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The following text is Jan Paulsen's devotional for the General Conference Executive Committee Spring Meetings. Published with permission, this exploration of culture, unity, the Holy Spirit and the responsibilities of leadership was delivered on April 17 in Silver Spring, Maryland. Video is at the bottom of this post. —A. Carpenter
Notwithstanding whatever baggage Easter may have picked up on its journey through cultures and history, I cannot come to this season of the year without being irresistibly drawn to the final hours that Jesus had with his disciples before he crossed the Kidron Valley into the olive grove known as Gethsemane. The hours and exchanges between Jesus and his 12 close companions occupy a greater portion of the Gospels than any other period of the life of the Lord. You read John 13-17 and you feel the dynamics of a most critical hour; the emotions; the disclosures of pride of the disciples as well as the humility of our Lord; the lesson in service; the power and purity of love; the assurances, the promises, the instruction; and the trauma of the hour. It was all, I’m sure, more than the human mind could take in and hold—and the disciples struggled.
It is clear that Jesus knew – the disciples did not – but he knew that this would be his last hours with them before his life would be laid down. That awareness alone should make it clear that whatever issues Jesus would take up with his disciples and whatever he would say to them, and whatever moments of value he would develop with them, would have critical importance both for their survival as believers as well as for whether they would be able to discharge their assignment, as he intended them to, after he was gone. What was going to happen to them when he was gone? – They were young, maybe idealists who may have got hold of the ‘wrong end of the stick’. They had their own private preoccupations but were sorely lacking in humility. There was strife and resentful feelings among them—one person seeking greatness above the other. Seeking personal greatness—seeking office—an destroy you as a person.
To help me focus on the intensity of that afternoon, I have re-read the fifty-or-so pages of Desire of Ages where our prophet describes the scene for us.) At this moment we see an incredible force of love and service and humility going out from Jesus to his twelve.
Knowing all that was before him, he might naturally have been overwhelmed with the thought of his own humiliation and suffering. But he looked upon the twelve, who had been with him as his own, and who, after his shame and sorrow and painful usage were over, would be left to struggle in the world. His thoughts of what he himself must suffer were always connected with his disciples. He did not think of himself. His care for them was uppermost in his mind. (DA, p. 643)
Such love is too great to understand. Yes, even, and maybe particularly, the love that came from the heart of Jesus for Judas, whose intent he had read, and to whom he made it clear more than once that afternoon that he knew what he was up to. Yet he sheltered him while he washed his feet and longed for Judas to repent, to confess, and to be forgiven. “Jesus alone could read his secret. Yet he did not expose him. Jesus hungered for his soul. He felt for him such a burden as for Jerusalem when he wept over the doomed city. His heart was crying: ‘How can I give you up?’ (DA, 645)
This is to me an overwhelming lesson, which I struggle, but find it hard, to learn – namely the lesson that also I may, at some moment, find myself in the company of individuals whom I know have compromised themselves, and yet I must love them and shelter them and pray with and for them hoping that they will see a better way.
As leaders in this council, that is how we must relate to, and treat, each other when opinions collide, and we are convinced that the other is wrong and I am right. Love them enough while we talk, and shelter them while hopefully they will find room and time to see your point of view, without you, by ridicule or caricature, embarrassing them along the way. The education process takes time, and in that ongoing time both people and their opinions are vulnerable to aggressive comments and dismissive attitudes. Have we not seen that in this house? Sometimes we talk to each other across an abyss, and the dis-connect is real, as we experienced when we last met as a council and talked about women.
I will come back to that, but first to the dynamics of the afternoon of Jesus and the twelve.
It is important that we catch two values of Christian service which Jesus illustrated during those pre-Gethsemane hours, for they speak powerfully to every spiritual leader, namely (1) that the only greatness that really matters is the greatness of humility, and (2) the only distinction that really matters is found in devotion to the service of others.
After Judas had left the company and gone to do his business, there were a number of things Jesus needed to say to the remaining eleven. (Our chosen theme is “Revived by His Word”; so, let us listen and take in seriously what he said so that we may be revived.)
The points that Jesus takes up with them have to do with personal conduct, and relationships; and the Holy Spirit is introduced as the Divine presence who will guide us in how we handle these matters.
