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Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, July 26, 2015


The Distinctly Christian Virtue


Text: Ephesians 4:1-2

I hope you have noticed these past three Sundays that we are walking through the Letter to the Ephesians. We will continue on through the end of August. Ephesians is a beautiful book of scripture. Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to it as the “Queen of the epistles.” Its beauty is in the lofty vision Paul presents of the Church, as he lays out God’s high hopes and expectations for us. Paul loved the church in Ephesus. He found a small group of twelve believers there when he arrived, and he baptized them in the Holy Spirit. He spent three years there, building up the church. And in chapter 20 of the Book of Acts you can see his affection as he took leave of the elders of the Ephesian church, whom he would never see again.

The passage we read today from Ephesians Chapter 4, is about unity in the Church. And it begins with a call to each Christian to be humble. Verse 1 urges us to “live a life worthy of the calling we have received.” And then verse 2 tells us how to do that. It says: ”Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

This chapter maps out a progression for the Church:

• Humility leads to a unified church in which

• Everyone gets to use the gifts God has given them,

• Which builds up the body,

• and imparts us with wisdom,

• so that we all become mature in the faith.

It all begins with humility. And that is what I want to spend a few minutes on today. The word for humility in this letter is a rare one. The word is tapeinophrosune. It is used only 7 times in the Bible, and did not exist in the Old Testament. In fact, it did not exist in the Greek language until the Christians coined it. We find it only in the letters of Peter and Paul and the Book of Acts, by Luke. Therefore, humility of the type we are called to have is a distinctly Christian virtue.

In Greek and Roman culture, humility was not a virtue. It was a disability. It was disrespected. The adjective that meant “humble” in Greek was always paired with cringing and cowering. But Jesus taught a different kind of humility. He taught His followers to be humble by serving others out of love for God and love for God’s creatures. He was telling us to follow His example. For, as He told us,

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. [Matthew 20:25]

Philippians 2:3 gives a description of the humility to which Jesus calls us:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4]

There was no such concept of humility in the culture at the time. And, I daresay that, except for the Christian witness, there is no such concept in our culture today. The Christians had to make up a word to describe that kind of humility: tapeinophrosune. It is a virtue that is honored in the eyes of God and of God’s people. It is a distinctly Christian virtue.

How do we acquire this virtue? It comes from an honest self-assessment of who we are in the eyes of God. How do you see yourself when you close your eyes and ask, “Who am I?” We have a public persona that we wear like a garment. It is what we use to interact with the world. I have served a couple of times on spiritual retreats for teenagers called “Happening.” The first talk of the weekend is called “Masks.” In that talk, we discuss our public personae, and we call them “masks.” We encourage teenagers to take off their masks for the weekend.

Our masks are how we allow others to experience us. But behind the masks, we have our true selves with which we must come to grips. I remember a tough young boy who strutted into a Happening weekend the first night. He was the essence of cool, and he had armor an inch thick. I had to give him a little special attention that night, because his mask meant so much to him. I asked if he was willing to set aside his mask tentatively, just to see what would happen. And he said he’d give it a shot. For the next two days, I watched as he became a different person. He was so open and vulnerable that the weekend changed him. On Sunday afternoon, as he was leaving, he hugged me and cried and told me how much he had learned about himself.

Do you know your true self? Knowing yourself is not an easy thing to do. In fact our entire culture is confused about our true selves. In the pagan world, there are two opposing points of view. One is the secular humanist view. It is a very optimistic view, which holds that human beings are basically good, always evolving, and we have limitless potential. Eventually, they say, we will evolve into a utopian society. The problem with this view is that it is naïve. It fails to account for the depraved side of human nature. It fails to explain the concentration camps and the torture chambers and the weapons of mass destruction.

At the other end of the spectrum is a pessimistic view of humanity. This view also holds that there is no God, and concludes that therefore there are no values, no ideals and no standards. We need to find the courage just to persist, because our life has no meaning. The problem with this pessimistic view of humanity, as John Stott says in his book The Contemporary Christian, is that “it overlooks the love, joy, beauty, truth hope, heroism and self-sacrifice that has enriched the human story.”

In the words of J.S. Whale, a 20th-Century theologian, we need “neither the easy optimism of the humanist, nor the dark pessimism of the cynic, but the radical realism of the Bible.” (Whale, Christian Doctrine, p. 41 (Fontana 1957))

Only the radical realism of the Bible accounts for both aspects of humankind. The stories of good and bad are side by side in the Bible. And in fact, the Bible explains all this in the Book of Genesis. It tells us that God was pleased with His creation and pronounced it “very good.” And it tells us that God made mankind in His image, and gave us a special place in His creation. So there it is, the reason we are able to create hospitals, universities and Vacation Bible Schools. That is where the love comes from, and the joy, beauty, truth hope, heroism and self-sacrifice.

But the Bible also tells us in the same first chapters that we chose to try and elevate ourselves above God’s wishes and plan for us, almost from the very beginning. The problem is human sin—the rebellion against our Creator and our nature—the exchange of the truth of God for a lie. (Romans 1:25) And so there it is, the reason we are able to create concentration camps and torture chambers and atomic bombs.

