July 1, 2016

The Power of Culture and/or the Culture of Power

Selflessness is the economy of heaven. But we aren’t in heaven, are we?

Thomas Lemon

We rarely think much about air. Unless it’s too smoky or too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry or moves too fast; we think about it only when it isn’t exactly the way we want it. But if it is 72 degrees, 30 percent humidity, and scattered clouds, we don’t think about it. And if it were always like that, we would not have many conversations about it either.

So it is with the culture into which we were born and within which we were raised. Each of us is deeply affected by the culture around us. Unless there is some kind of clash with a neighbor or a neighboring culture, we simply move without much thought within that culture day after day.

The basic problem with human culture, and it’s true across the spectrum of culture, whether it be East or West, North or South, or any fair combination of the four quadrants of the earth, our basic cultural problem is the inescapable reality in the world around us that culture grows out of the sin-filled hearts of human beings. No culture, no matter how primitive or advanced, informed or ignorant, cosmopolitan or isolated, is untouched by sin. And much of the time we simply live with it.

Furthermore, it is not a new problem. It’s as ancient as Cain and Abel. Conflict arose because Abel’s blood-sacrifice offering of faith revealed in obedience was accepted, while Cain’s produce offering of nonfaith revealed in a “save myself” disobedience was not. Their descendants, as history plays out Genesis 4 and 5, reveals the clash of cultures theme/motif with a clarity that cannot be missed.

We live with that culture clash today, on several fronts and on several levels. But the culture clash that so clearly and even violently appears on the pixilated pages of our computers, TVs, or the printed pages of newspapers and magazines becomes mere sandbox play when compared to the clash of culture when the kingdom of heaven and its values are placed on the same planet with the kingdom of darkness and its resultant norms.

The times in which we live, and should the Lord’s return tarry a few years, the times in which our grandchildren will live, reveal the clash in matters of life and death and again in ever-increasing levels of violence. It is already happening in some places, and has been for some time now. The Bible insists that it will be global before it’s over, and it isn’t at all hard to see how that can happen. The so-called solutions proposed by today’s political leaders are hardly even Band-Aids on the war-inflicted moral and mortal wounds under which our world is dying.

And sadly, the battlefield is not only out there. Unless we are biblically and spiritually careful, it is in here, even in this room. In reality, it is deep within each of us. Romans 7 makes that starkly clear.

A Familiar Story

Two boys, brothers, grew up in northern Israel a couple millennia ago. They were good boys, and as they matured they stood to inherit the family business. We don’t know how many generations the business had prospered; it could have been three or four, or more.

They were young, prosperous, smart, ambitious, well trained, and ready to lead. And they knew it; they were “enculturated” in that way. And there were theological overtones as well. Prosperity not only brought its own blessing—it also indicated the very presence of God. Prosperity brought with it influence in the community. And influence was everything. With their hard work, their investments, and their sales quotas, they could and did noticeably and positively affect the local economy at least to some degree. Jimmy and Johnny were destined for greatness in their section of the world, and that fact was lost on nobody, certainly not on them.

We know them as the disciples James and John: the fishing brothers of Zebedee’s Galilean Fishing Consortium, Inc.

All of this comes to a meeting of meanings in a story told in two of the Synoptic Gospels. I’m reading from Matthew 20:20, 21. “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. . . . She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’ ”

Since we know the outcome of this story, we know how Jesus is about to respond. However, in jumping too quickly to the conclusion, we easily miss the real irony here, the real lessons Jesus has been trying to teach them for three years by this time. Before we go to Jesus, consider just how naturally this conversation between Mrs. Zebedee and Jesus seems to arise.

Mrs. Zebedee does not bat an eye; she does not quaver in her quest; she does not apologize or profess any sort of humility before Jesus. She comes boldly before the Lord. Yes, she comes in a posture of worship, but she manifests no reluctance or self-doubt in her endeavor.

Why? Because within that culture, so much like our own, a sense of entitlement rises with success, with opportunity, and with a life of ambition. Her sons were bright, successful, and promising. Why not ask for the highest positions in the new kingdom? It was likely that they felt close to those positions already. And Mrs. Zebedee stepping in would only solidify their chances.

But there is more to the motivation as well. John with Andrew were among the very first to walk with Jesus, and James was not far behind. They loved Jesus with all their hearts and wanted to be close to Him. They had been “in line,” as it were, from the beginning. But this request reveals their complete misunderstanding of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Clearly, the climax of all this was not far off. Jesus would be setting up His new government within a few weeks, probably with his next visit to Jerusalem. So with the fulcrum of Jewish history in front of her, Mrs. Zebedee went to Jesus with her request.

Jesus had worked with them for more than three years; He knew them well, these “sons of thunder.” He knew their potential and their ambition. Guessing who would be the greatest in the new kingdom was their most common conversational pastime. And Jesus wearied of overhearing it. He knew they were not yet “getting it.”

He knew that His culture, His kingdom culture, was as different from their view of the kingdom as light is from darkness, as life is from death.

