Jesus – The Perfect and Manly Leader
Bishop Lee Piché of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul gave the following address at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Corcoran Minnesota on October 29, 2010. Bishop Lee Piché’s biography is available here: Most Reverend Lee A Piché – Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
1. Prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. I place myself in the presence of Him in whose Incarnate Presence I am before I place myself there. I adore Thee, O my Savior, present here as God and man, in soul and body, in true flesh and blood. I acknowledge and confess that I kneel before that Sacred Humanity which was conceived in Mary’s womb and lay in Mary’s bosom; which grew up to man’s estate, and by the Sea of Galilee called the Twelve, wrought miracles, and spoke words of wisdom and peace; which in due season hung on the cross, lay in the tomb, rose from the dead, and now reigns in heaven. I praise and bless, and give myself wholly to Him, Who is the true Bread of my soul, and my everlasting joy. Amen.
2. What was Jesus like as a leader of men? We cannot ask the casual bystander. We cannot ask the scribe or Pharisee. We cannot ask those who knew of him only from a distance or by reputation, such as Herod Antipas, the puppet-king of Galilee. To know something of the qualities of Jesus as a leader, we can turn to only one place: to the witness of his own disciples, most especially the Twelve.
3. Some preliminary observations:
a. The compelling attractive quality of his personality.
The gospels report how Jesus called his first disciples. “As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him” (Mt 4:18-22). Not many people could do this; these moments of calling and decision were not pre-arranged. The description makes clear that the call happened, as it were, “on the spot.” Very likely these disciples had seen Jesus before this and probably had heard him preach; but we have the sense that the call to follow him, to accept him as their leader and master, came in an instant and essentially without any warning. In both instances, without any hesitation, these men left everything and followed Jesus. Only someone with a remarkable quality of attraction could do this. Was Jesus good-looking? I like to think so. But that is not what drew these men to him. Jesus was simply good. In other words, he had the quality of the best kind of leader, in that he himself was obedient to the Father, to the One who sent him into the world. That is the secret of his perfect goodness. He radiated all the characteristics that men, as men, desire to possess. Here we also learn something else about the first disciples: they had good hearts. They were not perfect; they had many faults and weaknesses; but fundamentally, they had a healthy interior life, in that they recognized goodness in Jesus and were drawn to it as if to a magnet.
b. The convincing message he proclaimed.
When Jesus began to teach, it was immediately evident to the serious listener that he was different from the ordinary rabbis of his time. As Saint Matthew reports, at the end of Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ “When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29). This can be interpreted simply in terms of the method of his teaching: when other rabbis preached, they would always quote their sources, for example, they would say, “As Rabbi Akiba says, Always think before you speak.” Jesus had only one source: the Father. He did not quote other experts: he himself had first-hand knowledge of divine truth, and he understood human nature. As Saint John observes: “he did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well” (Jn 2:25).
But there is a deeper sense in which Jesus surpassed other teachers of his day. Remember who Jesus is, and how he described himself to his Apostles at the Last Supper. When Thomas protested that they did not know where Jesus was going, Jesus responded: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). Jesus not only spoke truth whenever he spoke, as if he were capable of doing otherwise. Jesus was, Jesus is truth. It is his nature. He cannot but speak truth, because he cannot be other than he is. So when he spoke, he claimed an authority greater than that of the greatest of the prophets, greater even than Moses himself. In fact, the formula he used for revealing the new Covenant shows that he claimed to be speaking as God. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry at his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5: 21-22a).
Not everyone accepted the teaching of Jesus. But his message had penetrated the minds and hearts of the Twelve. To them, the message rang true; it resonated with something deep within them. Even when their senses and their reason argued differently, they could not deny the power of Christ’s word. At a critical moment in the ministry, when it was time for Jesus to reveal the mystery that we would come to know as “Eucharist” and “Real Presence,” Saint John reports that many (repeat, many) of the disciples of Jesus abandoned him. He turned to the Twelve and said, “‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God’” (Jn 6:67-69). Not only did Jesus attract them with the charism of his personality, but the content of his preaching and teaching exerted an adhesive power, binding the Apostles to himself. His doctrine was difficult to understand, and even more challenging to live, but something told them that it was true – even when the majority of people around him rejected it. These men wanted truth, and in a very short time they had developed confidence that they would find the truth in Jesus.
c. Jesus respected the freedom of his followers.
