In the wake of the Christ Church shooting, no matter which side of politics you are, it will be hard not to be impressed by New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardren. The way she conducted herself was nothing short of remarkable. She united her country in their grief in a way that only a wise leader can.
Immediately after the attack, one of her first remarks was to identify the victims as ‘us’. What happened to them affected everyone because the victims were a part of New Zealand’s community.
And, she showed her solidarity not only with her words, but with the way she conducted herself. She wore a headscarf when she visited the Muslim community, even though it was not necessary. She was, after all, in New Zealand and not in a country with a strong Muslim tradition. Yet, she CHOSE to cover her hair just like what was appropriate for a woman in a Muslim community. She wanted them to see her not as a stranger, but as one of them.
She stood shoulder to shoulder with the grieving members of the Muslim community: men and women, old and young, adults and children, people from all walks of life and nationalities. She showed to the world that she was deeply and personally affected by the tragedy.
Now, she was still the woman in charge of the nation. Yes, she was grieving and shocked, but there was strength and dignity in her grieving. You can tell it from her face. When you see her, you know that you don’t want to mess with this woman. She was still the most powerful person in the nation.
Yet, when she was amongst the grieving members of her nation, she became one of them. She embraced them like their sister. Their pain was her pain; their fear was her fear; their hope for the future was her hope for the future.
“Kenosis” is the Greek word that can best describe her action. It is often translated into English as emptying oneself of one’s status or position or titles. It is a selfless self-giving when one puts aside one’s identity so that one can embrace the other as equal.
The Apostle Paul talked about this in his letter to the Philippians that we read this morning. The particular reading that we have today were lyrics from an ancient hymn. We don’t know whether Paul wrote the hymn himself or he quoted a well-known ancient hymn in his letter. Which way it was, it should come as no surprise. Speakers, today and in the past, like to include hymns in their speech.
In the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, then US President, Barrack Obama was addressing a grieving crowd. He was in a funeral service for Senator Clementa Pinckney, the Pastor who was killed in the shooting. During his address, Obama suddenly stopped and, after a period of silence, he sang Amazing Grace. The crowd was so thrilled by the gesture that they all stood up and joined the President in the song. That moment was one of the most powerful moments in his address, if not in his career.
A song, if used correctly, can become a powerful tool to drive home a message. That was what President Obama did in his speech and that was what the Apostle Paul did in his letter.
The hymn that Paul chose was relevant to the situation that the Philippians faced. Unlike other churches in the first century, the church in Philippi was not a church with a few resources. Poverty was not an issue for the Philippians.
But, like other churches that Paul founded, they were dealing with rivalry and division. Two prominent women in the church, Euodia and Synthyche, were at odds with each other. There was also a group of people who were creating disharmony within the church.
So, through the hymn, Paul wanted to remind them that power was not about ambition or control; it was about an opportunity to serve. Jesus himself did not see his status as God’s equal as an opportunity to exploit. He emptied himself of his status so that he could reach out to the lowest in human society.
Before Paul quoted the popular ancient hymn, he wrote these words to the Philippians:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus ...”
(Philippians 2:3-5 NRSV)
The Philippians, all of them, leader and non-leaders, were not to seek selfish ambition or self-interest. All of them were to seek the best interest of other people. All of them were to learn to put themselves last. All of them were to adopt the mind-set of their Lord, Jesus Christ.
Friends, today is a rather an unusual Palm Sunday. Today, besides celebrating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, we also will commission a new Elder.
Someone once said that those who were Elders were ‘older’ or supposed to be ’older’ than others. I think, in his mind, the Elders are a group of ‘older’ people who are supposed to be wiser than others. It is a misunderstanding of the role of Elders, but I can understand where he came from.
My wife and I came from a traditional Presbyterian church backgrounds in Indonesia. In our old churches, the Elders have to sit at the front during the service. In those traditions, the Elders are, or supposed to be, the most respected people in the church. Many people expect them to have more knowledge about the church than other people. No wonder that, at least in those traditions, many often think that eldership is all about status or power.
But, that was never Jesus’ idea about true leaders. For him, true leaders are always ready to put aside their status to be better able to serve others.
Indeed, when Jesus came to Jerusalem, he came not with a horse, but with a donkey. He came not as a victorious general who was claiming the city/town that he conquered. He came as a humble servant, riding on a donkey. His leadership was not about power or control; it was about serving.
Likewise, Christian leadership, in whatever form and wherever it is applied, is about serving. Christian leadership is not about status or prestige. It is about an opportunity not to serve one’s interest, but to serve other people. It is about an opportunity to practise ‘kenosis’, self-emptying.
Wherever we lead, in the church or out there, we are to show the kind of leadership that Jesus embodied. We are to be a leader that does not see power or status as the essence of her leadership; a leader who is ready to identify herself with the most vulnerable and ignored amongst whom she leads; a leader who is ready to give away her privileges so that she can raise up others.
That is the kind of leader whose coming we celebrate today. And, that is the kind of leader that we are to follow and imitate every day.