The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Sermon
Today is called Bible Sunday because of the emphasis placed on the word of God. The main themes of the collect and epistle are comfort and hope—“that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” However, the Bible and the season of Advent also remind us that word of God makes us uncomfortable before it comforts us. As Hebrews says
The word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (4:12-13).
God created the world by his word. God said, “Let there be light. And there was light” (Genesis 1:3). As the Psalmist says, “He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast” (Psalm 33:9). However, one part of God’s creation did not obey God’s word. God created man in his image as the crowning glory of his creation. He set the first humans in paradise as rulers, as kings and queens of the earth. Among all the pleasures of paradise, God forbad but one. God spoke to man, but it was not done. God commanded them, but it did not stand fast.
It is our natural tendency to repeat the scene of Genesis 3. We know God’s commandments, but we rationalize how they do not apply in our particular situation; how the prohibited thing actually looks good, and how ungenerous God is to withhold it from us. God speaks to us, and it is not done. God commands us, but it does not stand fast. In this way we perpetuate the guilt, shame and fear that characterizes the human condition.
To be saved from sin by the death of our Lord Jesus Christ requires that we first acknowledge and confess this inherited and chosen state of disobedience. This is to say, we must be made uncomfortable by God’s word before that same word can comfort us with the promise of and life. We must be convicted of sin before we can confess and be forgiven.
Being a Christian assumes that we have had this experience of repentance and faith at some point in time in our lives. We call this “conversion of the heart.” The church has never believed that it is enough merely to be baptized attend church and go through the motions of the Christian faith. We must actually repent, put our faith in Jesus Christ and be changed. There is no comfort or hope apart from this experience of conversion.
The experience of conversion is not an isolated, one time experience. It is the ongoing experience of life in Christ. This liturgy teaches us this. Who will be comforted by God’s favor and goodness communicated to us through the grace of the Blessed Sacrament each week? Only: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life.” The invitation and confession is preceded by the Liturgy of the Word. As we hear the Word of God in a new way each week, new light is shed on our behavior and motives. We grow in our experience of repentance; we grow in our discomfort in order that we may be comforted in new ways.
The nature of our repentance changes over time. If we claim to be Christians, our lives should be free from the habitual practice of open and willful sin. We should not be habitually dishonest in business or relationships. We should be abstinent outside of marriage and chaste within it. We should be committed disciples who are faithful to gather with the community on the Lord’s Day and live a Christ-centered life of prayer. We should have a ministry, a sense of how we use our gifts to advance the kingdom. We should be faithful stewards, returning the tithe to God and being generous with what God has given us in order that we may be free from covetousness. If any of these things are lacking, we need to hear the words of our Lord in Revelation, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works” (Revelation 2:5).
As repentance grows beyond the first principles of discipleship, we begin to see the more subtle ways that sin creeps into our lives. We confess sins committed in the emotion of the moment, when we drift away from prayerful recollection. We confess patterns of thought that have become captive to the world and do not reflect the mind of Christ. We confess slothful habits of behavior and ordinary selfishness. We confess the subtle ways that pride, envy, covetousness, anger, lust and gluttony manifest themselves in our lives.
This ongoing experience of repentance is best cultivated, not by reviewing lists of sin, but by the regular habit of reading the Bible in the context of prayer; by learning how to hear the word of God and take it to heart day by day. We tell people to pray the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, which include a cyclical reading of the Bible. The purpose of this discipline is to create a framework for a regular conversation with God. In prayer, we regularly talk to God. Through habits of Bible reading, we listen to God.
For example, a day of rushing from one duty to the next might culminate in the praying of the evening office. In the lessons for the evening, God may confront a particular attitude, behavior or thought. Conviction of sin leads to confession and new behavior, which leads to the experience of grace, which fills us with comfort and hope.
The Christian who has no daily habit of prayer and Bible reading has no way to process the realities of daily life faithfully; he has no way to answer the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil with the truth of God’s word and the experience of forgiveness and peace. There is also great danger of being deceived. When we do not hear God’s word, we may become comfortable in patterns of behavior that are unfaithful. The Bible continually warns God’s people about the danger of religion devoid of the prophetic power of God’s word. It is not enough be religious or spiritual. We must hear the word of God and do it.
The message of Advent is, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We may confess any number of particular incidents of sin. But we ought also to confess the failure to live according to a faithful pattern of discipleship. The chief discipline of the Christian life is prayer and the reading of Holy Scripture. On Bible Sunday, let us renew our commitment to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the word of God”; Let us allow ourselves, day by day, to be made uncomfortable by God’s word, so that we may continually be comforted by the promise of forgiveness, resurrection and everlasting life.
