by Fr. Jack McArdle
The whole saga of salvation revolves around the fact of a people who had gone astray, who were lost, and who could not find their way back home. From the time of the Fall there was a sense of exile among the human race. They were restless on the face of the earth, as if they were a people in exile from the Garden. They built themselves a very high tower that would reach to the sky. 'This will bring us together, and keep us from scattering all over the world.' But God was having none of it! No matter how they themselves tried to 'fix' things, they were in exile from their true Home, and there is no way they could ever get back there on their own, or through their own devices. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets were God's leaders, sent to give his people a sense of direction towards the good, and towards the truth. The actual historical/geographical exiles in Egypt and in Babylon, were symbolic of the real exile from the Garden. The Old Testament is replete with references to God's promise to 'bring the exiles home'.
Having a base, a homeland, was vitally important to the Hebrews, just as it is to the Jews in Israel today. To this very day they continue to return from exile. Their earthly dream of a land 'flowing with milk and honey' was a very real image of their true Home. Jerusalem was their Mecca, just as it continues to be today. They were not at home anywhere else on this earth. In the very last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelations, John calls heaven 'the New Jerusalem'. It is there, and only there, that God's people will ever feel at home. The most significant exile of the Hebrews was in Egypt. They were in slavery, with no hope of freedom. God chose Moses, and commissioned him to lead his people out of bondage. At first, Moses was reluctant to accept such a responsibility, but God insisted that he do so. The Lord would be his strength and his protection. What followed was an extraordinary revelation and display of the Lord's power. Although it was Moses who was leading them, it was obvious that the Lord himself was opening up the way for them. He provided shade against the scorching sun by day, and heat against the freezing desert by night. He let fall their daily supply of bread(manna) from heaven, and from the rock flowed abundant water to quench their thirst. For forty years, they made their weary way back from exile, back to a land chosen for them by God, which they called the Promised Land. Their sojourn in the desert was a continuous unfolding of the Lord's care for them, and his personal involvement in their delivery from bondage.
This journey from Egypt is a very real, and a very powerful foreshadowing of the journey to salvation unfolded by Jesus. The Lord himself has come to lead us from slavery and bondage into the freedom of the children of God. Jesus would be our Moses, leading us through the desert of life into the kingdom of God. Not only would he lead us, but he himself would be the manna for the journey. This is more than just Eucharist. It is the 'daily bread' he told us to ask for. In the days of the manna, it was meant for the present day only. It was an act of trust in God to accept that he would provide the manna for the following day. On one occasion, with their lack of trust, the people gathered manna to store it for the following day, and they found that it wasn't edible. Jesus offered himself as the rock from which flowed the water, when he cried out 'If anyone is thirsty, let that person come to me.....The water I will give takes away thirst altogether. It becomes a perpetual spring within them, giving them eternal life.'
A leader is someone who goes ahead, who faces the dangers first. He himself would take on the sin, the sickness, and the death. In doing this he would open up the Red Sea, so that we might cross over in safety to the Promised Land. He never asks us to do something he himself has not done. From the very moment of his commissioning in the Jordan waters, he faced Satan alone in the desert. At the end of his life, in the garden of Gethsemane, he told the soldiers who had come to arrest him, 'I am the one you came to arrest, so let the others go.' He was always prepared to stand between his disciples and danger. He promised that, even after he left them to return to his Father, that he would never abandon them in the storm. The purpose of sending the Spirit was to lead them into all truth, and in that truth they would be free. At every step of the way, Jesus was very conscious that these people would never make it alone. They were 'like sheep without a shepherd'; they had no one to lead them. That is why they followed him with such enthusiasm. At long last they had found someone who knew where he was going. This is very important in a leader. His very presence breathes confidence in those around. When Jesus was arrested, and the apostles experienced vulnerability and isolation, they were terrified, and they scattered in all directions.
Jesus had very harsh words for the Jewish leaders. They were wolves in sheep's clothing, and they did not have the welfare of her followers at heart. He told them that they should call no one on earth their leader. He, and he alone, was the one who came to deliver them. His form of leadership was so totally different from that to which the people were familiar. When he washed the apostles' feet, he told them that his leadership was one of service. At another time he gave a very a very definite teaching on his idea of leadership. The greatest one among them is the one who serves. This service is leadership at its best. In his kingdom, the lowly are raised up, and the mighty are brought down. Anyone who believes himself to be first is, in fact, last in the priority of his kingdom. This is not leading from behind, but travelling alongside. The leadership was one of accompaniment. It is to be an equal among equals. Such teaching must have sent shock-waves among the religious leaders who listened to him. This man was out to destroy them, and so they decided that he should be removed before he went on to do more damage, and to deprive them of something they saw as their divine right. Their complete authority was something that ran totally contrary to everything for which Jesus stood.
