Sermon for Sunday after Ascension, 5 June 2011, Christ Church South Yarra
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.
Today we have heard in the readings of the Ascension of Christ, the event where Christ withdrew from physical presence in the world some forty days after his resurrection from the dead at Easter. Those of you who were here on Thursday night for the Ascension Day service will be all too aware of the emphasis on power and glory in the scriptures and hymns for this time of the liturgical year. The theme of glory and power does not always sit comfortably with contemporary Christianity. I decided I would adopt a different approach in this morning’s sermon, using the text of our reading from the first letter of Peter, to focus on the topic of humility.
In this letter, the author speaks of many things appropriate to the end of the Easter season. Much of the language is apocalyptic, speaking of the suffering of Christ and our suffering in the world, and looking to the second coming of Christ into the world. Those of you who took notice of the recent controversy over the Rapture will be pleased to note that Luke reminds us in Acts that ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority’. We do not know when Christ will return – it could be today, tomorrow, or in a thousand years. Instead we are called to look to the scriptures for guidance on how to live now, how we should order our lives together, in the light of the return of Christ and our sharing in his suffering.
Listen, then, to some more of what the first letter of Peter has to say to us in relation to our life in the church, to those of us who have been Christians for a long time, for those who have only recently joined the Church, and to Rachel and Mila as they prepare for baptism:
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ … I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock … In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another …
These teachings can be summed up in a single phrase: the Christian life is not so much about what you do, as it is about how you do it. Not what, but how.
You who are leaders, you will be called to make difficult decisions, often about matters you are ill-equipped to understand – from money and property to people and morals, from the theology of climate change to the economics of accepting or rejecting refugees. The crucial task is to make the decision in the right way: as a shepherd, after the model of Christ the good shepherd who cares for each and every sheep; as one who acts selflessly, eagerly seeking the common good rather than sordid gain (or, as the King James Version puts it, ‘not for filthy lucre but of a ready mind’).
You who are young, who are new to the faith, you will be called to accept difficult decisions, to follow instructions you may not understand. Your task is to have faith – not a blind faith, but faith seeking understanding – and to trust those who are your elders, in the way that a young child of necessity trusts its guardian while still pushing the boundaries of exploration of the whole world in its wonder and breadth.
To be a shepherd, and to have faith seeking understanding: these seem to be simple demands we can readily follow. The rub, however, is in the next exhortation. Whoever you are, young or old, mature or carefree, a committed Christian or a Christian who should be committed, an unbeliever or an unsure enquirer, you are called to clothe yourself in humility. For it is in being humble that we are open to hearing the wisdom in the voice of others, it is in subjecting our own competitive desires to the greater good that we find true satisfaction and the joy that makes us glad and makes us shout for joy.
I know it is hard to clothe oneself in humility because I am not a humble person. I stand before you in slightly ridiculous academic dress, in clothes that are designed to intimidate others into believing I am clever. I stand before you as probably the most competitive person in this building, who always has to win, even to the point of creating a contest where there should be none. As my mother joked to me when I was a boy, it is hard to be humble when you are as great as I am.
Those of us who lack humility lack grace, and you face with me the prospect of being damned by our own pride. This prospect of damnation is not directly God’s doing, except insofar as God gave us free will. We are free to choose, to choose the way of pride and selfish achievement, or to choose to accept the free gift of grace – that is to say, to acknowledge that Jesus Christ, God’s own son, born of a human woman, died for us on account of his unconditional love. To accept the free gift of grace is an act which requires us to recognise that we cannot save ourselves.
Whether you are an elder or a youth, you cannot become the person you are called to be unless you humble yourself. This takes discipline, the unusual and unworldly discipline of knowing that however hard you try, however many hours you work, however many committees you join, you cannot redeem the world, you cannot fix everyone else’s problems and you cannot find joy on your own. This discipline is hard, because it requires faith in God to sort out the mess, and faith in our brothers and sisters to pick up those things which we ought to have done if they truly matter. This discipline is also a necessary one in our broken and wartorn world, lest we run ourselves into the ground thinking we can make it right. We are all too capable of beating ourselves up, even of devouring ourselves in the sinful action of trying to fix everything on our own.
I am not saying that to clothe ourselves in humility means that we sacrifice all our will and energy to an unseen other, or that we give up on seeking justice in the world and wait mindlessly for the rapture. What I am saying is first that we must cast all our cares on God, who cares for us. Second, when we have received even the tiniest glimpse of the depth of God’s care for us, then we will find that we can care for others.
My exhortation to myself this week, therefore, is to let a few things drop by the wayside, to wait on God’s good time to see what is important and what is not, to allow time to discern where I am needed to make decisions, and where I need simply to listen to my elders. Perhaps this is a task, indeed a calling, you might like to share with me.The Christian life is not about what you do, but about how you do it.
To be humble simply means to acknowledge that God has already saved the world, that God loves us with a passion that is breathtaking in its strength and requires nothing from us in return. To be Christian, to make our baptismal promises, is to say yes to the way of life that is clothed in humility. Having said yes, we stand fast in faith that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.