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On Following The Leader

John 13:1-5

I read to you from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John this incident which occurs in the upper room on the night before Jesus died. “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. When He had washed their feet and taken His garments and resumed His place, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet, for I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.'”

Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory. 

Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. 

The greatest leader who ever lived is Jesus of Nazareth. Now that’s a very broad, sweeping, even daring statement to make. And yet I make it without any fear whatever of contradiction, for no other leader in all of history has ever gained the allegiance of so many. Not Gautama Buddha, not Mohammed, not Confucius, not Zoroaster. No other leader in all of history, no king, no emperor, no president, no dictator, no general has ever claimed followers in every land and nation on the face of this earth. Jesus of Nazareth is the greatest leader who ever lived. And I am convinced that if we can come to understand why this is so, if we can understand more about why He is history’s greatest leader, then I believe that we shall become more committed, more valuable, and more effective followers of him. I invite you then to take a look with me today at Jesus of Nazareth, the greatest leader who ever lived. The One who calls out to us now, “Come and follow Me.”

First, notice this. A great leader shapes our creed. 

A great leader, in other words, determines what we believe. There’s an old Yugoslav proverb which says, “If you wish to know what a man is, place him in authority.” In other words, that if you place a person in a position of leadership, then sooner or later the truth about that person will be revealed. 

And that’s why I think it’s worth noting that Jesus always spoke the truth. He said what He believed, and you could believe what He said. In fact, you could build your own beliefs on the truth of what He said. He spoke the truth, He told the truth, because He is the truth. 

Just as an example, in calling people to follow Him, Jesus was always very careful to know that they knew the truth about what it meant to follow Him. He didn’t gloss over the realities. He never promised His followers a primrose path or visions of grandeur or a sugar-coated Gospel. He never once said, “Come along with Me and you’ll never again have an unanswered question or an unsolved problem or an unhealed hurt or an unfulfilled dream.” He never once said anything like that. Rather, He was consistently talking about the cost of following Him. Again and again throughout the Gospels, that word is spoken, and it is always the truth. He said, “The same baptism with which I have been baptized, you shall be baptized. As the world has hated Me, so the world will hate you. If you want to be My follower, take up your cross and follow after Me. I send you out as sheep into the midst of wolves.” Again and again, He trumpets that theme. So frequently in fact that I believe that we have to count that as a basic element of Jesus’ belief, a basic strand of Jesus’ teachings. He wanted His followers to know the truth. He wanted His followers to know the cost of following after Him. For He knew that without the truth, without right belief, they would never be effective followers. 

That’s always the case, isn’t it? I mean, you would agree, surely. The family that is without truth, the marriage that is without truth, the company or the organization that is without truth, cannot have an inner strength. It cannot stand. It cannot last. That’s why the Church has never fully subscribed to Benjamin Franklin’s dictum that honesty is the best policy. My friends, honesty is not the best policy. Honesty is the only policy. We must speak the truth and live the truth and obey the truth and stand for the truth, cost whatever it may, just as Jesus did. That is part of the reason that so many people have followed Him in history, because He always tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. When He delivers a word of warning, you had better listen, because it is the truth. And when He delivers a broad, gracious promise, you can claim it as your own, because it is the truth. He is the truth, and He sets the truth. He sets right belief in our minds and in our hearts. That’s why Jesus is the greatest leader who ever lived.

Notice secondly, a great leader meets our need. 

You know, the greatest need that we have as human beings is the need for friendship, for relationships. The plain and simple truth of the matter is we are not made to go it alone in life. The greatest need we have is to link our lives and our hearts together with others in deep and significant relationships, and Jesus meets that need. Did you notice in the Bible that Jesus speaks to His disciples, and He says – listen carefully. He says, “I do not call you My servants. I call you My friends.” Again and again He speaks to these disciples of His and calls them friend. It’s obvious as you read the Gospel accounts that there are more accounts of Jesus being with His companions than with the crowds. Have you noticed that? It’s quite clear in the Gospels that Jesus didn’t go around calling congresses and conferences and conventions. But there is an extended record in the Gospels of long walks beside the Sea of Galilee, and times spent in the shade of olive trees, or sitting around a campfire at night, sharing the things which only true friends can really share.

