Based on: Luke 12:49-56.
This is an odd scripture. Jesus doesn’t quite sound like Jesus; at least, he doesn’t sound like the cute and cuddly Jesus of “Jesus loves me,” or of “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Jesus sounds strange because we tend to associate him with peace. We think of folks like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi who were inspired by Jesus’s calls and actions for peace. But here, according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus isn’t peaceful. He’s not warm and cuddly. If asking him for a hug at this moment, I think Jesus would respond, “I came not to bring hugs, but to push on people.” This really is an odd scripture.
Here, Jesus seems to be promoting division, discord, disunity. To my ears, he sounds close to a demagogue: one who uses fear to manipulate others to follow them. What are we to make of this passage of scripture?
Perhaps it’s about speaking truth to power. We hear that phrase with its varied meanings: stand up for what you believe. Do the right thing, even if it’s costly. Be moral!
Except Jesus here declares what feels like a scorched earth policy. He’s bringing a fire, he’s bringing a baptism that will divide the most intimate of relationships in life, whether intimate by blood or by fidelity. This fire he’s bringing sounds like it will create a dividing line: some will be on one side, others will be on the other side. Like brothers from the same family fighting on the two different sides of the Civil War, Jesus has come to pit families against each other, friend against friend.
Again, he sounds like a demagogue, utilizing fear to manipulate others to follow him. So, is it possible that we’ve misunderstood Jesus and his leadership?
It’s an important question because leadership is an important topic for us. Across this room, many of us are leaders in various capacities: businesses, government, nonprofits, volunteer organizations, or here at the church. We’re also leaders in our families.
We’re leaders because we want to affect change. We want to be the decision-maker. We wanted to have the authority to make things happen. We want to positively impact the lives of others. All of this comes with the territory of leadership.
For leadership is about, at its core, power. If we’re honest, we want power. If that wasn’t true, we wouldn’t be leaders. Those who are content with the power they have don’t aspire to lead others. The classic book on leadership, The Prince, by Machiavelli, notes that power is essential to leadership.
And the fastest route to power is fear; the use of fear to manipulate and control others. Demagoguery is an effective means of utilizing power to get results. Here, it feels like Jesus is saying to be afraid of the coming division, to be fearful of the hypocrisy that we didn’t know we had, to be fearful of the fire and the war Jesus is bringing. Fear-based leadership feels like the message, the take-away, from this particular piece of scripture. But could that be true?
There’s no doubt that Jesus did not always speak and act in peaceful ways. It’s not only here, but elsewhere too that he speaks of division. In Matthew’s account of this moment, Jesus speaks of bringing a sword. In the garden when Jesus is arrested, he indicates that there will be division by telling Peter to have two swords. A theme of division, of strife, of conflict, and of the blindness of the people to see it, runs throughout the gospel accounts of Jesus. Indeed, he’s not always the cuddly character we sometimes think of.
How, then, are we to make sense of this Janus-faced Jesus? These seemingly contradictory two sides to the man we know and love?
How do we make sense?
We make sense by looking to the cross.
Fear of Jesus led the pharisees and Romans to hang him on the cross. It’s fear of his intentions that leads to his public execution. And Jesus walks willing toward it. He knows where he’s going throughout his ministry. He knows the end point. And he could have prevented it. The easiest thing he could have done was fear-monger by making the people afraid of their current authorities so that he could become their authority. Fear is the fastest route to power.
But fear is not Jesus’s route to power. That’s because fear is not of God. It is never of God. Hear me clearly on this point. The opposite of faith is not doubt. Doubt is the fertile soil in which faith is grown. No, the opposite of faith is fear. When we are truly afraid, when we fearful, we are experiencing nothing less than evil.
The cross proves this. In fear, the people put Christ on the cross. In love and faith, Christ went willingly to the cross. Out of evil, we as humans tried to kill God. And out of good, God restored our evil ways to life. Jesus upended our traditional notions of power by rising from the grave on the third day.
This scripture, then, is not about Jesus using fear to manipulate others. No, this scripture describes the naturally-arising conflict between good and evil in the world. Jesus is speaking truth to power: the truth that the inbreaking of God’s goodness into the world always creates conflict with evil that exists in the world. Those who think they are good but are in fact evil are the hypocrites; in this case, the pharisees and the Romans. Jesus is letting them know that in no uncertain terms.
Jesus came to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, a Kingdom that collides in conflict with evil in the world. And so, in bringing that Kingdom to bear, Jesus’s ministry pit son against father, for some sons supported Jesus and followed him while fathers dismissed their sons’ ways. Households were divided over this Jesus character as some became disciples and others forsook Christ. Some could, indeed, interpret the present time: they knew the Son of God was in their midst. But others could not understand, blind to the fact that God had come to earth in the form of Jesus. Some of us today know this very reality within our families, divided over religion and faith.
So this scripture is not demagoguery. What Jesus demonstrates in the scripture is not fear-based leadership, but fearless leadership. What he is saying could get him killed. The pharisees and other leaders are waiting for Jesus to misstep, to say the wrong thing, so they can arrest him, put him on trial, and convict him of treason or insurrection or trying to usurp the throne. The want an opportunity to kill him, legally. And this passage in Luke sounds like insurrectionist language. We know it’s not; we know it’s about what happens when God’s powerful force for good runs into the less powerful, but still potent, force of evil in the world. Jesus takes the tremendous risk of arrest, trial, and execution to tell the people they must choose a side: with Jesus, with God, or against God; for there is no middle ground. And so we see that, in taking this risk, Jesus demonstrates fearless leadership: fearlessly proclaiming God’s mighty works to the people.
