Greater and lesser lights

by Mark Safstrom

As I write this it is the end of one church year and the beginning of the next. The ecclesiastical calendar concludes with Christ the King Sunday and its reminder that Christ is the ultimate ruler and judge of heaven and earth. As Christ’s kingdom is both “now and not yet,” Christians can claim this reality now while also anticipating its full realization at the end of the age. Advent then begins the church year all over again with messages from the Hebrew prophets who similarly anticipated a coming Messiah, who will bring the kingdom of peace and justice.

The gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, highlight that the purpose of Jesus’s kingship is directly opposite of the world’s understanding of the relationship between power and authority. When mockingly addressed as “King of the Jews,” Jesus dodges the title and retorts “you say that I am.” Instead of coming to claim kingship, with its privileges and power, the irony of Jesus’s purpose as king is that he will accomplish the work of reconciliation from a position of powerlessness. As Paul writes to the Colossians, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). Perhaps the most compelling attribute of Jesus’s authority is that he refuses to assert it through power. His work of peacemaking is accomplished when the persuasive power of his mere witness moves us to follow his example and do likewise. It’s as easy—and as hard—as that.

Two sermons by archbishops, one at Westminster Abbey and the other at Uppsala Cathedral, recently highlighted this paradoxical aspect of Christian discipleship and leadership. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, in eulogizing Queen Elizabeth II, made a veiled rebuke of the tyrannical leadership of Vladimir Putin and other similarly autocratic leaders: “People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are forgotten.” By contrast, what the archbishop thought made the late queen’s leadership noteworthy was that her service “had its foundation in her following Christ—God himself—who said that he ‘came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

On the one hand, this was a tribute to an exceptional person who succeeded in living up to her own high standards of selfless duty. But it is also a sobering commentary on the apparently low expectations we have of leadership generally, such that when a leader does something that they are supposed to do it catches our attention. This is the sad pattern of most of the Old Testament rulers who fail spectacularly in the book of Kings. Not even Solomon in all his wisdom could keep his act together for long, and “good kings” like Josiah and Hezekiah are rare in the rest of the lineage of the kings of Israel and Judah.

The other sermon was given by the outgoing archbishop of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, at the end of October. Jackelén’s sermon similarly addressed the urgent need to reclaim a sense of servant leadership. She identified the main hindrance being the overemphasis of individualism and self-realization, pointing out that this may be a particular challenge for Swedes. Sweden routinely scores highest on these counts in the World Values Survey. “We speak often about individuals, rather than about persons. An individual means an indivisible unit, for the most part self-sufficient. A person, on the other hand, is a human being invested in relationships and contexts: creation, fellow human beings, culture. It is not enough to be an individual. A bunch of individuals do not build cathedrals, communities, or peace; these things are done by people in collaboration.”

Jackelén’s parting advice to the church in Sweden was thus to reclaim the communal dimension of Christian discipleship. The crises that humanity faces, from wars to climate change, will require a return to the selfless leadership of Jesus, who does not lead people as individuals, but brings people together into a community with a mission. “Together is the idea. Even in anxious times, this is how we can live. Together,” she concludes.

Included in this issue is another sermon by Paul Peter Waldenström, in which he expounds on Christ’s command to be “salt and light.” He explains that what this means is a discovery that each Christian must make as they learn to shine their light wherever they are standing. Jesus was worthy of being king precisely because he was unwilling to accept the title of king and rejected the way that leaders and prominent people abused the privilege and power of leadership. Followers of such a king can do no less. Whether they are “greater or lesser lights,” followers of Christ can use their privilege and power that they have in creative, paradoxical ways to advance the work of reconciliation.

Guds frid — God’s peace,

Mark Safstrom