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Humble Leadership

We are called to follow Jesus' example of humble leadership.


The goal for this series, "Four Pillars of a Healthy Community," is for us to look at the vision that Jesus was putting on display when he washed his disciple's feet. That's the account we have in front of us, John 13:1-17. We're looking at this passage four different times, and we're going to draw out four different implications. The purpose really is for us to grow into a healthy community according to Jesus on a corporate level, as a whole church.

We're going to talk about leadership today. We're going to talk about humble leadership, which is the first pillar of a healthy community as Jesus has displayed it. I understand that a lot of us have a history with leaders. Some of us have had a good history with leaders: we've had loving parents, we've had good bosses, we've had nurturing teachers, and we've had life-giving role models and mentors. If you're in that place, for you, leadership is not a fraught topic. For many of us, we've had experiences with leadership that have gone badly. If we get a sense for someone who has power, we want to stay away from that person, we regard that person as suspect and that might even make us no longer desire leadership.

We're all familiar with the phrase, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," That's a Nietzschian phrase. Friedrich Nietzsche didn't say it, but that's what he taught. He basically taught, power is bad, and if you have it, you'll become a bad person. If you have a lot of it, you'll become a really bad person. What makes that phrase so compelling is that we can all pool together some real life anecdotes, real life experiences of how we've seen power go bad. We've all seen leaders go off the rails once they have a little bit of power.

Some of us have had both positive and negative experiences with spiritual leadership, church leadership. Even if you haven't had bad experiences with church leadership, you've heard about, seen, read blog posts about high profile people who abuse their power. They use it to take advantage of people. They lose touch with reality and all kinds of people get hurt. You read about or experience a church or spiritual leader abusing their power, and it really does feel like power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think a lot of us have been in a place where we think, You know what, it's just probably better to stay away from leadership. I don't want to be a leader, I don't want leaders to get close to me.

Jesus modeled a different way, and he actually put it before his disciples, not as an unrealistic ideal, but he actually called them into it, into what I'm calling humble leadership. Humble leadership is when you have some authority, you have some power, you have an ability to set the tone, influence others, which we all do, and you exercise it intentionally for others' flourishing. Rather than using it for your own survival, rather than using it for your own privilege or comfort, you use it for others' good.

We're going to look at three qualities in a humble leader that contribute to that. I want you to recognize that you have leadership power and ability. You have influence. That fact that you are alive and that you can interact with other people means that you can, whether you have a title or not, set the tone and influence the environments that you move in. It's part of bearing the image of God. The image of God is within you no matter what you're doing, whether your life feels like it's moving somewhere or not, you bear the image of God. Because of that, you have an ability to shape the world, and that's a good thing.

A humble leader has a secure identity

The first quality that we see in the life of Jesus is that a humble leader has a secure identity. Their identity is secure in the love of God. If you don't have a secure identity in the love of God, you cannot be a humble leader.

A brief backdrop on this passage, this passage is about the end of Jesus' life. Jesus was the Son of God, he came from God in order to connect humanity back with God, to redeem us, to reconcile us, and to make all things new in the world. He was coming up to the point of his death, and he realized that the people that he was closest to were going to need to understand what was going to happen, which was a cruel death followed by a resurrection. Jesus wanted to interpret that event before it happened so that his disciples could understand, Oh that's what it means, and that's why he died and that's why he rose again. So he gathered them all into a Passover meal, and he did what no one else wanted to do, he washed their feet.

We have no good carry-over for washing feet in our day, it's kind of a little weird for us, but just to give us some background about what washing feet was, think about public restrooms. Rest stops along the interstate, public restrooms at a beach, public restrooms anywhere you go. If public restrooms are not cleaned, it becomes a disaster for humanity. Even if you don't like the idea of public restrooms; you kind of sometimes really need them. So it's really necessary that those things get cleaned, but it's not necessarily something that a lot of people want to do. Now, in the ancient world, washing feet was akin to cleaning public restrooms. It was necessary and also kind of nasty. Number one, closed-toe shoes didn't exist and number two, the garbage disposal and sewage disposal systems didn't exist. Number three, populations were incredibly dense, and number four, everybody walked everywhere. I could list a few other things, but the sum total of all of that is that feet were nasty. Feet were absolutely nasty, and unless feet were washed, you couldn't be in the same room with other people.

