Sunday, May 04, 2008

Jesus' Management Style (aka Jesus Doesn't Micromanage)

Seventh Sunday of Easter – Year A
(Sunday After the Ascension)

Acts 1:(1-7)8-14; Psalm 47; I Peter 4:12-19; John 17:1-11
Sunday, May 4, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

[Following is the manuscript I prepared for the sermon. However, at both the 8:00 and the 10:00 services, I preached it without notes, so what was actually said was a little different, although the message was the same.]

During the last couple of years of college, I worked as an intern for a transportation planning consultant. When I graduated, Terry, the principal of the firm, offered me a professional position, which I accepted. The prospect of being a transportation planning professional was a bit overwhelming. As an intern, all I was doing was crunch numbers. As a professional, I had to have a fuller understanding of the issues I was examining, how to develop the data needed for analysis, the appropriate methodologies for conducting analysis, and then how to present the analysis results in a written report. I knew that a lot was at stake, so my work had to be absolutely correct. If not, there could be serious ramifications for our clients, not to mention the firm’s reputation.

Initially, I was so unsure of my abilities, so afraid of failure, that whenever I ran into a question, or came up against an issue that I was the slightest bit unsure about, I would go into Terry’s office to get guidance. At first, he was very patient and would tell me what I needed to know to resolve the problem. After a while, he changed his tactic and would not directly answer my questions, but rather asked me what I thought the right answer was and why. He would then confirm my assessment, or provide corrections when necessary. And then, one day, when I went into his office to ask a question, he looked up at me and told me that if I was going to be a professional, I would have to start figuring things out for myself instead of constantly asking for direction. At first I was crushed. I felt like a failure. But when I stepped back and thought about it, I knew Terry was right. If I was going to really learn the ropes, I had to be willing to take some risks and figure out things for myself instead of constantly relying on him. And besides, he would be there to check over my work and make sure it was correct before it ever went out.

Years later, I was finally in a position to have a staff of my own to supervise. My first go at supervising was not very good. I was so used to doing things myself for so long that I micro-managed John’s work to make sure it was just how I wanted it. Admittedly, he was not very good at technical analysis, but because of not being very good at management, I never really gave him a chance to improve beyond the most rudimentary skills. Ultimately, I had to let him go. When I hired a replacement, I realized I would have to change the way I supervised my staff. I remembered my early days in the profession and realized I had to take that lesson Terry taught me and turn it back on myself. I realized I had to back off and allow Steven, my new employee, to figure things out on his own and learn from his own mistakes. As a result, Steven was able to excel at his work and expand his technical expertise and the overall capabilities of the firm, becoming a valuable asset not only to me, but to our company and to our clients.

As long as I was around micromanaging, my staff would not be able to move forward. But when I got out of the way, my staff was not only able to move forward, they were able to excel, living into the fullness of what they were called to do.

In a way, that’s what Ascension is about. It’s about Jesus getting out of the way. Jesus had to get out of the way so his disciples could get on with doing the work they were called to do. Now I certainly don’t mean to imply that, like my early attempts at supervision, Jesus was a micromanager. Quite the contrary. The reason he had to get out of the way of his disciples is a little different.

Before we go any further, let’s look at what we know about the Ascension. And to be quite honest, Scripture does not tell us a whole lot. What we know is that before his ascension, Jesus gave his disciples their final instructions in the form of the Great Commission – the most common form being that recorded in Matthew: to go forth and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:19-21). This commission is summarized in the beginning of the portion of Acts we heard this morning “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In giving the disciples the Great Commission, Jesus reiterates his promise that they will receive the Holy Spirit to empower them in their work. And then, he physically ascends into Heaven.

But did Jesus need to get out of the way for the disciples to be able to do the work they were commanded? It’s hard to say. Maybe today’s Gospel lesson can shed a little insight.

