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The Test of Leadership

Posted on: March 4, 2001 2:11 PM
Related Categories: Abp Carey, Primates Meeting, primates-2001

Sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury

The little boy trudged around his block carrying his heavy load of two suitcases. The NY policeman took little regard of the small figure until the boy had passed him four times. He stopped the lad and asked him what he was doing: 'Well, sir,' he said, 'I've run away from home but my mother always told me never to cross the road.'

The story could well represent, in this season of Lent, our rebellious nature that desires freedom yet feels the constraint of the moral law in our hearts. We never then 'cross the road' because of the power of guilt. We keep going round the block. It could therefore represent the tension between freedom and law.

But another interpretation is possible. Let's see the child as the community, the Church wrestling with the task of interpreting the faith today. In that case, it could stand for the tension we all feel between the authority of the faith once handed to the saints and the process of applying that living faith to our culture. Leaving home but not really leaving the block is the tension felt by many of us as we struggle to be contemporary Christians.

I invite you to hold that story in your mind as I explore the 'test of leadership' in the gospel reading where, on the brink of his ministry, Jesus is tested beyond anything we shall ever experience. Of course, the omens were good. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And then, for forty days, loneliness fell around him- God seemed absent and even the Devil left him alone - for a while.

These days many question whether the Devil's existence is credible, but I have long shared C. S. Lewis's attitude when he declared thoughtfully: 'I have gone as near to dualism as the New Testament allows -- and, believe me, it allows us to get very near.' But whether you see the story as being about an actual encounter between the 'Father of lies' and the 'Son of God' or interpret it in more symbolic and allegorical terms, the story takes us into a journey about boundaries and the exercise of leadership.

The testing begins as Jesus is at his weakest physically. And that is often the way: when we are tired, when we are battered and exhausted, when we are at our wits' end.

The first test is an exploration of Jesus' calling. It is not about food, though it certainly included that. It is about proof. 'If you are the Son of God, then as you look upon that stone shaped so much like a loaf of bread, turn it into bread. After all, Moses in the desert gave the Israelites bread from heaven - why don't you?' More than one commentator has remarked that the Devil knows his Bible and here he puts it to good effect.

But Jesus rejects the temptation to seek the easy way out. The Devil is half-right -- bread is important. But he is only half-right. Jesus, who knows the scriptures more perfectly, takes up the Devil's echo of Deuteronomy and states: 'Man is not to live on bread alone.' The bread which is the gift of Christ to the world is the complete nourishment which is spiritual as well as physical; emotional as well as cultural. It must encompass our entire existence.

But the Devil doesn't give up that easily - and from our experience he never does. He looks for another loop-hole; another way of weakening his opponent. If an appeal to the physical appetite will not work, then why not a direct appeal to messianic ambition? The narrative here takes us into the sphere of imagination and symbolism. Jesus is taken up and surveys the entire world - the temptation is that of power and glory. Indeed, the Devil says the most startling thing about the ownership of the world: 'This has been given over to me! I will give it over to you. Worship me; and it is yours.' Here is the ultimate 'Who wants to be a Millionaire?'!

Now, we miss the point if we think this is only about worshipping the Devil instead of God. It is more than that. The real test here is to see leadership in terms of a messiahship founded on earthly rule -- power, glory, riches and might. And that was a very powerful image in Jesus' day because many Jews wanted a kingdom similar to that of Rome's -- only universal and everlasting. But Jesus says: 'No! Worship belongs to God alone and the kingdom comes from him. Therefore the Kingdom must be sought in God's way -- and that is the way of peace, of holiness, of joy and of forgiveness.'

