Would we ever have picked them?
Could they really have been the start of a mighty movement, numbering today up to 2.3 billion devotees across the world?
There they are gathered for the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper. A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest (Luke 22.24).
Up gets Jesus. Silence falls. Off comes the tunic, out comes the basin, on comes the towel. ‘Your feet please, John… your feet, Peter… your feet please, Philip.’ Christ’s washing of his team members’ feet was symbolic of the world’s greatest act of servant-hood about to take place next day: the washing, through the shedding of blood, not only of his few friends from their sins of a lifetime, but of millions upon millions of future believers of every language and country.
When the evening was over, Mark tells us they sang a hymn and went out. They were hardly singing at the start. Suppose Peter had earlier announced ‘Let’s sing number 15, everybody’! At that point they could hardly look into each other’s faces. But hearts melt at the actions of Jesus.
The proof of servanthood
As with Jesus, servanthood in a team tends to emanate from the leader. It takes only days for a fellowship to detect whether their incoming evangelist or pastor is a true servant. We must learn this well. Not until we have proved our servanthood can anything of lasting significance be achieved.
A former colleague of mine, Alex Ross, was to become a pastor and preacher of high attainment and international renown. But when still at Bible college, he was assigned to assist in a church I was then leading in north-west London. The one task Alex was given, Sunday by Sunday, was to carry a box of toys into the infants’ group, unload them, and stay around to ‘help’. And, despite Alex’s considerable Bible knowledge, nothing else. Up-front ‘Word ministry’? There was none for him! But he proved to be a cheerful and loyal team member. His college principal, Dr Gilbert Kirby, later called me: ‘Make sure Alex Ross joins your ministry team!’
John Newton – transformed two centuries ago from slave-trader to hymn-writer – once declared in a conversation: ‘If two angels were to receive at the same moment a commission from God, one to go down and rule earth’s grandest empire, the other to go and sweep the streets of its meanest village, it would be a matter of entire indifference to each which service fell to his lot, the post of ruler or the post of scavenger; for the joy of the angels lies only in obedience to God’s will, and with equal joy they would lift a Lazarus in his rags to Abraham’s bosom or be a chariot of fire to carry an Elijah home’.1
The cross sets the standard
The Bible tells us that we learn that true greatness is measured by the cross of Christ. The disciples had been unable to take this in. Why, with these great crowds they were becoming famous; they were on the threshold of power!
And if this mindset could predominate at the Last Supper, I fear it can take over any of us, among today’s preachers, music bands or worship leaders. It can invade local church elderships and, indeed, the Christian press. Could any individual stay content under Christ’s gaze, when dubbed ‘Preacher of the Year’? When the cross loses its central place, an entire church can become self-contained, with its unspoken adage, ‘We have no need of you’.
The team’s leader
A three-fold task awaits God’s team leader – whether youth worker, street pastor coordinator, bishop or fellowship leader. We are to protect, to inspire and to unite – with the pure teaching of God’s inerrant Word behind all three priorities. Once lose that vision and we are left with a disunited and powerless body in confused disarray.
Newly-appointed team leaders need not fear too much about their lack of Bible knowledge. We can but learn! The key question relates to the direction in which we intend to lead the team.
Where is the direction?
My wife Pam and I have long known the Norfolk Broads in England’s East Anglia. Imagine a boat-load of holiday-makers setting off from the boathouse at Ranworth Broad. They are supposed to be heading towards one of three islands, where a picnic lunch is awaiting them. Inside the boat a disagreement is under way.
‘Look!’ says the leader. ‘Island A – right ahead. Pull away!’
‘No!’ cries an oarsman. ‘We should be heading to Island B – just to the right. Alter course by a tiny fraction!’
‘Rubbish!’ shouts a third. ‘You’re all wrong; it’s Island C, way off left! Change course by 90 degrees!’
The question is, who is the most dangerous person in the boat? The advocate for Island C? No. Nobody is taken in by such a blatant error. The danger comes from the call for Island B. It is so close to Island A – and if the boat heads that way, it will only just miss the correct destination… but it will miss it.
The principle of the angle
It is the principle of the widening of the angle. A church or fellowship has only to veer half a degree from what the New Testament describes as the word of truth, the good deposit, the trustworthy message, the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints – and ten years later we will see that group neatly diverted into a backwater of spiritual powerlessness – and they won’t even know it.
The leader, then, must establish just where future team members are starting from before appointments are made – however little they may know! How ‘hungry’ are they? Where are they intending to be, in relation to God and the Trinity, to Jesus Christ, to the centrality of the cross and the way of salvation; to the Holy Spirit, to prayer – and to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures?
What makes a credible team?
The words from prison by the apostle Paul can be taken as a motto text: ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you’ (Philippians 1.27,28).
The work is done together. We are to be seen standing in unity. The very first time your chosen team meets for Bible study and prayer, it will be apparent within the hour whether you have unity or not. And if the team has unity, so will the wider fellowship. Then there can be no stopping you!
Paul’s friends were also to be seen standing in adversity among those who opposed them. Suffering is actually ‘granted’ to us by the once-crucified Christ (Philippians 1.29). To stand by each other, when everything is going wrong, is the authentic test.
Further, they were to be standing in humility, with nothing done from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility counting others better than themselves (Philippians 2.3). At a meeting in the 1880s the American evangelist D.L. Moody was invited to introduce fellow preacher Henry Ward Beecher. ‘Introduce Beecher?’, he exclaimed. ‘Not I! Ask me to black his boots and I’ll do it gladly.’
There’s nothing like the power of a close-knit team for God! I think of an African proverb from my own birthplace in Kenya: ‘Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable’.