It must never be forgotten that when Jesus chose twelve of his disciples to follow him more closely and be prepared to be sent out as apostles, he included Judas Iscariot among those Twelve. The inclusion of the one who would ultimately betray our Lord proves, I believe, that none of the Twelve were coerced, brainwashed, or in any other way had their freedom compromised in their encounter with Jesus and their extended time with him. Jesus was not the founder of a “cult” in the derogatory sense of that term. Any of the Twelve could leave at any time, just as so many others had. If they stayed, they chose to do so with complete freedom. And yet the bond of their relationship with Christ was strong. Here there was something stronger than fear. Something stronger than a mindless submission to a revered “guru.” Something stronger than hero-worship, or the adulation that “fanatics” give to a celebrity. The Apostles were anything but sycophants, hovering around a popular figure of the day. If anything, Jesus was the opposite of a celebrity. In spite of the fact that crowds followed him, looking for a miracle, Jesus was increasingly becoming a person of conflict, a “sign of contradiction,” as Simeon had foretold. The opposition to Jesus in the sacred corridors of power was mounting with each passing month. Still, these men stayed with him.
I would point out that another aspect of the bond between Jesus and his Apostles was the bond that kept the Apostles united to each other, especially in the moment of crisis. It is true that at the precise moment of Jesus’ arrest in the garden – as Christ himself had predicted – the Apostles scattered. At the Last Supper, he had said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed’” (Mt 26:31). Sure enough, when the posse came and arrested Jesus, “All the disciples left him and fled” (Mt 26:56). But we can conclude that before long, probably even before the night was over, the Twelve had returned to the Upper Room, and stayed together during the next several days. This cohesiveness of the band of the Twelve – or rather the Eleven now, because of the loss of Judas – this cohesiveness of the Apostles in the absence of their leader, the body without its Head – is another sign of the strength of the binding force created by Christ with the Twelve. What in the world can account for such staying power? Only one thing: Love.
4. The meat of the message. Jesus was the perfect and manly leader by reason of the unique friendship he created between himself and the Apostles, and the derivative friendship he created between the Apostles themselves. I say “unique” friendship, because it is unlike any other friendship we can experience on earth; for Christ Jesus does not cease being Lord and Master when he declares the Twelve to be his friends. Rather, he shares with them the very substance of his life, without himself being diminished in any way. He retains the full force of his divinity, his authority, his “otherness” as Son of God. And yet, the loyalty of the Apostles is sealed by their love for Christ – a manly love, the love of friends – rather than by intimidation. It is a loyalty that remains completely grounded in freedom.
It is only love, the love of friendship, that can make sense of the Leader, Christ, washing the feet of his Apostles. What manly leader you have ever heard about would ever stoop to the status of the lowest household slave and do such a thing? And yet, in washing their feet, Jesus was leading them. As he himself said, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15). Then, to make it clear that he has not abdicated his responsibility as leader, Jesus immediately adds: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it” (Jn 13:16-17).
Then, later that same evening, during the meal, Jesus makes the astonishing revelation. He tells the Apostles that in the very carrying-out of his commands, that is, in their obedient acceptance of him as their Leader, in their perseverance in that obedience, they are not so much his subjects, but his friends; they have entered into a new relationship with him, and through him, with God the Father. “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15: 14-15). Here then is a Leader who, in the end, chooses to lead not by sheer will-power, not merely by the word of command, but by the far more-powerful influence of love and friendship. Those who refuse the offer of the friendship of Christ will experience, eventually, the full force of his will; whether they choose to or not, they will conform to the plan of God. But it is not that kind of “forced obedience” that Christ desires from his followers. He is seeking the kind of obedience that obtains in the relationship between friends who, because of the love between them, would do anything that the friend desires and asks. Such an obedience is more perfect, particularly when the friendship itself is founded on a shared commitment to what is truly right and good. For a friend of this kind would never desire nor request anything that would not lead to what is truly good; or to put it more simply and positively, true friends give to each other in virtually every request, if it is possible, because the basis of their friendship is goodness itself – because everything they ask of one another leads to a greater good.
Friendship implies equality. We can never be equal to the Son of God by nature; but through the transforming effect of sanctifying grace, that is, by our sharing in the divine nature of the Son of God through faith and baptism, and by our communion with Him through the Eucharist, we are capable of entering into an authentic friendship with Christ. An indication of a kind of real equality, which is Christ’s gift, can be seen in the reciprocity of the relationship. We have already heard Jesus say that the Apostles are his friends “if you do what I command you” (Jn 15:14). that is, if they have such a love and a trust of Christ that they cannot deny him anything that he might ask of them. If this were a one-way relationship, it would not be a real friendship; it would be nothing more than an enthrallment, a form of slavery. That is why Jesus went on to say, as he must, if he really means friendship: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you” (Jn 15:16). Jesus chose them. Why? Because he loves them. He is a leader not only because his followers love him, but first of all because he loves his followers – with a love that is transformative, and raises them to the dignity of his equals, his friends.