You know, if you know me at all, you know that camping out is not one of my favorite activities. I love what Dan Ruffier says. You know what Dan Ruffier says? Dan Ruffier says, “I don’t want to go to any place where you can’t tip.” That’s my sentiment exactly. I don’t like camping out. But you know what’s the truth? The best way to make deep friendships in life – I hate to admit it, but it’s true. The best way to forge deep, significant relationships in life is to camp out with other people. That’s right. And that’s what Jesus and the disciples did. When you read the Gospels, it’s quite obvious that they engaged in what amounted to a three-year camping trip. No wonder they were such good friends. But of course what I’m talking about here applies not only to the out-of-doors. It applies to any place. For the great leader is the one who is close to, the one who is a friend to, those who follow after him. Jesus always meets that deep need for significant friendships and relationships in life. 

James Whitcomb Riley has a poem about an incident which occurred. A man who was the foreman in a particular shop died. And in the poem, he portrays the other workers in that shop standing around together on the day of the funeral, and they were talking about this foreman. His name was Jim. They were talking about this foreman who had died. And one of them said, with tears in his eyes – he said, “I believe that when God made Jim, He didn’t do anything else that day except just sit around and feel good.” Isn’t that beautiful? It’s obvious that the foreman in that shop was a man who understood and who met our deepest human need, the need for significant friendships and relationships in life. 

And, you know, I’m always amazed at the faith Jesus had in His Heavenly Father. But I think I’m even more amazed at the faith He had in His disciples. On the night before He died, in praying what is called His High Priestly Prayer – you can find it. Read it sometime. It’s in John 17. For whom did He pray? He says in that prayer, “Father, I pray for these twelve. I do not pray for the world. I pray for these. Keep them in Thy Name.” They were His friends. And one of the reasons that so many people in history have followed Jesus – more people have followed Him than have followed any other leader in all of history. And one of the reasons is because Jesus always meets our deepest need: the need for deep friendship and significant relationships in life. He is the greatest leader who ever lived. 

But then notice thirdly, a great leader leads by deed. 

I never read that thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John – and I read it a lot – I never read it without being driven to my knees in awe, and without having my heart fill with emotion. For every time I see it, here was Jesus, the Lord of Glory Himself, the only begotten Son of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, and what does He do? He gets down on His knees and washes His disciples’ dusty feet. It stirs me every time I read it, to think that He would do that. Mind you, no self-respecting Middle Eastern gentleman then or now, no great leader then or now, would ever dare to do anything like that. It was unthinkable then, and it is just as unthinkable now. And yet there it is for all of us to see. Jesus the Son of God takes off His robe and wraps a towel about Him and gets down on His knees and washes His disciples’ feet. And I tell you, in performing that act of loving service, He is demonstrating to His disciples in a way they can never forget that they are to serve in the same way.

I do not often do this in a sermon, but I shall today. I want to recommend a book for you to read. If you happen to be engaged every day in the world of business and commerce, this book ought to be required reading. And even if you’re not engaged in that every day, it’s a fascinating story, and it’s worth your look. The name of the book is Stronger Than Steel. It’s the story of a man named Wayne Alderson, a Christian who dared to take his faith out into the workaday world. A business executive who dared to lead by serving. Wayne Alderson was the vice president for operations at a large steel foundry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And in that particular foundry, labor management relations had become so tense over a period of years that you could almost cut it with a knife. And Wayne Alderson was determined to changed all of that. And so he set himself to the task. Every day, every single day of the week, he would spend a portion of that day down in the foundry itself, working right alongside the men. And not only that, but he spent time with those workers as individuals, trying to get to know them as individuals. And not only that, but he sought to get to know their families as well. And he tried to instill in every person in that foundry a sense of worth and value and dignity, no matter what their job happened to be. He sought to make them feel that they had worth as a human being. He drastically improved the working conditions in that place. And what was the result? Within a very short period of time, labor difficulties were practically nil. Productivity increased 64%. Within 21 months, that foundry had gone from a $6 million deficit to a $6 million profit. And all because one man dared to walk what he talked. One man dared to apply to his daily life the admonition of Jesus: “Let him who is great among you be the servant of all.” 

Now understand, this is not some sweet, sticky little fairy tale that winds up with everybody living happily ever after. It doesn’t. Wayne Alderson was fired from his job. The board of directors of that foundry said, “That’s not the way we do it here. We do not want your kind of changes.” And they fired him. But I want to tell you something. If you are in any way engaged in labor management relations, you ought to be reading that book. But more than that, I believe that if our endangered economic system is going to survive this century, then the approach of Wayne Alderson is the only answer. And Wayne Alderson built his approach on the approach of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, who gave Himself in service to those who followed Him.