The Bible describes the consequences of sin and the promise of redemption as a pattern of exile and return. Adam and Eve sinned and were exiled from the Garden of Eden as a consequence. Then God called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and brought their descendents in the Promised Land, a place where God’s redeemed people were to live in harmony with God. The exile of sin was ended when God gathered his people back to him in the land.
This pattern was repeated when Israel became unfaithful to the covenant. The consequence of Israel’s sin was that God sent the people into exile in Babylon and, indeed, throughout the world. God promised to redeem his people once again by sending the Messiah to re-gather Israel. This is the focus of the prophecy in our lesson from Jeremiah. God promised that his chosen king would do a new work of re-gathering that would replace the Exodus from Egypt as the center of Israel’s faith:
They shall no more say, The LORD liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The LORD liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land (Jeremiah 23:7-8 KJV).
The Gospel for today picks up this theme. Jesus, the promised king, re-gathers and feeds Israel with the loaves that symbolize the Bread of Life. At the end of the feeding, Jesus says, “Gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost.” St. John tells us that they gathered up twelve baskets, which represent the re-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel.
By the time of Jesus, the exile of Israel had, in one sense, ended. Israel lived once again in the Promised Land. However, something was still not right because the fullness of God’s blessing had not yet been restored to the nation. Jesus revealed to Israel that exile was not merely a matter of geography. It was quite possible to live in the land, claim membership in the people of God, attend the place of worship and, nonetheless, remain distant from God. As God said through Isaiah, “This people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but have removed their heart far from me” (Isa 29:13).
Jesus revealed a paradox that existed in Israel. Many who were religious leaders and held positions of authority that presumed a certain status with God were, in fact, distant from God. And many of those labeled “sinners” were, in fact, closer to God because they were willing to acknowledge their sin and change. As Jesus went about Israel preaching the gospel and re-gathering the remnant of Israel, it was a rather motley crew of people who actually responded to the call to repent and be saved.
There are important lessons here for us. We are the new Israel, the people of God. Jesus has gathered us back from our exile from God that was cause by sin. He has brought us back into union with the Father through his death on the cross. Yet, we cannot assume that we close to God just because we are called Christians or come to church. I can’t assume that I am close to God just because I’ve been a priest for twenty five years and people call me “Father.” We cannot assume that we are close to God just because we’ve been Christians for a long time or because our family has a great history or name in the church. We are close to God, we return from the exile of sin, only when we hear the word of God and do it.
In the Anglican tradition, today is called “stir up” Sunday based on the collect, which says,
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may, by thee be plenteously rewarded.
Advent begins next Sunday. It is time to get ready to get ready for the coming of Jesus. It is instructive that the collect asks God to stir up our “wills” and not our emotions. Our “wills” are the ground of our decisions and behavior. It is the part of us that determines, “What do you want to do?” This is different than asking what you feel like doing or what you think you ought to do. Your will is what you really want to do in your heart of hearts.
Many people stumble in the Christian life because their practice of the faith depends upon their emotions rather than their will. Since eventually we will not feel like doing what God wants, a faith based on emotions will lead inevitably to unfaithfulness. Many stumble because they know they ought to want to do what God wants, but they really don’t want to.
We’ve begun a season of fasting and prayer in our church. This leads nicely into Advent, which is the season that prepares us for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and the end of time. Though fasting has been practiced by Christians throughout history, fasting is strange in American Christianity. Why is it that we are so afraid of fasting? I think the answer is obvious. We like our food, drink and stuff too much and we are reluctant to embrace a practice that calls us to habitually turn away from these things. We are comfortable in our habits and patterns and our will is not to change them. The problem is that when we are controlled by our appetites, we exist in state of exile from God.
In the feeding miracles, there is a common pattern. Jesus leads a multitude of people away from the hustle of life and into a deserted place where there is nothing to eat. While people are in a state of hunger and need, Jesus reveals himself to them in the feeding miracle. This is the pattern of fasting. We remove ourselves from food and the noise of life in order to enter into a state of hunger that will be filled by Jesus, the Bread of Life.
The condition of being full of the stuff of this world, the condition of satiety, has always been spiritually dangerous. It led to the Original Sin and it led to Israel being exiled from the land. When we are full of stuff, we tend to drift away from God; we tend to be exiled from his presence. Fasting reverses the pattern. We enter into a voluntary exile from the stuff in order that we may be re-gathered into God’s presence and filled with the fullness of God.