Jesus appeared to his apostles many times after his resurrection. It was very important that they be left in no doubt that he was alive and well. He had passed safely through the portals of death, and he returned to confirm that fact. He was the one who had opened up the Red Sea for them. At the moment of his death, the veil in the temple was torn in two. He had opened the way for them into the Holy of Holies, where God dwells. They could follow him through life, and through death. He would go ahead to prepare a place for them. He would then return to bring them, so that where he was, they also would be. He would be with them right out to the very end, and beyond. His was a very definite and confident leadership, that inspired confidence and loyalty in those who followed him. Unlike Moses, Jesus would accompany his followers into the Promised Land, and he would be there to share his eternal victory with them.
Consistency is one of the qualities of good leadership. People should not be led one direction today, and another to-morrow, depending on the latest fad. From the very outset of his mission, Jesus had a very clear mandate, a very clear message, and nothing could deflect him from that. The religious leaders deliberately misunderstood or twisted what he had to say. Jesus came back at them on all occasions. Some of his listeners walked away, because they could not accept what he was saying. He didn't run after them, or make any attempt to alter the content of his message. He announced that they were either with him, or against him; they were free to follow him or not. His mention of being a king was misinterpreted, and they wanted to take him off and crown him as their king. Jesus would never ever countenance such distractions from the direction in which he had directed his life, and in which he intended to lead his followers.
Jesus was always on the move, and he refused to remain on in places where his on-going presence was requested. 'There are other cities to which I must go', he announced. Even while he stood in the midst of the people, they had a sense of being led. His very words gave direction to their lives. The throngs followed him from one part of the country to the other. At times, this brought them far from home, and into wild and barren places. When they had nothing to eat there, he fed them, rather than have them unable to follow him, or return home, because of weakness and hunger. The very energy God gives me with which to follow him is the very same energy I can use if I wish to walk away. In following him, however, I can avail of a Higher Power that is always at my disposal. With the call to follow comes the grace to respond to the call. God won't send me anywhere when I die; rather will he eternalise the direction of my life right now. Following him leads to life. The rich young man refused to leave all things to follow him. This saddened Jesus, because the young man was so blinded by his earthly wealth and attachments, that he totally failed to see the eternal riches to which Jesus invited him. Jesus would never force him, or anyone else, to follow him. A basic human right, given us by God himself, is that of free-will, and God would never ever encroach on that. The invitation to follow comes from him; the decision to follow must come from us. We are very deeply involved in our own salvation in that, God doesn't give me anything; rather he offers me everything. He offers me peace, but I'm totally free to live in misery and die of ulcers if I so choose!
After Jesus had left them and the Spirit had come, Peter and the other apostles were arrested and brought before the council. They were reminded that they had been told never again to preach in the name of Jesus, and they had done so. Peter spoke to them about Jesus, about him being sent by God, and about how they had killed the holy one of God. He then went on to tell them that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that God has brought him to his right hand 'as Leader and Saviour'. The centrality of Jesus' role in leading us back to the Father is something that continues for all time. His words, his Spirit, and his presence leads and compels us still. 'We have decided to follow Jesus' is the title of a Christian song. In the early church, the disciples were called 'Followers of the Way', clearly showing that being part of the Community was the result of deciding to be led by Jesus, and by his message. Today, in movies about life from other planets, in space movies about aliens coming among us, we are familiar with the phrase 'Bring me to your leader'.
In other words, I want to know from whence you come, and where is the source of your being. The life of the Christian must always give witness to the reality of Jesus, and to the totally involved nature of his presence among us. In his own life, we read of Jesus 'being led by the Spirit into the desert......into the Temple'. A life without inspiration is purposeless and aimless. We all need direction in life. We seek spiritual direction, we look for direction and purpose, we set goals and aims. There is a basic insecurity that is part of human living. From the time of the Fall there is a nomadic quality to our existence. 'We have not here a lasting city,' Paul tells us 'but we look for one that is to come, which will be revealed in Christ Jesus'. Without Jesus we are completely adrift on the sea of life. The apostles waited for Jesus, but when he didn't come, they set out across the Sea of Galilee without him. Needless to say they soon found themselves in the midst of a treacherous storm. They would have drowned had not Jesus come to them on the waters, to take control of the situation. 'And when Jesus got into the boat, immediately they were where they were going'. In Jesus we have a leader, as well as a plan and purpose for life. Being led by him is an end in itself, in so far as heaven begins now, and the kingdom of God is among us. As we travel with him, then, like Paul, we can look forward to completing the journey, and to begin our eternal prayer: 'Free! Free at last! I thank my God we are free at last!'
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.