From the temptation of the flesh and that of yearnings for worldly power, the ancient enemy finally tries to tempt Jesus in terms of successful ministry. And our foe uses his considerable knowledge of theology as well as scripture in his attempt to defeat the Son of God. A Jewish midrash contains a tradition that 'When the King Messiah is revealed he will come and stand upon the roof of the Holy Place, then he will announce to the Israelites "You poor, the time of your redemption has come."' And so in a flash Jesus is taken in his imagination to one of the corners of the roof of the temple and there tempted to give a public demonstration that God will protect him from all harm. 'If you are God's son then give us a sign.' It is an attractive, interventionist gospel in which power is separated from the moral nature of God's will. There is no struggle in such a gospel - and it is not the gospel of Jesus. The gospel of Christ is about a journey, a journey into concealment as well as revelation, and struggle as well as discovery.

The nature of nourishment -- the nature of power -- the nature of ministry. What do they have to say to us in the exercise of our ministry.

It seems to me that behind each of the testings one very important element in leadership is being examined -- that of authority. If Jesus has authority, then the Devil is suggesting he can do all these things. You see, the ancient enemy is the ultimate fundamentalist - if you have it, flaunt it; the quintessential literalist - if you have authority over all things, you can therefore DO all things; the dyed in the wool reductionist - if you really have authority, all that matters is using it.

And Jesus resists that simplistic solution because he is rooted in the love of God and in a relationship with his heavenly Father which can stand up to all the guile of evil.

What about our authority? It is surely rooted in Christ's. We have no authority that is not based on our Lord's and all our decisions have to conform to his words and practice.

It is when we dig deeper into the issues of authority that the problems begin. We find ourselves in Jesus' position in the desert, and like him we find that we are challenged to provide simplistic solutions to complex issues.

Often, as with Jesus in the wilderness, the question of how to interpret the Scriptures comes to the surface. On the one hand we can all agree that the Bible is 'God's indispensable signpost to his revelation in Christ,' as John Macquarrie commented long ago. Indeed. But the Christ to whom we appeal taught in parable and often avoided the direct statement. 'What is the nature of eternal life?' He speaks of a pearl hidden in a field. 'Who is my neighbour?' He replies by talking about a Samaritan who assists a badly wounded Jew. 'What is God like?' He talks about a Father who had two sons.

I am not saying that Jesus avoids giving clear teaching; I am saying that he takes us deeper into it and wants us to own truth by making it our own. And that has been the way our tradition has received God's revelation. We delight in the scriptures and no Church has been more assiduous in making scripture the heart of worship as well as the foundation of faith. But we have avoided the easy option of quoting verses as if by taking a verse at random we have solved a problem. Where scripture points in a certain direction with unwavering precision we know we abandon that direction at our peril. But we are allowed to bring to Scripture our questions and our experience and thus become part of a living stream of reflection, argument, struggle and, sometimes, change. So Reinhold Niebuhr said: 'A Christian solution to a problem is not necessarily the purest solution in abstract terms, but one which is responsible in the sense that it takes all the qualifying factors into consideration.' How relevant that dictum continues to be!

And, yet, sometimes I think that it is a weakness of our tradition that on occasion we say so much about revelation that we forget that there is concealment too. There is so much we do not know and perhaps will never know. The rich 'apophatic' tradition of Orthodoxy has a lot to teach us about mystery as part of revelation. For example, how may the writer of Ephesians talk about 'Knowing the love of God, though it is beyond knowledge'? To our ancient enemy - the ultimate reductionist -- that is nonsense. But for Christ and us his followers it is a wonderful paradox yielding glimpses of a God who is marvellously greater than we can think and yet who loves us as we are and desires that we go on growing, learning, adapting and renewing.

Let me return to that little boy who has been trudging round his block for far too long! He knew there were limits to freedom and so do we. We all know from time to time the tension between leaving home and crossing the road. Responsible leadership is modelled on that of our great leader whose authority was shaped by a cross.

As Austin Farrer wrote so wonderfully in 1968: 'He who gave himself to us first as an infant, crying in a cot, he who hung naked on the wood, does not stand on his dignity. If Jesus is willing to be in us, and to let us show him to the world, it is a small thing that we should endure being fools for Christ's sake, and be shown up by the part we have to play. We must put up with such humiliation of ourselves, or better still, forget ourselves altogether, For God is here; let us adore him'