When we are fed with the Bread of Life we desire more of it. That is to say, through fasting, God stirs up our wills so that we may begin to will the will of God more completely. There is great individual benefit when one person turns from things to God. But there is great corporate benefit when a whole church empties itself in order to be filled with Christ. As we pray on this Sunday before Advent,
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may, by thee be plenteously rewarded.
“These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
The feast of All Saints celebrates the unknown saints; those who do not have their own day on the calendar. It highlights the tension between the historical and biblical meanings of the word, “saint.” Historically, the church came to identify certain luminaries of the faith and give them the formal title, “saint.” However, in the Bible each and every Christians is called a saint or holy one, for each Christian has been set apart by God and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.
One problem with the idea of saints as super hero Christians is that it makes them seem completely other than us. It rather common for Christians to say, “I’m no saint.” Yet, a person with the formal title of saint is merely another Christian who is a bit further down the path upon which we all are traveling. Apart from becoming saints, apart from becoming holy, we cannot attain to the resurrection and the life of the world to come. As Hebrews says, “Pursue…holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14).
The tension between saints as a chosen few and saints as all of the chosen is brought out in the lesson from Revelation. St. John saw a hundred and forty four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel. They were sealed by God and, thus, saved from the judgment that is coming on the earth. A hundred and forty four thousand is a symbolic number. It represents the fullness of Israel. In the vision, the hundred and forty four thousand become “a multitude which no man can number of every nation and kindred and people and tongue.” This shows how, in Christ, the fullness of Israel has come to include people from every nation. The multitude which no man can number is the whole church; and each and every member is a saint or holy one.
St. John is told, “These are they which came out the great tribulation.” The symbolism and language of the passage suggests two meanings. On the one hand, these are they who have gone through some particular period of tribulation. On the other hand, these are every single Christian who attains to the glory of the world to come; for every Christian participates in the great struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil, and every Christian hopes to triumph through faith in Jesus Christ.
This passage suggests that holiness requires tribulation. The saints of the church always triumphed through opposition or adversity. They overcame an enemy, maintained their faith unto death or stood for truth again an onslaught of falsehood. In other words, these are not they who lived an easy and trouble free life. Holiness requires a battle.
We were visited recently by two holy men, Bishop Alan from South Africa and Bishop Wilson from South Sudan. Their ministries are full of stories of struggle against evil and opposition. In their daily ministries, they combat overt Satanism, active idolatry and militant foes. Through their ministries, Jesus is healing the sick, vanquishing demons and raising the dead.
Where is this battle to found in America? Where is the evil one here? Where is our great tribulation? The enemy’s presence here is more subtle. Our tribulation is precisely that the enemy is hiding. He is busy trying to convince us that there is no need to fight. Everything about our consumer and media culture teaches us to pursue a life of pleasure and ease; to eschew any agonizing struggle. Why would the devil bother with a frontal assault when he can buy us off for a few creature comforts or a little more convenience?
Our Apostolic friends from Africa brought us two distinct messages from God. Bishop Alan said, “God loves you very much.” Bishop Wilson said, “You need to fast and pray.” These are complementary messages. God loves us very much and wants much more for us than what we typically settle for. Therefore, we need to engage the battle against apathy, lethargy and compromise. We need to learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The temptation in America is to use faith as way to manage life. Rather than renouncing everything and following Christ, we are tempted to keep everything and retain Jesus as a coach or manager. We will seek his aid or advice when needed and hasten to him in time of crisis; but we will retain the right to reject his counsel if it is too hard, and will also reserve the right to complain when we deem his crisis intervention to be insufficient. Our temptation is to be consumers of God rather than servants and worshipers.
We are planning a building project and a capital campaign. As we begin, God is reminding us that a larger building is only necessary for a greater and more far reaching ministry. And a greater ministry can only be carried out by a church that is prepared for it and willing to engage the battle in a more committed way.
God has great things planned for us. He has put us here to be a sorely needed witness for the faith once delivered to the saints at the just that time when our culture most needs it. He has put us here to call people to a deeper commitment and a more profound experience of the life of prayer; to call people to move beyond the shallow spirituality of our age and grow out of childhood and into maturity. The ministry to which God is calling us must begin with our own renewal in the faith. We must fast and pray and gird ourselves for the battle.
