3) The cross shapes our ministry
How does the cross shape our ministry? In a phrase, the cross shapes us into servant leaders.
This is completely antithetical to our concept of leader. When we think of a leader, we think of someone like Steve Jobs, who retired this past week, someone who comes out in this black turtleneck and introduces a new shiny product line and the next day, there are crowds lining up in front of Apples stores nationwide. We think of a leader as someone with a following, someone who is admired by the masses. And if you apply this to church leaders, it’s so easy to gravitate toward the pastors who can pack in the stadiums and whose books are read by millions. It must be a real struggle for those celebrity pastors to remain humble because church leadership can easily degrade into an ego trip.
In the first century, there was no such thing as clergy, or a dedicated minister to lead a congregation. Every single member of the church was a minister. And the actual word for minister is diakanos from which we get the word for deacon. In the New Testament era, a deacon was a table waiter, someone who served others during meal times at church. So the church ministers were literal servants. A deacon or minister or leader is tied together with this concept of service.
This is exactly what Paul reiterates in v5-7.
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
The guy who plants and the guy who water is nothing. Why? Because unless God makes the seed grow, our efforts will not amount to anything. This means that God doesn’t have to use us, but He does. And sometimes, because he decides to involve us in His ministry, we get a taste of God’s power and mercy, as we experience great miracles like people coming to know Christ and people getting baptized and people being discipled and growing spiritually. For me, there is no greater joy than this.
As a servant, what should our reaction be? Shouldn’t it be humility and gratitude? Shouldn’t it be excitement at how great God is? He is so gracious. He could have saved that person all by himself, but he chose to involve me. A mere servant. What a privilege that I can be included in the Master’s business? Who am I that I can experience God this way? Is that your reaction when God uses you?
To Paul, it must have been so bizarre to see the Corinthian leaders being all puffed up and taking the credit for that which only God can do while they were supposedly serving God. It’s absurd if you think about it. Being used by God is not something to boast about. We are just tools in God’s hands. And if God gives us an opportunity to experience His mercy and power as we serve the people around us, then we should give Him praise and thanksgiving. God has to receive all the glory.
About a year ago, I made it a point that after every sermon I preach, I committed that I would always give thanks to God. It doesn’t matter if no one came up to me after the sermon to say that they were blessed or challenged or a bunch of people came forward to pray at the end of service. It doesn’t matter to me either way. Because it is not about me. In my prayer of thanksgiving after every service, I am acknowledging that I did my part but God is the one who ultimately has to move in people’s hearts. So this means, if something at church doesn’t go well, I try not to dwell on it because if I do, then I can easily get down on myself. It’s my fault. I didn’t prepare enough. I did not pray enough. I am not spiritual enough. I am not good enough of a leader. The guilt and accusations are endless.
Conversely, if things go well, I don’t dwell on that either because then it’s easy to get puffed up or to boast in my heart, or to take credit or to assume that things are happening because look at me, look at how great I am and I am the reason why God is doing all these things. Both attitudes are wrong because I am focusing the attention on myself and not on God.
In Acts 3, you don’t have to turn there, Peter and John were on their way to the temple for prayer and they were stopped by a lame man begging at the gate called Beautiful. And in the name of Jesus, Peter commanded the beggar to walk. And the man was instantly healed and he could walk. Usually, we stop there, but the reaction from the crowd is worth noting as well as Peter’s response to the crowd.
11 While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. 12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?”
The crowd was astonished and they came running to them. It is human nature to see someone great and to flock to him or her. We see it in Acts and we see it in 1 Corinthians. Crowds gravitate toward human leaders. But the most shocking thing is Peter’s response. “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?”
Is this the same Peter we read about in the gospels? The Peter from the gospels is so self-centered. He wanted to be the greatest among the disciples. Yet he sinned and he was forgiven and restored. The cross transformed Peter. As a leader, you do great things and crowds of people will want to bow down to you.
Leaders have to fight that tendency. The crowd wanted to adore Peter, but Peter puts the focus back on Christ. Why? Because the cross has changed him fundamentally at the core. He is no longer the main actor with the spotlight on him. He is only a servant, a stage hand, and he recognized that the healing that the lame beggar experienced was only possible because of the power of God, not his own power.
God-glorifying, servant leadership. May the leaders of this church demonstrate and model this kind of servant leadership.
The cross shapes our identity, it shapes our relationships and it shapes our ministry.
In closing, I want to leave you with a final thought. Serving others is much more than setting up chairs and preparing snacks. And pointing others to Jesus. We were saved at the cross, but this was possible only because Jesus himself went all the way and died on the cross for you and me. His suffering led to our salvation. To be a follower of Jesus is to follow Jesus all the way to your own cross. This means, as a Christian, you will be led down a path of increasing suffering for the sake of others. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Being a servant leader will require each one of us to deny ourselves and to take up our own cross and to follow him in order that someone else can find their way to Jesus.
Henry Nouwen, a Harvard professor and minister of the gospel who served among the mentally challenged, wrote a book entitled, The Wounded Healer. I want to end with a quote from his book:
“…it seems necessary to re-establish the basic principle that no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others.” ~Henry Nouwen, The Wounded Healer