Having laid before the disciples the fact that his hour had come, that he would leave them, he gave them the assurance that he would come again; and he said: “You have to trust me in this.” But, he said, in the interim between my going away, and my coming back, I will be with you in the person of the Holy Spirit. ‘It is in your interest that I go. When the Spirit comes, his movements among you will not be limited by a body, such as mine. And, also, I have to prepare, and get things ready for the next chapter of eternity. Then I will come back and we will meet again face to face—physically and really. But don’t worry: until then I will never be absent from you and I will never leave you as orphans. By the Comforter Spirit I will be accessible to you anywhere and at all times.’
That, somewhat paraphrased, is what he said about the Holy Spirit. Have our people understood that?
We are a people who pray, regularly and often, for the Holy Spirit—corporately and individually. And I do. I listen to what we say when we pray corporately, and sometimes I wonder whether we see the Holy Spirit as the absentee God; and that we are praying to the Father and the Son for a Divine Gift, which they are somehow reluctant to give—as though God the Father needs to be persuaded. Maybe we should more often thank him for the Gift, which is already present with us, and then proceed to let the Spirit have full and free range in our thoughts, plans, and actions—personally and corporately; i.e. for us to live up to the potentials which the Spirit’s presence makes possible. The Holy Spirit is not a stranger among his people, although his people may not always recognize his presence or what he says, and may, even unwittingly, resist His workings.
A confession: Personally I believe that the Holy Spirit is my Companion; he is with me constantly—through victories and defeats. But I must also confess that I have not let him accomplish all that I believe he would like to have in my life. I wish that I had been able to lead this church, during the eleven years of my presidency, to where we would not be having the sometimes acrimonious exchanges that we now experience regarding the role of women in our church. I somehow feel that the Spirit is ready to lead us to where we, for various reasons, are reluctant to go.
But I also believe that the Spirit is a gentle leader who wants us to understand where he is taking us and why. He does not take us on a blind assignment, and he does not bypass our intellect. We have deliberated complex issues in this council, which we have struggled with. We have had moments when we spoke harshly to each other. How can two walk together if they don’t understand each other? How can they support each other if they have no sympathy for each other? The Holy Spirit will not take us on his journey ahead of our understanding and independent of our free choice. He will not! He wants us to understand where we are going, and he wants us to see that what he wants to lead us to is good. This is the partnership of the divine and human that the Holy Spirit will not compromise.
Jesus said to the disciples that when the Spirit comes, ‘he will help you to understand everything I have tried to teach you.’ “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” His work is to define and maintain the truth, and to bring us back to the Scripture. For us, personally and corporately, to be Spirit-led there must be an up-front decision of compliance with the Divine will as it comes to us and our understanding grasps it. Cultural conventions, values and expectations, whether it is to say “yes” or “no”, must not be the final point of arrival. The deciding question must be: What will serve God’s agenda in mission best? And any personal self-defined and self-seeking agenda does not belong, for it is alien to being led by the Spirit.
Why are so many of our people apparently unsure of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing presence in their lives? Why is he to so many seen as the ‘One-yet-to-come’? Also, Why is there the fear that there will come days when we are on our own; and, with that, the frightening thought: ‘I hope my battery is sufficiently charged so I can make it on my own’. Well, it never will be. I find no hint, from God, of circumstances or a period of our pilgrimage that we, as God’s children, shall have to make this journey on our own—without the companionship of the Holy Spirit. In our preaching and teaching we must help our people to understand that, and to experience the assurance and security which that gives.
Another message Jesus left with his disciples was this: “As I have loved you, you must love each other. If you don’t, all that you claim to be is discredited in the eyes of the public, for love is the evidence of discipleship.”
Have our people understood that? Have we taught our people, who are so serious about being right, that it is more important to love their brother and sisters than it is to be right? Where this dynamics of love exists among believers, “it is evidence that the image of God is being restored in humanity” (DA, p. 678). There will be differences of opinion among us. Let that not surprise anyone. That is normal. In the words of our prophet: “It is seldom that two persons will view and express truth in the same way. Each dwells on particular points which his constitution and education have fitted him to appreciate” (Letter 53, 1900).
But in his final message to his disciples, Jesus Christ ties together love and obedience, and he teaches us that love and faithfulness can express itself only in obedience to our Lord. So he says to them: “If you love me, you will obey what I have taught. If you obey me you will remain in my love, just as I obeyed my Father and remain in his love” (John 15: 10). Christ’s primary assignment was his mission to rescue humanity. Our primary assignment is to tell them about it. He said, in various ways and at different times, “I want you to be my witnesses. I want you to tell them of me. I want you to be the channels through which my grace will flow for the healing of the world” (DA, p. 357). So I say to you my fellow-leaders: “Let every thing you do find its meaning in serving the mission of the church!”