We have set aside Wednesday as a day of fasting and prayer in our church. We are asking our members to fast and pray together for renewed repentance and increased faith. Let us each fast and pray and ask, what needs to change in my life? What is God calling me to do? What is my part in this ministry? Let us pray that God will show us how to reach out in new ways, and will send people to us who can be saved and brought to maturity through our ministry. Let us pursue holiness and fulfill our vocation to become what we are—the saints or holy ones of God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus told the paralyzed man two things. “Yours sins are forgiven.” And, “Rise and walk.” The man was brought to Jesus by friends. Without them, he would not have been experienced forgiveness or healing.
The encounter between Jesus and the paralyzed man is a model for our own encounter with Jesus. Sin paralyzes us. It forces us to live with guilt, shame and fear and aim at unworthy goals. Sin binds us up in self-centeredness and hinders us from being able to love. Jesus says to each of us, “Your sins and forgiven…Rise and walk.”
The Bible uses the word “walk” to describe how we live. The epistle exhorts us “not to walk as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind.” The unbelieving world, handicapped by sin, is unable to enjoy the fullness of life as God intended. Because our sins are forgiven, we are able to rise and walk in a new way. We are able to put away “all lying, and all bitterness and wrath and anger.” We are able to do good work to the glory of God and for the good of others. We are able to forgive as we have been forgiven.
In order to “rise and walk,” we have to experience forgiveness. Sometimes forgiveness is understood in merely legal terms: God has released us from a debt, which gives us the hope that he won’t punish us for our sin in eternity. However, the essence of forgiveness is a restored relationship with God. The proper image is the family, not the courtroom. When God forgives us, he accepts us as we are and welcomes us back into the family of God.
This highlights the importance of the Christian community in the experience of forgiveness. The experience of forgiveness is mediated, in part, by our interaction with people in the Body of Christ. The priest, with the authority given by Christ, proclaims, “Your sins are forgiven.” But all the people of God mediate Christ’s presence through their various gifts. All the people of God minister to the penitent the reality of forgiveness through actual restored relationships in the church. It will be very hard to experience the truth that Jesus forgives all of our sins and accepts us as we are unless the members of the Body of Christ, the people who represent Christ to the world, also forgive us and accept us.
This is why a non-communal Christianity doesn’t “work” in the sense that it doesn’t create new people. If my forgiveness is only between myself and God, then I will be free to rise and walk only when I am alone with God. But if the forgiveness I receive from God is also experienced in new relationships with others in the Body of Christ, my attitude and behavior towards others will also begin to change.
This is all the more true because our inability to experience forgiveness often results from relationships in which we were not loved, forgiven and accepted. One does not need a degree in psychology to understand that if we were manipulated or abused by those who were supposed to love us, we may harbor anger deep within ourselves, and we may have difficulty trusting people—and God. If those who were supposed to love us motivated us by making us feel guilty, we may have learned to feel guilty even when we haven’t done anything wrong. This will have an impact on how we experience forgiveness from God.
Of particular importance are issues with our fathers. It is not too much to say that most of our social ills result from fatherlessness. Father issues are a major barrier to a restored relationship with our heavenly Father.
The point here is in the other direction. If bad relationships are part of the problem, then good relationships must be part of the solution. If bad relationships handicapped us so that we are not able to fully live; then good relationships will be a necessary part of being able to rise and walk. Forgiveness restores us to relationship with God so that we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The experience of forgiveness will require new kinds of relationships with people in the family of God who will reflect the love of the Father in tangible ways, who will love us as God the Father loves us.
This experience of forgiveness through relationships in the church takes place over time. It requires two things from each of us. First, we have to commit ourselves to the community over time. One sad fact of ministry is that the people who most need the healing power of community are often the most reluctant to stay around and experience it. The more wounded and fearful we are, the more we will be tempted to flee when people get too close. But genuine intimacy is what we really need and we will not be fully healed until we experience it. We call this “The Communion of the Saints.”
Second, we have to commit ourselves to loving others in the church in a way that reflects the love of God. We have to learn not to take slights personally and not to be easily offended. We have to learn to forgive, longsuffer and forebear one another in love. We have to learn to think the best and not the worst of others. We have to learn to be honest with each other. We have to learn to give people the room they need to work out their problems in the church with a balance of acceptance and accountability.
The man in the gospel would not have been healed without the presence and labor of his friends. We will not fully experience forgiveness from God unless we also experience it in relationship with other people. The Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins. The church is called to be a new community of restored relationships in which people can experience that power and learn to “Rise and walk.”
Most of our staff travelled to Palm Beach, Florida last week for the biannual provincial synod of the Anglican Catholic Church. The most notable thing we encountered was the growing presence of African Anglicans. Ours is not a predominantly Caucasian church. More of our members live in India and Africa than in America, Canada and England.
