, he lifts the lowly and humbles the proud. Here’s another gem from St. Paul:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor. 1.27-29).
Serving God under pressure is impossible without complete reliance on his strength, his grace, his mercy, his life-giving Spirit. Pressure illuminates the heart. If we rely on anything but our God, pressure will show us up for who we are. So who are you? Whom will you trust? Where will you go when you’re struggling? It’s really okay to be weak. For when you are weak, then you are, in fact, where you should be – in a position to depend completely on your Lord.
Last one . . .
Jesus teaches us to receive as well as give. Perhaps this is the hardest lesson of all. It certainly was for Simon Peter. As Jesus is working his way along the line, we can almost see him drawing his legs up under his cloak. But he’s got a lesson to learn—he needs to receive as well as to give. In the biblical narrative, this incident leaves a lasting impression on Peter. In his first letter, he writes,
And all of you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another; for the scripture says, “God resists the proud, but shows favour to the humble” (1 Peter. 5.5).
You can imagine Peter as he writes. He’s remembering Jesus as he was moving down the line, a swirl of conflicting emotions filling his heart and mind. He hadn’t wanted to be washed at all. Not me, Lord! But Jesus had insisted. And so he had learned to submit; he had learned to receive as well as give.
Leaders are so bound up with their identities as servants, sometimes it can be hard to receive. But leaders are no different to the rest of the body. We all need each other. Indeed, we were created to need each other, to receive from each other, to pray for each other, to love each other. Love calls for openness and vulnerability; love is humble, it is not proud. In acknowledging need, we do not cease to be a leader. We become a leader who’s prepared to let others in. That’s good and right.
So learn to receive as well as give.
I wonder which of these lessons speaks to you today? What is God saying to you as you read and reflect?
For these lessons are timeless and true.
At a time when leaders are weary and under pressure, let us look to Jesus who serves . . .
Out of his identity.
Even when under pressure.
And teaches us to receive as well as give.
To him be the glory.