The basis of this friendship is not anything that the Apostles have done. Such a tremendous gift is not based on merit but on grace; and yet, it comes to be realized only in those who willingly accept it, in those who are humble enough to let Christ love them in this way. Jesus stipulates that the basis of the friendship is knowledge. Not the knowledge of facts, but the knowledge of experience through revelation. He has shared with his Apostles everything that the Father has given to him. He has given them, as it were, a “view of the whole,” so that they can act with the same understanding that Jesus has, and be his actual partners in the mission, rather than mere “assembly-line” workers who see only their small part of the operation. This is not a matter of “just do what you’re told,” and accept it. Jesus is adamant about this: “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15:15). This sharing of knowledge, this “full disclosure” by Jesus to the Twelve, is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise of friendship: in some sense, it proves that Jesus means what he says about their being his friends, when he states not once, but seven times (in various ways) during the course of the Last Supper: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you” (Jn 15:7; cf. Jn 14:13, 14; 15:16; 16:23, 24, 26). Notice the reciprocity: You are my friends if you do what I command you; I am your friend, in that whatever you ask in my name, it will be done for you.
5. The last step in this reflection is to realize that Jesus desires to have with us the same relationship that he had (and still has) with the Twelve.
– He is our Leader and our Master. He leads by both word and example. As Master he commands us to live a certain way, to strive for a certain goal, to suffer for the sake of what is right, and to surrender to the will of the Father in all things, as he himself did – not out of fear, but out of trust.
– He draws us to himself by the attractiveness of his personality, most especially by his unblemished goodness and perfection, not so much as the Son of God (which identity is hidden from our eyes) but as the Son of Man – as a man like ourselves in all things, except sin.
– He speaks to us a message that, when seen for what it really is, moves our minds to assent, because it rings true; it resonates with the deepest part of our being.
– He cannot lead us unless we are willing to leave behind the preoccupations that are, in the long run, incompatible with following Jesus – our patterns of selfish behavior, our anxiety over passing things, our attachments to comfort, security, prosperity, and sensuality. We have to let go of the net, get out of the boat, and move away from the opposing influence of past associations, and take the risk of attaching ourselves to someone we do not yet know very well, for the sake of getting to know him better. In short, we need to set aside more time for prayer as a time of personal contact with Christ.
– We must open our hearts to the amazing possibility that what Jesus really wants with us is not cowering servitude, or reluctant compliance with a catalogue of moral imperatives, but an honest-to-goodness friendship. He desires our affection; he wants to be in our presence; and he wants us to want to be in his presence. He offers us a fair and equal exchange: I will share my life with you, even the most intimate aspects of it; will you share your life with me?
– Practically speaking, this is difficult to do. How do we experience such a friendship as the Apostles had with Jesus? They had the opportunity literally to live with him; in effect, they went on a three-year camping trip with him to the Boundary Waters of human experience, the outer limits of the created world – eating and drinking with the Creator-of-the-world-made-flesh. We don’t get that chance. Does that mean that we can never have the friendship with Christ that the Apostles had? No. We can. In fact, this is what Jesus was trying to teach them and us before the Passion, before he was taken from their sight. The Resurrected Christ lives in the Church – in fact, he is the Church; or rather, it is more proper to say, the Church is Christ. Christus Totus is both Head and Body; both the Risen Lord at the right hand of the Father and the mystical Body of Christ on earth – also including the Church triumphant (the saints) and the Church suffering (the holy souls in purgatory). This is the whole Christ. This in part explains why Christ’s farewell commandment to his Apostles, repeated several times at the Last Supper, was “Love one another.”
– We began with a prayer from Blessed John Henry Newman. It would be appropriate at the end to remark that, according to the same Cardinal Newman, the most powerful influencing force in the world is friendship. This is how Jesus chose to exert his influence as a Leader of men, as the Master of the Twelve Apostles. It is how he chooses to lead and guide you and me. This gives us something to ponder, each of us, men who move in various spheres that call forth our leadership qualities. What sort of leader am I to my family? In the workplace? Among my acquaintances?
– When our friendship with each other – like the friendship that existed between the Apostles Peter and James, Andrew and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Simon and Jude, and the rest – when our friendship is founded on our shared admiration and love for Christ, on our shared commitment to live as Christ lived, on our shared common goal of reaching the perfection of a holy life and ultimately a place in heaven – then we will experience the same essential blessing of friendship with Christ that the Apostles experienced. During the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, but even more after the Resurrection, when they knew the friendship of Jesus. And even after the Ascension, when Christ was taken from their sight, they continued to experience their friendship with the Risen Jesus, through the working of the Holy Spirit, in their friendship and communion with one another.