Dear Disciple of Christ,
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 11:1
My family and I were visiting a pastor and his family in the parsonage of their church in Brooklyn. In fact, it was the church in Brooklyn where we served for a summer with the “Help a Child” program. Not unlike most of the Lutheran Churches in Brooklyn, the house provided for the pastor, the parsonage, was either connected to or next door to the church. And, it was not unusual for the church office to be located in that parsonage as well (saving on heating for the winter and not needing to heat up a portion of the church to do office work).
Just before we were to sit down for dinner, I asked about using the bathroom just off the church office, in fact, asking as I was about to open the bathroom door. “No, not that one!” was the exclamation from the pastor. I wondered out loud about what was wrong and, if it needed fixing, (I’d done quite a bit of plumbing in my day and would have been happy to look at it and do the needed fixes). “No” he said, “that bathroom hasn’t been cleaned since we got here. I’m not cleaning it as a way to teach the members that the church office bathroom needs to be cleaned by someone from church.”
I suppose that is one approach to pastoral leadership but I’m not sure it was the best approach. It was one way to make a point but certainly not the only way to get the bathroom cleaned. I think back to my cleaning the gutter and sidewalk in front of my church in Brooklyn. When members saw me doing it, they quickly joined in. That church, St. Paul’s on Covert Street, was a very small church by that time, with limited staff (the pastor being the only paid staff person) and very limited membership and resources. They certainly weren’t going to have resources to pay a sexton (a church janitor) to do it. But working with the members on the ministries needed might have introduced the congregation to the new pastor and his pastoral perspectives. Was he there to serve the church or be served by them?
I think Paul had better wisdom in his words to the Corinthians above, better because it connects to Christ’s perspectives. Our actions as pastors and disciples are guided by the life of Christ. Could you imagine what might have happened if Jesus had acted in a way similar to that pastor? No wine would have been made at the wedding reception where the wine ran out (that will teach them to make better plans next time!). There would have been no miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, just a reminder to “keep the sermon shorter” the next time. The disciples would have entered that final Passover celebration (on Maundy Thursday) with dirty feet and left the same way. Jesus would have fled the soldiers as the disciples did, never going to the cross for weak and failing disciples and sinners like us.
But that was not what Jesus did. In fact, He did exactly the opposite. Recognizing the limits of His disciples and inability to “lead,” He was their master, showing them what to do. In fact, He often directed His disciples to join in actions like His, with Him. He asked them if they understood what He did in washing their feet and then directed them to do it likewise. As He would sacrifice His life in love for others, so He directed them (us!). “Unless you lose your life for my sake and the gospel’s sake, you won’t gain it.”
If you’ve had children, you know how prone they are to imitate you in your actions. When you try to get them to do something different and they remind you of what you do, have you ever said, “Do what I say, not what I do”? Me too. But that is so hard for them to do, to see one thing lived out in their parents’ lives and do something else. So it will depend on us as parents and as disciples to show others what we value, what we consider important for us to do.
And our actions must be more than “what works” or “seems good to us” or “benefits us.” Those might be what is appropriate for us to do but especially, and only, if it conforms to the life of Christ. As we say in our post communion prayer, “Almighty God, you gave your Son both as a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life. Enable us to receive Him always with thanksgiving and to conform our lives to His, through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord.” That was Paul’s prayer and it is ours as well, that we follow the example of those who follow Christ. It is how we will witness best Christ Himself. As He told us, others in the world will know we are His disciples by the divine love we show one another.
So, the refusal to clean the bathroom became a “statement” by that pastor but I think it would have been better as a sacrificial offering he could have made to his church. Those opportunities will come up for us regularly. May we follow the example of Christ in sacrificial giving of our time, talents and possessions that God has given us in His love.
Peace in His Service,