Spiritual revival is experienced when we take seriously what he has commanded us to do, for Mission is the context of spirituality and revival. The Gospel was never meant to be enjoyed just in the privacy of believers – corporately or personally. Without the functioning outreach of mission, spirituality is only so much ‘hot air’, and it becomes an exercise in introspective self-preoccupation that has unsafe cultish features.
The chapters we have been reflecting on briefly end with the prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17. In a very moving manner he talks first to his Father about himself, and about the tie there is between them; he then prays for his immediate disciples; and then he prays for us – and he prays specifically that those who share faith and faith’s understanding of obedience, be brought to “complete unity”. In an incredible and for us difficult-to-understand manner he ties this unity among believers into the mysterious and sacred unity which exists in the Trinity. Maybe we can begin to sense in that thought the sanctity of the unity for which he prays. The Spirit is the minister of this unity among Christ’s followers (Eph. 4: 3). It is appropriate that we should remind ourselves that while uniformity is no biblical requirement, unity is!
(You have heard me speak often in the past on the value of unity. Well, I am not done yet, for we must answer to God on how we handle this.)
Our unity as a global family is these days being tested with respect to the role of women in ministry and leadership in our church. Some insist that those who advocate the ordination of women in our church will split the church. Maybe. The other side answers that those who deny women ordination will be the ones who split this church. Maybe. If the church cannot find a way forward in this matter without compromising the unity God wants us to hold and preserve, we shall all have to answer for how we contributed or failed to contribute to overcome our impasse, and I suspect that those who said “No” will be held as responsible in the eyes of God as those who said “Yes”. Make no mistake about it: God’s love for his people, whom he wants to stay united, is greater than we can begin to understand.
If there were clear inspired mandates, in the Scriptures or in the Writings of Ellen White, giving us directions in this matter, we would not be having this discussion as a global church. We have in the past concluded, through the work of several commissions and reported back to this council, that we find no such mandate on which there is broad agreement. If that is the case, then it all comes down to a matter of time and place. ‘My culture is different from yours’, we say. ‘The expectations, conventions, good-taste/bad-taste values in my culture are different from yours. ‘The “Yes” would be an offence both to the church and the general public in my culture; the “No”, say others, is an offence in my part of the world.’ Clearly the world is flat, but the opinions of cultures are not! So, we pray to the Lord: “Where do we go, and how do we solve this? Please, Lord, help your people both to be true to you and to be effective in mission.”
And this takes us to the critical question of mission—which is the assignment the Lord has given to us. In a world whose cultural peculiarities and varieties turn 360 degrees, how can we best and most effectively do mission in these different places? We are not required to and we cannot do it the same way everywhere. Since the church is part of society and cannot step away from it, how can we be sensitive to what society will accept without scandalizing the church?
The important point we keep coming back to is: We have a mission to do. How can we do that most effectively? Our leaders in California cannot make that decision for their colleague in Africa; and our very accomplished mission church in South America cannot speak for struggling Europe. We have to think of where we are placed, and then pray that the Spirit will lead me to do it best where I am; and trust that he will also lead you to get it right where you are. In the absence of an unequivocal biblical injunction, there is no other way!
So, with respect to the ‘matter that will not go away’, how do we do this?
I hear the voice of a leader from South America say: “Things are changing also here. Our thinking is not locked into where we were 10 years ago.”
And I hear the voice of a leader from Africa say: “Give us some more time. Our people need more time for education.”
I respect and honor these perspectives. They come from serious and responsible church leaders, and we must to listen to them. Education and understanding go hand-in-hand, and it takes time and patience. I don’t believe the Holy Spirit leads us to make decisions which bypass our understanding.
We have now set up a commission to examine our understanding of “ordination”. Not that we are uncertain about how we understand ordination. Ours is not a Roman Catholic or sacerdotal view of ordination. I suspect we have always understood that. But the value of this re-examination lies in the fact that the education process continues and we keep talking these things through. When conversation ends, people walk away from each other. That must not happen to us.
Said Jesus to the eleven that memorable afternoon: “There is much more that I want to tell you, but you cannot bear it just now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth” (John 16: 12,13).
May we be revived by these promising words of our Lord, for I believe we should accept that the Holy Spirit is presently at work (1) to find a way for the church to do mission most effectively everywhere; and (2) to keep the family of faith globally united. Let us not impose our own private limitations or prejudices on the work of the Holy Spirit. The promise is that “he will guide you into all truth.”
—Jan Paulsen, Ph.D., was president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church from 1999-2010.