But does that mean that we are worthless worms? No, it does not. For the rest of the story is that God continues to value us highly. We are still the pinnacle of His creation. And though we are hopelessly unable to get back to that lofty position through our own merits, God has made it His business to get us there. He has, in an unparalleled act of cosmic humility, sent Jesus, His only Son, to give His life on the cross to restore humankind to that marvelous place where we reflect His image. As the Book of Philippians tells us,

Christ Jesus, ...being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:6-8]

A sober, complete and Biblical self-assessment tells us that we are fallen, pitiful creatures in our own lights—but also that, in God’s lights, and through His grace, we are glorious creatures created in His image, the pinnacle of His creation, destined for great things. To embrace that reality is to throw ourselves on the mercy of God in gratitude, and to be humble.

And how does that humility work its wonders in the Body of Christ? The Book of Colossians tells us,

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as God forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. [Colossians 2:4-5]

Imagine us instead bringing a high opinion of ourselves into a church environment—or any other social group. Such an attitude gives us a sense of entitlement. If I am filled up with a sense of my own excellence, I’m going to focus on my opinions, my needs, my desires. I’m going to be easily disappointed. I’m going to take offense easily. What sort of friend would that make me? What sort of co-worker? What sort of minister? But if I am humble and gentle and compassionate and forgiving,

• I’m going to listen to other people.

• I’m going to value what they have to say.

• I’m going to focus on their needs, rather than my own.

• And, rather than taking offense easily, rather than insisting on being made whole after a clash, I’m going to forgive easily.

And the result is going to be a body of people who interact with the world the same way. We will be able to express the love of Christ to a world that is opinionated, disappointing, and offensive. And God’s plan is that they will be transformed by the power of the Gospel.

It takes empathy to serve the suffering people of the world. Can you have empathy for others when you are all wrapped up in your own needs and desires and opinions? When you are focused on your own sense of excellence, aren’t you more likely to ask why everyone can’t just be as wise as you, or work as hard as you, or discipline their lives as well as you do? But if you see yourself as a lost and undeserving sinner whom Jesus has saved by His grace, you can be comfortably in the same boat with those who need God’s love.

The annals of the Church are full of stories about people who lacked humility. It isn’t something we naturally lead with. If it were, Jesus wouldn’t have had to command it of us. And the letters of the New Testament wouldn’t have had to remind us of it so often. There is an old story about a divinity student who was first in his class at a venerable seminary. He knew he was destined for great things. During his senior year, he was invited to preach one Sunday at the cathedral. What a plum of an invitation. But he deserved it. He was up to the task. He went there that Sunday full of confidence, ready to give these people a sermon like they had never heard. He had prepared thoroughly and even memorized his sermon word for word. He got into the pulpit, looked out at the congregation, and went blank. He couldn’t remember one thing he had intended to say.

The young seminarian stumbled through his sermon and left the pulpit in humiliation. After the service, a wise old woman came up to him and said, “Young man, I was watching you this morning, and I’d like to say that, if you had gone up into that pulpit with the humility with which you came down from that pulpit, God would have spoken a powerful message through you.

That seminarian was either so disappointed in himself that he gave up his call to ministry; or he was so blessed by the lesson God gave him in humility that he went on to be a great servant of the Lord.

This Chapter in Ephesians tells us what will happen when you put together a whole congregation of people who have learned that lesson.

• We are gentle with one another;

• We bear with one another in love;

• We become one in the Spirit;

• We rejoice in the gifts God has given each one of our brothers and sisters;

• And we become a body of mature Christians.

But sadly, the Ephesian Church also showed us what happens when you lose that humble love. It was about 40 years after Paul first came to Ephesus. In Chapter 2 of the Book of Revelation, Jesus spoke to the Church in Ephesus, and gave them a somber warning. He complimented them on their hard work and their firm belief. He congratulated them for standing up to the Nicolaitans, a heretical group of Christians that had compromised with the pagan culture. And He also said this:

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.... If you do not repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from this place. [Revelation 2:4-5]

They had lost their tapeinophrosune, and their love for Jesus and for one another had suffered a mortal blow.

We are living in a difficult time for the Church. We see our culture crumbling around us. Things aren’t working. Values are going out the window. People are doing all sorts of immoral things and asking the world to bless their behavior. And in many quarters the Church, just as the Nicolaitans, has compromised with the pagan culture. Into this mess, Jesus has called us to be His servant. How do we conduct ourselves? If we don’t conduct ourselves with Christ-like humility, we’re just going to be regarded as another group of religious bigots who want everyone to be like them. But if we can be humble in spirit, bearing with one another in love, reaching out with a true desire to bring salvation to the lost, people will respond. For the Bible tells us that,

God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. [John 3:17]

And it tells us that God does not desire that anyone should perish. (2 Peter 3:9) He “wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4)

And it tells us that Jesus has not left us as orphans, but has sent the Holy Spirit to take what we plant and to bring the growth for a bountiful harvest.

Brothers and sisters, in the words of Ephesians (4:1) “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle, bearing one another in love.” And God will bring the increase. God will bring the victory. God will bring the glory.

© 2015 The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar

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