Here's what would happen: people would gather together, the person with the lowest status in the room would size up who's got more status than me, when they realized they were the lowest status person, this person would realize the situation and do the feet washing. Without any fanfare, without drawing any attention, they would get the basin and towel, go around, and wash everyone's feet. Because of how hard it was to do this job, it was usually reserved for the lowest of the servants, the lowest status person.

Jesus decides to show the disciples what he came to earth to do and what the cross means, what his whole mission means. In this act he wanted to show them a new way for operating in the Christian world. He drew attention to himself, and he put on servants' clothes, and he took a towel and put it around his shoulders, and he went around and he washed all of their feet. Then he stood up and said, "Do you see what I just did? I as your leader and your Lord served you, and I want you to take this pattern and repeat it in a number of different ways. I want this quality to define the life of the church. I want it to define the way the church relates with the world, I want it to define the way the church relates with the church, I want this to be what leaders in the church do. Which is, they take their privilege and they take their power, and they use it to serve people and for others' flourishing. I want you to do that as well. Because that's what it means when I'm on the cross for you, and that's what it means when I'm interceding for you before the Father's right hand."

Now Jesus could not have done that, he could not have exercised that humble leadership if he did not have a secure identity in the love of God. Look at verse three. Jesus knew a few things. First of all he knew that the Father had given all things into his hands, and we'll talk about that in a minute, but he also knew that he had come from God and that he was going back to God.

He got his selfhood from God. He got his existence from God. He got his meaning from God, and he got his love from God. John unpacks this in a number of different ways, always pointing to the fact that Jesus is always praying to the Father, "Help me, I need you," and he's saying to people, "I do nothing apart from the Father, I and the Father are one, we're linked, we have a covenant relationship and we operate together." He was always reinforcing that, he was always teaching that, he was always modeling that. He was also going back to God, the text says. He was returning to the origin of his existence. I find this both deeply humbling and also very ennobling.

Jesus is pointing his existence back to the Father. We don't share Jesus' divinity, but we do partake in the same life of God. We do partake in the same identity as sons and daughters of God. If you are not yet a Christian, this is one of the benefits of being a Christian, you get the most secure identity that a human being could ever get, which is the love of God. The God who is the origin of all things, the God who is the origin of all love, and the Creator of the world wants to show you his love, secure you in his love, and give you a self, give you an identity that is greater than your insecurities and greater than your fears and even greater than your wildest imaginations. Jesus had that. Jesus owned it. Jesus was always going back to his secure identity.

There's something else going on in this text, which is that Judas was about to betray Jesus. Judas was one of the twelve people who Jesus poured into his whole life. Judas was going to do something very different with his power, and he did have power, but he was hiding it, which is a problem. His power was access to Jesus. What he decided to do is he was going to sell his access to Jesus. It still happens today, people do it all the time. Why would he do that? What hole was Judas trying to fill with thirty pieces of silver? We can only guess, but maybe he wanted to be more secure. What we do know is that Judas was going to sell his access to Jesus to get more money.

Judas did not have a secure identity. He was not secure in the love of God in Christ, otherwise he would not have felt the need or the compulsion to sell his access to Jesus so that he could get money, so that he could get whatever he was trying to get. God was already offering to him what he was trying to get. He was refusing it, he wasn't seeing it. God was offering Judas, in Jesus, full access to the love of God, full access to the security of God. Judas was chasing something lesser because he did not have a secure identity in the love of God.

We see in Judas what a lot of us have experienced, a leader taking the benefits of leadership and spending it on themselves. Taking the benefits of the power and spending it on their own privilege, on their own agenda. Jesus is showing us a better way. He's actually showing us something that we can be hopeful about, that power doesn't necessarily corrupt absolutely. It doesn't. That's not something that the Bible teaches. Power is a gift from God, that if we make it an idol, or if we use it wrongly, it does corrupt. But that is not the end of the story. We see that in the way that Jesus is secure in his identity before God.