The portion of John’s Gospel that we heard today is part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples. The part we heard today is the beginning of what is commonly referred to as the High Priestly Prayer, in which Jesus has just finished talking with his disciples about who he is, of God’s love for him, and of his love for them, and concludes with this extended prayer to God. In this prayer, Jesus not only prays for himself, but he also prays for his disciples. But it’s important to note that in praying for his disciples, Jesus is not only praying for those who are presently his disciples, the twelve gathered with him for the Last Supper, but also for future disciples, which would include us.

In typical Johanine fashion, John uses repetition, expansion and elaboration to highlight key themes. In the portion we read this morning, there are two key points that Jesus emphasizes. The first is the concept of glorification and the second is eternal life.

According to a number of commentators, Jesus’ constant use of “glorify” in this prayer means the revelation of the true nature of God and/or Christ (Allen, 65). Throughout his life, Jesus has been revealing God to humanity – the nature of God and the very person of God – the nature and person of the heretofore unknowable – has been made known. Even though divine, Jesus was still also fully human. He could only reach a limited number of people. To gain maximum benefit, to achieve the maximum possible exposure, others are needed to help make God known. The only way for this to happen would be through the witness of the disciples. While they had not experienced God first-hand, they had experienced Jesus first-hand. If they could convey to others their experience of Jesus, who had conveyed the nature and person of God through is own being, then God could be known to a multitude of people. So, in turn, his followers glorify Jesus, and in so doing, glorify God.

Jesus preached a message of love for one another, of a community of love and inclusivity. That was the way Jesus communicated who he was and who God is, by loving those who were in community with him. To adequately convey the message about Jesus to others therefore requires community. “For Jesus to be glorified in the community means that the identity of Jesus is made visible in them” (O’Day, 792) – the identity of Jesus is made visible when they love one another as he loved them. As the old hymn goes, “they will know we are Christians by our love.” The identity of Jesus is made visible and real when we love each other as he loves us. And when the identity of Jesus as the personification of love is made visible to us, the nature and person of God, the originator of love, is likewise made known and visible to us and through us.

Jesus had to get out of the way so that the love he had for his small community could be allowed to extend outward, to reach others, to reach to the ends of the earth, and not be limited to those who had direct contact with him. The disciples needed to be free to risk, to try it on their own, so that they could ultimately live into the fullness of what they were called to do and who they were called to be – professional messengers of God’s love, not merely interns.

The second key point lifted up in this part of the High Priestly Prayer is eternal life. We tend to think of eternal life as future-oriented, as something that will happen in the future when we die and are taken to our heavenly home. Rather, eternal life is directly tied to glorification – to God and Jesus being glorified, made visible, through us. It is through our glorification of God and Jesus that we have eternal life. From this perspective, eternal life is not future oriented, but rather, is present oriented. As biblical scholar Wesley Allen notes, “the primary emphasis is eternal life as the quality of current existence” (Allen, 65). He goes on to note that “It is not that knowledge of God and Christ leads to eternal life; knowledge of God and Christ is eternal life itself. This knowledge is the gift. Eternal life for John is less about lengthening the duration of one’s life (a chronological, quantitative claim) and more about participating in God’s eternal love and thus radically transforming life (an existential, qualitative claim)” (Allen, 65).

Our lives as Christians, and hence, eternal life, are shaped by the knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus. And again, that knowledge is based on a message, on an experience, of love. Eternal life is about the participation in God’s eternal love. It is this eternal love that allows us to grow and become partners with God through Christ in the work of the Kingdom – the work of glorification, the work of sharing eternal life.

Could we have participated in the glorification of God and Christ if Jesus had not gotten out of the way? Maybe. Could we have participated in the eternal life as a present reality and quality of our existence if Jesus had not gotten out of the way? Maybe. But I think like any good boss, Jesus knew that his disciples, including us, would learn far more, would excel at their task, if they were given the room to risk, if they were given the space to make their own mistakes. But like any good boss, even though he has stepped out of the way, he is not gone. He is still accessible. He is available to help us when we need it, and to provide the encouragement and resources we need to do what he has asked of us. With such support, with such resources at our disposal, we cannot fail.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Allen, O. Wesley, Jr., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2008, Easter to Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

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