Contextually, the setting of this story in both Matthew and Mark is amazingly poignant. Just before Mrs. Zebedee asserted her request, Jesus called the 12 aside and told them plainly that they were going to Jerusalem, and that He was going to die at the hands of the Gentiles, having been falsely convicted by the Jews. Immediately following this passage, Jesus healed Bartimaeus, and continued straight to the triumphal entry and Passion Week.

So the timing of Mrs. Zebedee’s request was spot-on. She knew perhaps only intuitively that the climax of Jesus’ ministry was near, and she made her request just in time.

There was just one little problem: the values and characteristics—indeed, the premises of the kingdom Jesus was establishing—were diametrically opposed to her desires and her expectations, and theirs as well.

Not That Different

Mrs. Zebedee’s request, coming naturally as it did, is not something totally foreign to us today, not at all. But Jesus had some things to say that we do well to hear again. And hear His words with the sympathy and grace in His voice that only Jesus can deliver. “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (verses 25-28).

Some distance from here and some decades ago I sat in the study of the church I was pastoring. Across the desk sat the union conference president. He was a member of that church and we chatted from time to time, so this moment of conversation was not at all unusual. Our local conference session was coming up, and he would chair the nominating committee. He wanted to talk about the process and what was coming up.

The conference was what I would describe as being somewhat “restless,” and a sense of change was hanging in the air; he knew it, and I knew it. But I will never forget the details of that conversation, for it adjusted my thinking rather significantly.

He said, “There are those who think that God calls men to be conference presidents and that once in position, they stay there.” Then the union conference president leaned forward in his chair and said quietly but with intensity, “Tom, mark this down in your mind and in your memory. God doesn’t call us to positions; He calls us to service. The church, led by the Holy Spirit, assigns those servants to various positions of leadership. Just as certainly, the church, led by the same Holy Spirit, can unassign those positions as well. But God’s highest call is the call to service.”

It was a profound conversation. God’s call is always first a call to service.

That service can be to wash the feet of a quadriplegic who will never feel the sensation. It can be to the incubator of a stricken baby in a NICU, who will never know you were there, and can’t report it to anyone. It can be to preach to kings who don’t respond and who do. It can be ministry to prisoners whose faith is sincere or mercenary.

In serving the Lord, He puts us in the places He desires. Service for Him may or may not be where or what I would first desire. But serving the Lord must, after all, be far more about Him than it is about me.

Yes, there is a rightful place for carefully exercised God-given authority and leadership. Jesus made that clear in Matthew 16 and elsewhere. The book of Acts is full of leaders making decisions, as they are supposed to. But the focus is never on the authority for the sake of the one in authority; rather, it is on the missional service for which that authority is given.

Kingdom Culture

Never do you have Jesus or His disciples saying, “Because I said so.” I promised myself that I would never say that to my kids (before I had kids). But I ended up saying it many times.

We must be careful not to do that as leaders. How many times over the years did people say to me as we sought to make some critical decision, “You’re the president; you decide!” But I don’t find support for that kind of leadership in the Bible.

God can say “Because I said so,” and in a few places He does. He tells Moses He has decided that Moses will not lead Israel into the Promised Land, and in effect He tells Moses to be quiet about it. Paul prays earnestly for the removal of a burden, a “thorn in the flesh.” But God says, “No; my grace is sufficient.” Most of the time the great leaders of Scripture don’t say, “Because I said so.”

A notable exception is David, and when he did that, he got into deep trouble. He, along with his people, paid a price.

What’s the solution? Ambition is good, to a point. Preparation for leadership in various levels of the church is good, to a point.

From time to time we need to rethink this whole matter of the culture of the kingdom, what some have called “kingdom culture.”

Power: “Not so with you,” Jesus said. He also said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).

I recently watched my four grandchildren, ages 6 to 2, play and interact together. Except for the 2-year-old, who was universally protected by the other three, they all took turns rather naturally being “in charge,” and giving direction in the various activities in which they engaged. Occasionally one would say, “Well, my dad said,” when he or she needed some extra authority. But for the most part they simply got along well together.

Kingdom culture must be like that. In the presence of Jesus there will be perfection; but even here, before we get there, we can learn to put others first, we can step out of our culture of greed, power lust, and arrogance into His culture of giving, sacrifice, and, most of all, service. We do well to remember that while He is all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere present, we are not. Without Him we can do exactly nothing.

In the end it is not about the General Conference, the division, or the union conference. Our organizational structure is only a tool in the hand of the Lord to advance His kingdom and prepare a world for His return. The structure is built to serve, not to be served. We dare not forget that. The Lord can do what He wants with that structure: He can use it; He can bypass it; and He can change it to fit what He needs now. And we, His servants, must be completely open to that.

As Jesus said just before He went to Gethsemane: “No servant is greater than his master” (John 13:16). We don’t tell Him; He tells us.

Jesus reminds us: “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). Long before we came on the scene, and, if time lasts, long after we leave it into the infinite, eternal future, it will always be first of all His church, a church He established in the shadow of His own cross, a church built for His mission, His service, His worship.

Thomas Lemon is a general vice president of the General Conference. He presented these remarks at a cross-cultural workshop for ministry professionals in Linthicum, Maryland, in January 2016.