Jesus does not abolish power. Instead he turns it completely on its head:
25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactor’. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. Luke 22
The setting is the Last Supper. Jesus has just told them he will pour out his own blood for them. He is God’s chosen King, called to inherit all power – yet he will stoop to the lowest place for their sake.
And this is not some random, one-off act: rather it is by this stooping that leadership in God’s kingdom is defined. John sums up this new reality in Revelation: he sees at the centre of creation the throne of God, and on the throne a lamb which has been slain. At the very heart of God, core to his identity, definitive of his power, is this lamb. Where is God’s sovereignty seen? – in Jesus crucified. In this stooping, suffering act of self-giving. Eye-opening as that image is, it is equalled by Jesus’ game-changing words here: ‘But I am among you as one who serves.’
Leadership can never be the same again. The goal-posts have been shifted once and for all. Leadership is now a radically self-denying, self-giving, humbling business in which leaders are called on to suffer willingly in order to bless the people. The status that comes with leadership is intended to be given up, sacrificed again and again as the leader takes the lowest place in his or her community. In this new leadership, the one in power does not merely give service – he gives himself. If necessary, his blood.
This giving is distinct from the giving of ‘the kings of the Gentiles’ who call themselves Public Benefactor. They give from on high, letting their largesse trickle down, creating obligations and debts among their followers. Those who are blessed from above, are then bound to repay the debt with loyalty. The new leader gives from below, like a slave. Those who serve from below do not get thanks or praise or reward. They just do their duty. Those they serve are not bound, but freed.
New leaders are always ready to go lower, to raise others. They give special honour to those in their charge who are the least important and powerful: to the children and the old and the sick and the poor. New leaders get joy from seeing their people growing and achieving and gaining recognition, and don’t much care whether they themselves get any. “For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong” (2 Cor. 13:9). The praise of men is not their love language.
New leaders are always ready to bleed. When things are difficult or stressful or distressing, they are not shocked or surprised. When experiencing disappointment or betrayal, they don’t go home to their wives and say, “I just can’t believe it!” And they do not give up. After all, they are following the one who was betrayed, who poured out his blood to the last drop. Tradition has it 11 out of the 12 apostles were killed in the line of duty. In the early church, leaders expected to become martyrs.
New leaders are people of great power. Not everyone will see this: those who think in terms of the old leadership of Gentile kings, will probably find them weak. But in fact, these leaders have enormous influence. They do not boss, rouse or threaten – yet everyone around them is shaped and changed by their leadership. Many people become richer through their poverty. Through their service many are made free. They leave behind them a lasting impact.
This is the new way power works, what it’s for, since Jesus. It has been completely reconfigured. Power is for giving away to make other people strong.