Those who partner with God in the spiritual leadership of the church live between two important truths. The first of these we hear from Jesus on the occasion of his last gathering with his disciples: “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Nothing is a very hard word. It must have been hard for the first disciples to hear. First, Jesus talks about his going away from them and then they hear that without him they can do nothing. How was the work to go forward? How was God’s agenda going to be accomplished if Jesus was going away and if without him they could do nothing?
Nothing is still a hard word for believers to hear today, yet Jesus also says to twenty-first century Christians: “Without me you can do nothing.” This sounds offensive because at the top of just about any American list of virtues is a can-do spirit. Most Christians today would agree that doing God’s work should somehow involve God, but in practice God can end up a distant or even absent partner in our activity. With the word nothing, Jesus rubs our noses in the truth that without God at the center, all our church activities and programs and even missions will accomplish little of lasting value for the reign of God in this world.
The second reality of spiritual leadership is also framed in scripture with the word nothing. We hear it coming out of the mouth of the angel Gabriel in answer to Mary’s question, “I am a virgin. How can I bear a child?” (Luke 1:34). Gabriel’s response is elegantly simple: “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). When God becomes the chief guide and power source in a church’s life and ministry, things that previously were unthinkable come within the realm of possibility. In John 15:4–7, Jesus promised his disciples that if they stayed close to him and let him stay close to them, they would bear much fruit for God in the world. He also promised to work through their prayer: “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7).
Living between the realities of “without me you can do nothing” and “with God nothing is impossible” is not easy. It is both thrilling and humbling to live in the creative tension between our weakness and God’s power. Like Mary, we open ourselves fully to the mysterious purposes of God, even though we may not understand what God is doing. In the process we may be led to places we would just as soon not go to do what we otherwise would not do. We may find ourselves being called to speak God’s truth in situations of injustice on behalf of people who have no voice. Being faithful to the crucified one may bring us trouble and struggle; however, joy comes in the midst of this calling as we find that God does indeed take what we give and do more with it than we could ever ask or imagine.
A Spiritual Exercise
Before you begin this meditation, pray that your relationship with God will grow deeper and that your commitment to God will be strengthened. Begin by reflecting on fruit. Imagine a piece of your favorite fruit. In your mind’s eye, think about what it looks like, what it smells like, what it feels like in the hand. Remember the taste of fresh fruit in your mouth. Immerse yourself in the experience and pleasure of fruit. Reflect on the idea that our lives as Christians bear fruit that gives pleasure to God, fruit that will last (John 15–16). Read Galatians 5:22–26. Think about the kinds of fruit you observe in your own life and in your church.
Are there things produced by your life in Christ’s Spirit that you can imagine God delighting in?
How about your church’s life? Where do you see the church working with God and producing lasting results?
End in prayer asking God to do what needs to be done in your life to make you more fruitful.
End your reflection and discussion with prayer for God to draw you, as leaders, and your whole congregation too into God’s deeply transforming presence.
Joan S. Gray has served as teaching elder in twelve congregations. She is the co-author of Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, and the author of Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers and Sailboat Church, all published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Joan concluded a two-year term as Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) of the PC(USA) and lives in midtown Atlanta.