This past week, it was my privilege to spend some time with Dr. Robert Schuller, and to see something in him that’s not always obvious in the television glare or the national prominence. He lives what he says. And what does he say? He says, “Our worth as human beings is determined not by our status, but by our service.” And he lives what he says. And I’ve seen evidence of it. And where do you think he learned it? He learned it from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, where he saw Jesus Himself, the Lord of Glory, down on His knees, washing His disciples’ feet. Jesus is the greatest leader who ever lived, because He is the only leader who ever lived who led by serving. 

But notice this. A great leader sows the seed. Jesus never believed that He had to do it all by Himself. That’s why He had those disciples about Him. And that’s why He so enjoyed sending them out on testing missions. You see, He would plant in them the seed of His power, and then He would send them out to share the responsibility, and to share the glory. He did it time and again. You can read about one incident, the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. There, Jesus called His disciples together and prepared them to go out on a dry run, a dress rehearsal. And what He said to them on that occasion is nothing less than a briefing manual for the Christian mission. He pulled His disciples together, and He said to them, “This is the first thing I want to say to you. Here at the outset, in the early going, stay away from things that are too hard for you. So don’t go to the Gentiles and the Samaritans just yet. I want to give you some help about the things you’re going to preach. So I want to give you the seed for a sermon. Here’s your text. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ Preach on that. I want you to go with My power. I give it to you. You have the power to cleanse. You have the power to forgive. You have the power to heal. Don’t ever fail to call upon that power and use it. As for the money you’re to take, leave it all at home. Trust that you will be provided for. As for clothing, don’t take very much. You don’t need much. Stay with good people wherever you go, and mind your manners. Salute every house you walk into. Bless every house you leave. If you encounter tough times in any place, just shake the dust off your feet, move on, forget about it. There are greater challenges ahead. I want you to be as wise as serpents, and I want you to be as harmless as doves. And if you’re arrested – and you probably will be – don’t worry about what you’re going to say. Just remember the things that I have taught you, and God will bring the words to your lips. It won’t be easy. I know that. But I’m going to be with you. And I will bless you. And our Heavenly Father will bless you as well. So go in My name and in My power.”

And they went. He planted the seeds, and they would bring in the harvest. That’s the way He wanted it, and that’s what happened. And the Bible says that sometime later, they came back to Him, and they were like children at Christmas. They were running, and they were jumping up and down, and they were screaming, and they were shouting, and they were saying, “Lord, you should have been there. You should have seen what happened. It was just exactly the way you said it would be.” And Jesus said – and I believe that when He said it, a great, big, bright smile creased His face. Jesus said, “Yes, I know. Because when you were there, I saw Satan knocked from Heaven into Hell.” There it is. 

Jesus gives to His followers what only the greatest leader on earth can only give. He gives the three Ts. He gave them trust. He trusted them to do His work. He gave them tools. He gave then all the equipment they needed to do the job. And He gave them triumph. He let them claim the victory for themselves. Only the greatest leader can give trust and tools and triumph. Jesus is the greatest leader who ever lived. 

Fancy that. I’m right back to where I started. The greatest leader who ever lived is Jesus of Nazareth. That leaves only one question: are we going to follow Him, you and I?

You ever hear the legend about what happened after Jesus’ work on this earth was done, and He returned to Heaven, and He was met by the angel Gabriel? And the angel Gabriel said to Him, “Lord, now that you’ve gone from the earth, how is the work of the Lord going to be carried on?” And Jesus said, “I gave the message to Peter and John. I gave it to Mary and Martha. I gave it to all of the others. They will carry on the work.” And Gabriel said, “Come on, Lord. Who are you kidding? They’re just ordinary people. There’s nothing very great about them. And besides that, just suppose that the fishermen get busy with their fishing. And just suppose the women get busy with their work, and they don’t do what you expect them to do. Suppose they don’t tell their friends. Or what’s more, suppose their friends forget to pass the message on. What other plans do you have?” And according to the legend, Jesus smiled a great, big, wonderful smile and said, “I have no other plans. I’m counting on them.” There it is. Can He count on you? Can He count on me? Oh, I hope so. Yes, I hope so. 

Let us pray. Almighty and most gracious God, lead us on by the power and the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Amen.


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