Practically speaking, if we're going to be secure in our identity as sons and daughters of God, do you know how you become secure? You actually become insecure before the presence of God. That's actually the way to go. As you take whatever it is you're hungry for, that you're thirsty for, you take whatever hidden agenda you've got, and you say, "God, I'm insecure, I actually don't feel loved, I actually don't feel significant, I actually don't feel like I have enough money, I actually feel like my life is disintegrating, I feel tempted to use my power on myself, help me!" We bring to the Father our greatest needs and greatest insecurities, and over time what God does is he makes our hearts new. He grounds us in his security and when we are tempted to use our power on ourselves, when we are going astray, God anchors us in his own righteousness and his own goodness, in his own generosity, and he says, "This is enough for you. Abide in this. I did this for you in Christ, I poured out my love for you in Christ, rest in that." From God we get our self, from God we get our identity.

Humble leaders are honest about their power

Number two, humble leaders are honest about the power they have. They're aware of it, and they don't try to hide it. So look with me back at verse three. We saw that Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands. Consider this, the Father had given all things, all power, all authority to Jesus. Jesus could have used the power to bathe his traitor in the wrath of God. He actually had that authority. He could have done that. Jesus was not afraid to display it. He is, in this text, setting a tone. Look in verse four, he rose from supper, he took initiative. He laid aside his outer garments. He's creating a dramatic environment as a leader, he created the gathering and now he is setting the tone for the gathering. Then he goes around, washing people's feet, which is an amazing status reversal.

If anyone else would have done this, they would have been shut down. His disciples try to shut him down. Look at what Peter says, "You shall never wash my feet." What does Jesus say back to him? "Oh, I'm just a humble leader, you know, we're just dialoguing here, your ideas and my ideas, and we'll kind of come to a consensus." No, this is nothing less than a showdown. What does Jesus actually say in response? "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." This is a power play on the part of Peter, and Jesus is saying, "I want you to back down because I have authority in this situation, and I'm using it for something specific. I have a vision for this situation, and if you don't go along with it, there will be consequences." Jesus is not afraid to use his power.

Now, is he shutting Peter down to make him feel bad? Of course not. Is he shutting him down to prove something? No. Again, Jesus' identity is secure; he has nothing to prove. He's carrying out his mission. He's carrying out his mandate. This is not about who's the bigger man. Jesus is laying himself out before Peter, but he's not afraid to exercise his power on Peter's behalf, and he's not afraid to stop Peter from stopping him from doing that.

Let's look at the end of this text, Jesus says, "You call me teacher and Lord." He doesn't say, "You know what, just call me bro. Just call me, I'm going to go by Jesus, just my first name only." He says, "No, it's good that you call me Rabbi, it's good that you call me kyrios, 'Lord,' it's good that you call me the name that Caesar wants you to call him by, because you know what, I am your Rabbi, and you know what, I am your kyrios, I am your Lord. I exercise authority over you. It's good that you recognize that because I want you to do what I'm doing. I want you to exercise lordship and rulership over creation through service, through humility. That is what I want you to do." Jesus is honest about his power. Now again, Judas, he's secretive about it, he really is. He's hiding his power.

When we are secretive about our power, when we are not honest with ourselves or with others about the power we have, we can do a lot of harm. This is called sabotage. Have you ever sabotaged a meeting? It was moving in a direction you didn't want it to be moving, so you used power that no one else knew you had to stop what was happening. Have you ever used sabotage in a classroom, you know, silently undermining the teacher? It's kind of fun to do sometimes, because you see the person who is leading is actually kind of vulnerable, because they're being honest with you about their power, but you don't have to be.

This is a temptation for us, to not acknowledge our power, because when we don't acknowledge our power, we have a little bit more of it. You actually have to divest yourself of power when you say "I have power." Because everyone else is like, "Oh! That person has power, let's take 'em down." Or everyone's aware of what you're about to do. So humble leaders are vulnerable enough to admit that I have authority in a situation, I have power, I have influence. If you don't do that, you're less likely to steward it on others' behalf.