Our church conducted a workshop on evangelism. There is great need among traditional Anglicans in the west to focus on reaching out to people who are not Anglicans or even practicing Christians. Many of our churches have been very good at holding on to the faith. Now they need to learn now how to give it away. We are a model for traditional Anglican mission because more than half of our members were not Anglicans before they joined our church.
We believe that there is an historic opportunity before us because of the changes in our culture over the last generation. When I began my ministry in the early 1980’s, being a traditional Anglo-Catholic was odd. This was on the heels of the Jesus movement, the praise band and the explosion of the non-denominational church. The hallmark of these was the abandonment of tradition. It felt like being among the last herd of a dying breed. Times have changed. During the last generation, the assumptions of the consumer culture have run amuck in many churches. People are tired of latest new thing in religion, and the highly subjective and emotional character of cultural evangelicalism. Many people have a new appreciation for the value of tradition. Traditional Anglicanism can speak to this cultural moment in particularly powerful way—-if we will commit ourselves to mission and evangelism.
Our church has been engaged in an ongoing discussion about evangelism and mission since we first considered purchasing this property in the mid 1990’s. At the synod workshop, we talked about the things we’ve learned. We talked about the need to begin with a commitment to pray. Since we don’t really know what to do, we need to begin by asking God to show us.
The most important thing we have discovered is that community is central to evangelism. I used to think that people became a part of a church community because they came to believe what the church believed and then decided to join. We have discovered that the opposite is true. People are drawn to the community. If they find the community to be genuine and attractive, they will stick around and begin to ask what the people believe. If they don’t find the community to be genuine and attractive, they don’t care what the people claim to believe.
This does not mean that having a sort of “touchy feely” church is more important that believing what is true. Rather, it means that what we believe as a church must be expressed in who we are and what we do. People will only embrace a faith they can see. The most compelling mission statement is a community that gathers together to celebrate life in Christ, is serious about its practice of the faith and welcomes new people and gives them a place in the church.
We have also discovered the importance of discerning and using the gifts of every member of the community. My late friend Archbishop Cahoon used to say of Episcopalians that they viewed the priest as the one they paid to be a Christian for them. This has always been false and heretical. Now it simply does not work. To be sure, the Apostolic Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons is essential to the fullness of the church. But so is the ministry of each member of the body with his or her particular gifts. Contemporary people want to be participants in, not merely consumers of, ministry.
We went to synod looking for conversation partners. We found them in distant places—India and Africa. We discovered that our overseas brethren are very committed to reaching out to their people and are doing significant things in both evangelism and caring for the poor. We found that we can learn more from them than they can learn from us.
A conversation Fr Mark had with Fr Phanuel from Rwanda was revealing. Fr. Mark asked him what he did to bring people to the church. Fr, Phanuel said, “I kill the goat.” Fr. Phanuel explained that the way he invites people to church is to prepare a meal and invite people to come. Ministry in Rwanda may be different in significant ways from here, but it is also very much the same. Our ministry is also been centered on food and community. They kill the goat. We kill the cow and the chicken. Then we both invite people into our community to share a meal that serves as a foretaste of the banquet in the coming kingdom of God.
We don’t have to tell our overseas brethren to reach out. They went into ministry because that was what they were called to do. They don’t need to convince their audience that they need God. God has chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith. By contrast, in this country we need to exhort both priest and people not become comfortable and complacent and not to live merely for themselves.
We have building plans that we will share with the whole church after evensong on Saturday, November 5. The purpose of building a larger church is not to have a nicer place for those of us who are already here. The purpose of building is to create more room so that we can invite more people to repent, believe and join as we celebrate life in Christ and prepare for Christ to come.
We see our church as center for traditional Anglican mission throughout our region and, indeed, throughout the world. God has called us to be faithful lo these many years not for the purpose of building a museum to the past. God has called us to be faithful because what we have held on to is now exactly what the world around us needs. God has given us a mission to a dying world.
Two years from now our national synod will be held right here at St. Matthew’s. We will have the privilege of hosting traditional Anglicans from around the globe to hear about their ministries, show them what we are doing and rejoice in the life in Christ that we share. Your commitment to Christ through this church is bearing fruit. We have much to be thankful for and much work left to do.
We talk about the Seven Deadly Sins as the basic vocabulary for confession. Pride is the chief of the deadly sins because every sin involves pride. When I covet or lust, I pridefully presume that I have the right to what belongs to someone else. When I am envious, I pridefully insist that what God has made me to be is not enough. When I am angry, it is often because my pride has been wounded.