So fear is not the example Jesus sets for us. No, fear is in fact the way of evil in leadership. Rather the example Jesus sets for us in the scripture is simple; it’s to:
So often in leadership, fear and insecurity are the natural by-products of being a leader. We’re fearful that the people we’re leading won’t understand us, or won’t follow us, or there will be conflict when we make decisions or take actions. We worry about someone getting offended at us, about someone’s feelings getting hurt despite our best actions, and live in fear of what kind of conflict that will produce. And that fear makes us insecure about our relationships with each other.
And then, we even feel that spirit of competition between each other. We aspire to higher and better leadership positions with more power and get insecure as those aspirations lead to natural conflict with colleagues and friends, or as someone else is chosen for a position we thought rightfully ours.
And that conflict makes us insecure as we question ourselves and our motives. Then the fear creeps in through the open door of insecurity, either causing us to try and control more and more and seize more power, or creating a certain paralysis in which we feel unable to make any decisions at all.
Fear-based leadership makes us either paralyzed leaders, control freaks, or demagogues. We’re afraid of losing control, of losing our people, of losing power. We’re afraid of others sitting around tables complaining about us, or getting their feelings hurt and then bad-mouthing us. We’re afraid of our reputations being impugned. Sometimes in leadership, we lead out of fear of losing relationships, of losing position, of losing the power afforded to us as leaders.
Fear is absolutely debilitating in leadership. When we’re fearful, we become insecure and make unwise decisions. When we’re fearful, we hurt others, especially our close relationships, as we try and secure our power. When we’re fearful, we act outside of God’s will for us as leaders.
That’s because the only thing we can really do out of fear is try and control more. The temptation to seize control over fear itself and use it against others to secure our position, playing on their fears and worst inclinations, is very real. Perhaps Machiavelli put it best. The more fearful we become, the more power we try to seize. The more power we get, the more power corrupts us. That’s what led Machiavelli to famously say, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
And such is not the way of Christ. Jesus calls to us in the midst of our fear. Fear is not of me! Trust what I am doing through you. Lead fearlessly.
When you’re fearful, when you’re afraid in leadership, when conflict arises or when difficulties come, don’t cower to fear; look to the cross.
Look to the cross to find confidence: to remember that Christ has called you to the leadership positions you hold to accomplish God’s purposes.
Look to the cross to find hope: to know that God is with you, working for good in your corner of the world.
Look to the cross to find peace: to be reminded that fear is never of God and that God’s love drives out fear.
Look to the cross to lead fearlessly, for our leadership is not about us, it’s not about our priorities or our desires or our will power; it’s about being a vessel for God to accomplish God’s goals.
God is bringing the Kingdom to bear through us. That goes for those of us who have led in this community for years as well as our graduates who sit before us this morning. God is doing something amazing through us in college as well as in retirement, in our jobs and in our families, in our volunteer efforts and nonprofit leadership. God wants to use our leadership, the power God has granted to us, to bring to bear the Kingdom of God, which is the fancy theological way of saying to do good in the world.
In our leadership, we can be a force for good or a force for evil. The difference is in fear: do we lead fearfully or fearlessly?
Consider your leadership at work: is it fearful or fearless?
Consider your leadership at home: is it fearful or fearless?
Consider your leadership at church: is it fearful or fearless?
Consider your leadership in the community: is it fearful or fearless?
There’s a tremendous amount of good for the world that God can accomplish when we lead fearlessly. We, as humans, and especially as leaders, are carriers of the power of God, vessels for God’s force for good. When we realize this, fear evaporates in our leadership.
When we realize that we are in leadership to accomplish God’s purposes, not our own, we lead fearlessly.
That’s the way to lead fearlessly, not fearfully. Lead for God’s purposes, not your own. Leadership efforts should flow out of your prayer life. Everything you do as a leader should be grounded in your relationship with God. Your leadership will create division; that’s just the natural way of things as Jesus says in this scripture. But you can lead fearlessly and with a spirit of peace if you lead out of your relationship with God.
So if you’re leading out of God’s purposes for you: when you hear reports that others sit around tables and complain about you, keep going.
When you encounter difficult division or others are mean to you, keep going.
When you start to worry about hurting others’ feelings or people getting offended, keep going.
When you feel like you’re the only one going a particular direction, keep going.
If you are leading out of God’s purposes for your leadership and not your own, keep going.
For God is working through you to accomplish good in the world; to bring the Kingdom of God to bear.
Leadership is difficult, is challenging, produces insecurity and fear. So, let’s walk the hard, difficult, journey of leadership together; all of us, encouraging each other, loving on each other, reminding each other that we are employed in leading God’s work to accomplish God’s purposes. We all lead in different ways. Let us “encourage one other on to love and good deeds [and fearless leadership],” to be fearless leaders who accomplish God’s purposes here in Eastman, in Dodge County, or Middle Georgia State University.
Simply put: if we are leading as God has called us to lead, we have no reason to fear. Christ has empowered us. Christ has provided for us. The Kingdom is ours to bring. So let us, with the Spirit’s daring, lead fearlessly.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.