Humble leaders have a vision higher than their own survival

Number three, humble leaders have a vision that is higher than their own survival. Jesus had a vision for a church where the leaders, the persons with the highest status, would use all of their status so that other people could flourish. He had a vision of a community that would operate in this way. After he died and rose again and ascended to the Father, we see this taking place in the book of Acts, and many of you have seen this in your own life. Christians coming together in the name of Jesus and begin operating with this foot washing mentality. They're bringing meals over when people are sick, and they're taking care of the poor, and they're pouring their lives out for the sake of others.

Jesus had a vision of a whole community that would operate the same way that Mother Theresa operated, people who have a vision for the sick man lying on the streets of Calcutta. Now this isn't the sick man, this is someone who is filled with the image of God, and it is my deep honor to care for him and to care for Jesus in the same way. I see him, I see Jesus; I can't tell the difference between the two. I'm going to pour out my life for this person. Jesus had a vision of a community like that. A community that would serve one another, that people with the greatest power would be pouring it out all the time, laying it out, investing it, and exercising it, so that other people could flourish. He carried that vision inside of him and then he shared it with people, because he wanted people to share in that vision.

Now again, Judas, he didn't have a vision, he had an agenda. Judas had an agenda for his own survival, and he was using the accumulation of his own privilege on himself so that he could survive, so that he could have a better life. He was hiding his agenda. Jesus was carrying a vision that would outlast him, and he was sharing it with people so that they could share in it.

One of the most amazing people I've ever met is General Al Gray. He started out in the Marine Corps as a private, so he was an enlisted guy. He fought in World War II, fought in the Korean War, worked his way up, and became an officer, which is rare. To go from enlisted to officer, that's a huge status jump, and he went all the way up to Commander. He was, in the late 80's, early 90's, the supreme commander of the Marine Corps, having started out as a private. He operated with a vision of serving all of the enlisted men. To this day, if you go to a Marine mess hall, you will see, everyone lines up, there's no rule that says you have to do this, but the rule is that officers eat last. So if you're enlisted you go first, and then in order of rank, it's the generals that get their food last. That's also the way that it operates on the battlefield for the Marines, the officers eat last. We take care of our men, and a lot of the time you'll see the men then take care of the leaders. They'll save some of their food and bring it to the generals, they'll bring it to the colonels, they'll bring it to the people who have been laying down their life for them.

What I love about General Al Gray is that, first of all, he's a total folk hero in the Marine Corps. He got his official picture taken, you know, official what he's remembered by, in his enlisted gear. To this day, he still goes to mess halls in his enlisted gear, just to see how the food is and meet with the soldiers.

I was personally blessed by Al Gray's kindness. I was a receptionist when I first moved to D.C. I was so thankful for this job, I was the lowest on the totem pole in the company. But from the very beginning, Al Gray, even though he was rough and kind of intimidating, was very kind to me. One of the things that he would do throughout my time serving at this policy research center, is that he would feed me intellectually stimulating books on warfare, on the military, or on strategy. He taught me so much about leadership. One of my last meetings at the Potomac Institute, sometime in the latter part of my time there, he brought me in to a meeting with other high ranking people, just so I could sit in on a meeting where people were discussing strategy. Because he knew I would really appreciate it. Again and again I saw Al Gray in simple ways pouring out his status for someone who had no status. That's what a good leader does. Because they're secure in their identity. They're honest about their power. And they've got a vision for passing something on that's going to be beyond them, they've got a vision and they want to share that vision.


Now let me leave you with this. You are called to use the resources that you have for the life of others. So get your identity in God and admit the power that you have, and ask God to give you a vision for something that will outlast you, something beyond your survival.

Aaron Damiani is the pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church, a church plant in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent.

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Sermon Outline:


I. A humble leader has a secure identity

II. Humble leaders are honest about their power

III. Humble leaders have a vision higher than their own survival