Today’s lessons are united by the theme of humility, the virtue that stands opposite of the sin of pride. Humility works in all virtue in somewhat the same way that pride works in all sin. Pride is that falsely exalted sense of self by which I presume to do as I please. Humility is that accurate sense of who I am that leads me to look rightly at God and others, and give to each his due.
Humility is rooted in two paradoxical truths. The first truth is that we are small, sinful human beings. Each of us is one of five plus billion people now alive, and each of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The second truth is that Jesus Christ lived and died to redeem each one of us. “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ…was given for thee.” It was given for you, in particular, because God values you. We are born again in the image of God. We are members of Christ’s body and heirs of his kingdom. This is all to say, we are small creatures with infinite value.
Humility understands that God does not value us because of what we’ve done, because of our appearance or because of what others think of us. God values us because he has created in his image, with intrinsic value. In the world, we are regularly valued in comparison with others. How do our test scores or salaries or achievements match up? Is our church growing as fast as another church? Are we as attractive or talented as our rival? Comparative valuation is rooted the demonic lie that life is a zero sum game. My good competes with your good so that I must take from you in order to get what I need.
Humility removes us from competition with others and enables us, instead, to love. Humility recognizes that God’s love for me in not in competition with God’s love for you. God loves each of us as unique individuals whom he has made to bear his image in unique ways. The good that God has for you is in harmony with the good that God has for me. In fact, humility realizes that our mutual good is interdependent in the Body of Christ. The whole body is most healthy when each individual part is at its fully functioning best. I am better off when you receive all that God intends for you.
Humility enables us to experience God’s love as grace. Grace is freely given, not deserved. We would not deserve God’s grace even if we had never sinned. For the very virtue we would boast of is also a gift from God. We cannot merit anything from God. We can only thank God for his grace, which is experienced both in the forgiveness of our sins and in the gift of virtue.
A sense of merit keeps us from receiving God’s grace. In the gospel parable, each person jockeying for a better seat felt that he deserved a higher place. Each wanted to be seen as more important than others. Consequently, none of them were in a position to experience God’s grace. Jesus counsels us to be content with the lowest seat, not because we are unworthy of a higher seat, but because, if we possess humility, it won’t matter to us where we sit. Humility can rejoice both in taking the lower seat and in letting others receive glory, and also in being called up higher by God. Humility recognizes that our value in God’s sight cannot be augmented or diminished by any human recognition or slight.
It is sometimes assumed that humility implies a lack of confidence. This is exactly the opposite of the truth. Pride is a falsely exalted sense of self. Humility requires that we assess our abilities accurately. If those God given abilities are formidable, it does not mean that we pretend they are not. I remember a scene from an old Star Trek episode. Spock, the logical Vulcan, was squared off in battle against an adversary. Spock counseled his opponent not to engage him in battle, saying, “I am well able to defeat you.” The adversary did not listen and Spock subdued him in due course. Spock was not guilty of pride. His statement, not uttered either to intimidate or cover up some inner insecurity, was, in fact, a humble statement of truth.
The New Testament presents Jesus as the model of humility. Though he is God, he humbled himself to become man. Yet the humble Jesus is supremely confident. He was not afraid of any adversary, and he confidently predicted that he would defeat Satan, sin and death on the cross. He was confident that God the Father would raise him from dead and exalt him, just as the Father had promised.
Humility is confident in the word and power of God. Since what God says will come to pass, humble confidence is rooted in the truth. Pride places its confidence in human strength and plans. Since these are unreliable and uncertain, human arrogance masks an inner lack of confidence. The more I feel I must convince you, by words and demonstrations, that I am great, the less I really believe it.
Humility is the foundation of virtue because it makes room for all virtues to flourish, both in ourselves and in others. Humility gets our false selves out of the way so that we can become the people God made us to be.
Humility is the essential ingredient in the unity of the church. The world seeks equality, but the church seeks unity. As the epistle says, “There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; on Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Equality is about comparison, and comparison kindles within us the sin of pride. Humility enables us, not to be equal, but to be one, for it seeks the good of all souls without comparison. It is able to rejoice in the good that God gives to another, even as it gives thanks to God for its own good.
We should pray for the virtue of humility, which conquers pride, enables us to receive the good gifts God has for us and rejoice in the good gifts God has given to others. As St. Paul says, “I…beseech you that you walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all humility and meekness.” And as Jesus said, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”