Tend the flock of God that is in your charge … not under compulsion but willingly…
Does our text today seem odd to you as a way to begin Peter’s instruction to early church leaders? It does to me. Peter had experienced Jesus’ forgiveness despite his failure under pressure. In a remarkable scene at the seashore of Galilee, Jesus gave Peter the tri-fold gift of a restored leadership vocation. Three times Peter denied Jesus. Three times Jesus turned his denial into a renewed call to serve his people (John 21:15-19). In the words of an old Christian hymn, Peter might easily have said, “two wonders I confess, the wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.” No doubt, that gratitude shaped the rest of his life and work.
So, why does Peter begin with an instruction about serving willingly? Not because you have to, but because you want to… (The Message). Given Peter’s experience of mercy and grace, it would be easy to assume that serving willingly would go without saying. Yet, as I’ve reflected on the text, I think there are at least two reasons why Peter leads with this instruction.
First, it is easy to forget why we do what we do. Any leadership role creates expectations, not only from those we lead, but also from ourselves. Expectation becomes duty. Duty becomes obligation. What started as a gift and a vocation becomes something else. We lead because we have to, not because we want to. I find that’s true whether I’m doing paid work or work in a volunteer setting. It’s easy to lose that sense of inner freedom that is at the heart of our vocation. Freedom turns into compulsion.
Leading out of a sense of compulsion instead of out of a sense of freedom has negative consequences for everyone involved. For those we lead, our inner compulsion often translates into external compulsion. We exhibit leadership behaviors that compel rather than motivate. Rather than persuading others, we resort to coercion, to force and – ultimately – to violence. What seems a small thing – a loss of our inner freedom to serve out of a sense of gift and vocation – has a very dark ending. No wonder Peter starts with this instruction for “lead servants”.
The second reason why I think Peter leads with this instruction is found in the story of Jesus’ restoration of Peter. Even as Jesus restores Peter’s leadership vocation, Jesus tells Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18 NRSV)
On the surface, Jesus’ word to Peter seems to fly in the face of Peter’s instruction to serve willingly. How are we to serve willingly, if our service takes us where we do not wish to go? And yet, paradoxically, that is at the heart of Jesus’ way of leadership. As the Lead Servant, Jesus willingly took on the very thing he least wanted to do. No one made him do it. It was an immense act of freedom and love. And, for those of us who seek to follow him, that lies before us as well.
As we are formed into Jesus’ lead servants, we will be called, like Jesus was, to go where we do not wish to go. And, we are called to go willingly, not under compulsion. That’s not easy to hear, much less to live out. Not only are we called to live with an inner freedom to serve, but also we are called to freely choose to enter into the very places where we “do not wish to go.” Whether in large or small ways, our leadership will take us there. Jesus reminds us that that’s the distinctive of being a lead servant.
During the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers, we saw an example of what that looks like in the work of the Fire Department of New York. One of the commentators of the day observed, “They ran in when everyone else was running out.” That’s a good description of being a lead servant.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
In what ways do you have a sense of calling and vocation in your work? What gives you joy and freedom in your leadership? How can you cultivate that more?
Do you struggle with serving out of a sense of duty and obligation in your leadership role? Why do you think that is?
What are the challenges you find yourself wanting to avoid in your leadership? Where are the places you “don’t want to go”?
Lord Jesus Christ, we pray that you would help us to recover our sense of delight in serving you with freedom and joy in our work. Thank you for the gift of being a lead servant, for the privilege of going on ahead of others to serve them and the common good. Give us wisdom and skill to do that well.
We are also humbled by your example, and by that of others who “run in when everyone else runs out.” Give us grace and courage to follow you and them.
We ask in your name, Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: 1 Peter 5
Image Credit: By Jim Watson – http://www.news.navy.mil/view_single.asp?id=1465, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1146347.