Following the Leader

With the proliferation of books today on the subject of leadership, it’s no wonder that some of us feel overwhelmed and confused by all the competing notions of “Christian” leadership. Whether we’re a minister or a CEO, leadership gurus are positively clamoring for an opportunity to help us discern our particular leadership “style” or cultivate the characteristics of an “effective” leader. Add to all this the decidedly nebulous notion of “biblical” leadership, and the result is less than clear, to say the least.

But perhaps there is hope. Perhaps we would do well to consider the subject of leadership from an obvious but often overlooked perspective: that of the disciples. After all, being a disciple has everything to do with “following the leader,” and if we want to learn to lead, then it only makes sense to learn first what it means to be a follower. For the first disciples, this meant literally, physically following Jesus into whatever place or situation he led them. For us who seek to follow Jesus without the benefit of his physical presence leading us, things can be a little more dicey. In our own stumbling attempts to grasp, and let ourselves be grasped by, the utter mystery of how Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension have literally transformed the shape and content of our earthly realities, we struggle, like the disciples, with distractions and diversions. Like the disciples, we often either miss the point entirely, or we “get it” to some small degree and then fail to live it out. Like the disciples, we could use a few lessons in what it really means to be a disciple.

In the account of the footwashing (John 13:1-20), we are given just this sort of lesson, as we witness Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem, attempting to convey to the disciples the depth of his love and the extent to which this love will turn upside-down the world’s understanding of true Lordship. Yet, even as he demonstrates this new reality in both word and action, the disciples–Peter, in particular–fail to “get” what’s right in front of their eyes. Try as he might, Peter careens instinctively from one extreme to the other – from “you will never wash my feet,” to “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”- and yet never quite finds his way into a full understanding of what this profound act of servanthood could possibly mean for those, like him, who have been chosen to follow this Lord. What could it possibly mean for a master to wash the feet of his servants? And what would it mean for a servant to follow this example and “to wash one another’s feet,” as Jesus commands?

Peter, like the other disciples, must have been flabbergasted.

And so should we be flabbergasted.

We should be flabbergasted because we can’t possibly understand how the God of all creation could stoop to such depths, not only in performing the menial role of a servant by washing his disciples’ feet, but also in walking the path of obedience “to the point of death–even death on a cross.” We should be flabbergasted because we can’t possibly wrap our minds around the full truth of a gospel that subverts all previous notions of “truth” and “Lordship” and “servanthood,” turning them upside-down and calling us to live into the reality of this upside-down world. We should be flabbergasted that God would choose us, like the disciples, to proclaim such an astounding gospel.

As those who seek to follow a risen and ascended Christ who is no longer with us in body, but who lives with us in the Spirit, we can certainly use all the help we can get. And as we embark on this year’s Lenten journey, we would do well to ponder what examples we choose to follow as we walk the path of Christian discipleship. The disciples may not always get it right when it comes to following Jesus, but at least they give us a good place to start. May we learn from them what it means to “follow the leader,” and may our faithful following lead us to the foot of the cross and then into the midst of those whose feet we are called to wash.

Arika Theule-VanDam is a senior student at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She is a student member of the Perspectives editoral board.