Leadership and Discipleship

Leadership and Discipleship

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:4-20

January 25, 2009

“”Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” — Mark 1:17

Last Tuesday we saw the political climax of our democracy’s covenant between its citizens and its leader. In ancient and traditional terms it was a re-enactment of the covenant renewal rituals of ancient Mesopotamia, the womb of our Western civilization. Periodically in the latter polities the king was ritually killed or expelled and then re-enthroned. The ritual expulsion is a scapegoat maneuver that intends to carry away the accumulated moral debt of the community, but of course does no such thing, of course is merely a myth. The debt remains, and is swept under the rug.

Given my education in these matters I interpreted the strong positive mood of the inaugural crowd as partly due to the deeply rooted human hope that the scapegoat really does carry away the sins of the past and that a new beginning is miraculously at hand. We shall soon see that that is a vain hope and that the sins of the predecessors will continue to fester and pollute the polity for years to come until President Obama in turn is chased out of town as the scapegoat representative of our own sins and solecisms. (Don’t for a minute forget that we elected the previous regime, twice!).

When Jesus calls his first disciples he is like the president calling us to follow him; the structure of a call to follow is the same in old Galilee as it is in Washington DC. A call, which is a demand, and a promise of reward. ‘Follow me and I will make you a real democracy again, no longer an oligarchy of money, nor a military monster, nor a den of thieves, a democracy in which all the people rule on behalf of all the people. (I trust you too heard cadences of Lincoln’s address at the Gettysburg military cemetery in the weave of Obama’s Inaugural). “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Of course I do not compare the status and significance of Obama with that of Jesus; I compare only the structure of the event of new leadership. The two situations are completely incommensurate. Obama calls us to good citizenship, Jesus calls us to eternity. Nevertheless we might learn something important about the call to citizenship by meditating on the call to eternity.

I said that the structure of the call is the demand to follow and a promise of reward if you obey. I have however omitted the most important point, namely, that before he calls us God gives us the gift that alone can warrant and empower the task, the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God has come therefore we can come, and the coming takes the form of repentance and faith, (“The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel” – Mk 1:15). So there are three items to think about: the gift, the task and the reward.

The gift is the re-establishment of the Kingship of God over a world in rebellion. It is not a sovereignty of power and force but of humility and love. It is Jesus himself, crucified and risen, and alive forever more. I shall say no more about this today, it is too vast to be dealt with along with other things. Let this humility and love be the presupposition of every thing we say and do. I want to focus rather on the task.

“Follow me!” says Jesus, and I ask, “What does that mean, Lord? How shall I follow you? Shall I obey the norms of my church culture? Or of the culture of the USA, which many think is Christian?” To answer that question look at the story the gospel tells; the first act of the first disciples is to quit their fathers’ fishing business and start life anew, an “irresponsible” life as vagabond companions of a strolling teacher. They left behind their former selves as they had been defined by their society (fishermen), slotted into a fixed function, classified in a stable and reliable class. They ceased to be fixed points and became wanderers… but not really wanderers, really followers of another Other, (as my friend James Alison puts it. There is the social other and the Other other).

One further point and we can clinch our answer to the question, “How shall I follow you?” We now know from the whole range of intellectual evidence, that the human self is not a solid, rocklike, private presence, but rather a malleable and mercurial phenomenon totally contingent on a constellation of physical and historical circumstances. It varies with the circumstances and in the final analysis exists only in relationship.

So the first disciples decisively change their ego-constituting relationship, leave their circumstances hitherto, in which they were fisherman etc, and depart their social selves. They exchange the social other that made them who they appear to be, for the Other other, will make them who they really are. If the self is constituted only in relation to the other, when the other changes the self changes. The fishermen become fishers of men and the process is the repentance and belief of vs: 15.

Let me in conclusion revert to the simple narrative mode of the Gospel. Jesus is the human face of God and he calls us to live with him and allow that cohabitation to reform our social selves into our true selves. Repentance is the leaving behind of the old self; belief is the entrustment to Jesus. Repent, believe and follow me – the old, traditional and true moment of our Christian Gospel.

This all stands to reason. Many of us know with vivid certainty how the people we loved and lived with made us who we are; more precisely perhaps, not so much that we loved them but that they loved us, loved and continue to love us. I am convinced that the heart of the divine creative grace is the marvelous experience that somebody loves me. I am loved into being. Who can’t see that the saddest most destructive people are those who have never been loved?

Where can I be sure to find such love to make me me? Use your imagination, meditate on the Gospel, and be with Jesus. Imaginatively being in relationship with him will activate your receptors of his life-giving love. “Jesus loves me, this I know, Because the Bible tells me so.” This is the truth about leadership, and discipleship; all unspoiled human existence, and good citizenship too, must be and is a friendship of love.