Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
“By the Grace of God I am what I am.” (1 Corinthians 15.10)
Humility is the subject of today’s Gospel and Epistle, the humility which accepts salvation as a gift, as the grace of God. The gospel Paul preaches is not of any human invention; it is not credited to human cleverness either in its source and origin or in its power to convince its hearers. Paul simply delivers that which he also received, how that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures.
Further, he affirms that:
I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2.3-5)
Humility is equally necessary in those who would truly hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Those who trust in their own righteousness and despise the lowliness of others have the words of Jesus against them. It is the despised tax collector, a sinner in fact, who goes from the temple justified. He had no work of his own in which he presumed to take pride. In the presence of God he dared only to strike his breast and beseech God to be merciful to him a sinner. Yet he returned home in God’s favour for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18.14)Humility is at the very root and source of the Christian religion. It is by his own self-humiliation that Christ saves us. St. Paul reminds us of the grace of our Lord Jesus, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8.9)He also commands us to imitate our Lord’s self-abasement:
Let this same mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God. . . . made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made man. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2.5-8)
The Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord, testifies herself of the humility of those to whom Jesus comes. She accepts the angel’s announcement with true lowliness: “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1.38) and she sings of her own exaltation through this lowliness of spirit: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden,” (Luke 1.46-48) that is, the humility of his servant. God always acts in this way, it is a law of his dealing with men: He scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek. (Luke 1.51-52)
Humility lies at me root and origin of Christianity. It is the character of the God who saves us and of those who accept that salvation. It is for this reason that infants are received into the community of the saved. Remember, Jesus says “unless you become as a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Luke 18.17) Entrance through the straight and narrow gate leading to eternal life is by the door of humility, acceptance, and trust. It is the weakness and dependence of children, their trust and openness, their capacity to live by accepting all they have from others, which we are to imitate. This is the humility with which the Christian religion begins. But there is another quality of humility with which it continues and ends.
St. Paul teaches us that faith will pass away. Love abides, but faith, though necessary to our pilgrimage here below, will vanish to be replaced by sight when we enter the glorious kingdom. “We shall see face to face and know as we are known.” (1 Corinthians 13.12) Faith is transformed in the course of our journey. We move toward sight, understanding, possession. We grow up in spiritual as well as in earthly things. We begin speaking as children, imitating the language and ideas of others, but then we put away childish things to become spiritual adults. We come to know better what we are talking about. Then comes the real test of humility. After we have become something, are we still willing to echo St. Paul: “By the grace of God, I am what I am?” Will we repeat with him “I laboured more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me?” You recollect his labours, his beatings, his imprisonments, travels and sufferings, yet all this he makes a testimony not to himself but to the power of God. We are perhaps willing to recognize this humility with which Christianity begins in another, but are we willing to humbly give God the glory for our acts of knowledge and love? Yet unless we do this, we make our religion nonsense.
When the Bishop performs the laying on of hands, he prays for the grace of God the Spirit for each one he confirms. The gifts of the Spirit include prudence and understanding, wisdom, fear and the fire of love. We pray for these as gifts and we then acknowledge that these our words and acts, these products of our wearisome and painful experience and labour, all these, even love of all that is good and true, these are the life and gift of the Holy Spirit in us. What is good and true in us is God’s act, the Spirit’s gift. “I laboured yet not I but the grace of God which was with me.”
How often do we thank God for the good that we are or do? How continuous in thankfulness is the life of a grown up Christian? A Christian must “always be giving thanks,” (Ephesians 5.20) for all the good he does and is, and even for the good he may be or he may do. A Christian is always “putting to shame the foolish pride of men.” (1 Peter 2.15) He is always practicing the humility which gives the glory “not to us but to the Lord’s name.” (Psalm 115.1) For “His grace is sufficient for us” (2 Corinthians 12.9); it is by it that we are what we are, or come to possess the good we lack. Indeed that “grace is sufficient for us” even when we despair and find we lack all goodness. Discovering this, and growing in humility is our way forward. In order to enter heaven, we must rejoice in what our God has made us. There, even the whole appearance of our own power will have vanished. We shall be sustained only by his glory and only by and in that glory will we be all in all. For his own name sake and his own endless praise, honour and glory, will God Father, Son, and Spirit open to us his endless kingdom of light and joy; to which kingdom belongs all might, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.
Father Ed Bakker