When I worked for the newspaper, the rest of the reporters and I had a little tally board that we would use to mark when people said silly clichéd things in a meeting.
“Let’s not reinvent the wheel,” was one of them. “We need to think outside the box,” is another. Much of the time, it sounded like people said those things just to be saying something, rather than actually making a point.
One of the ones I didn’t get as tired of hearing was “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” For one, it wasn’t a tired metaphor; it was just a simple sentence. For another, it was a call to actually do something rather than sit around talking about doing something, which usually meant that the meeting was getting close to being over. You have no idea how boring small-town meetings can be when you have to sit through every last minute of one of them.
As Christians, we face the same choices. Not just once and then done with, of course, but repeated. Sometimes we lead. In our Methodist denomination, we have invested the leadership of our church in pastors, men and women who have heard a call from God to step out and proclaim God’s word to the people. We train them, mentor them, educate them and the set them apart in what we call ordination.
But of course, not all of our leaders are clergy. In our denomination, lay people have several leadership roles as well. Smaller churches use volunteers to handle important jobs like treasurer or mission chair. Since the body of Christ does different things, leadership in that body is handled by different folks.
Which also means that there are times when we follow as well. Nobody since Jesus has been able to be a great leader in all areas of ministry and work, and even he delegated. So obviously some of us have abilities in some areas that are, ah, less than our abilities in other areas. In those areas, we follow others. We may follow them because they were picked for that job or because the system we use has set them up in a supervisory or managing-type position. Or we may follow them because we realize they are gifted to lead in that area.
The saying was constructed to sort of look down on the third choice, wasn’t it? If you’re leading, you’re contributing and if you’re following you’re also involved in an effort. But if you’ve gotten out of the way, then you have no role. You were in the way of the people who wanted to lead, or even of the people who wanted to follow the lead of others. You weren’t helping, you were just “in the way.” So all of the people doing something suggested you remove yourself and stop hindering their efforts.
But Peter’s experiences at the house of Cornelius show us how sometimes we need to do exactly that: Get out of the way of God at work. Remember that Peter visited Cornelius, a Gentile, and during a nap he had a vision of all kinds of animals. Having been brought up as a nice Jewish boy, he knew the animals in his vision were unclean and could not be eaten by anyone who wanted to follow the law of Moses. But wait, God said. I made those animals to; who are you to call something unclean and unfit when I tell you to eat of it? Remember who Moses was speaking for.
Later, when Peter speaks about Jesus and his work, the Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles gathered in the room and they begin to speak in tongues and show the Spirit at work, just like the disciples did at Pentecost. Peter immediately understands that God will now be at work beyond the boundaries of the nation of Israel.
Abraham’s descendants will no longer be only those physically related to the clans that came from him, but God will bring them out of all tribes and tongues.
He asks, “Can anyone deny water for these to be baptized?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course. If anyone had said yes, then I think it would have made for a whole different kind of sermon from Peter.
Peter, who has more than fifteen centuries of religious tradition and regulation built into his culture, would no more think of offering religious baptism to a Gentile than he would have to a rock. Not because he looked down on them, but because “baptism” was a religious concept that wouldn’t have any meaning for them. But now he realizes he needs to move some of his preconceptions about how God does things out of the way in order for God to work. Peter must get out of the way.
Our need to do the same is frequent and shows up in many areas. Favorite kinds of music, preferred prayers or orders of worship, thoughts about how we should dress for church – these and more can hinder us. Yes, more experienced folks should realize the sanctuary roof won’t fall in if someone brings drums under it. But hip folks should realize that their carefully manufactured look of skinny jeans, skinny glasses and overly-hopeful attempts at soul-patch facial hair can be just as much an exclusionary uniform as are three-piece suits and strands of pearls.
We all have ways of doing things that sometimes need to get out of the way when God wants to work. After all, we are not only a part of that work in the sense that God uses us for his purposes. We’re also a part of it in the sense that sometimes he needs to work on us as well.