Proverbs 8: 1-13; Matthew 5: 1-5
What a week it’s been in our national life! Both the major parties in leadership campaigns, and Labour particularly facing its possible fragmentation and electoral catastrophe, even complete collapse; the EU defining its terms for our continuing relationship, and putting us between a rock of continuing access to the single market and the hard place of restricted migration—just as was predicted if we voted to leave the EU; and the Scottish Nationalists again calling for their independence and the break-up of the United Kingdom. I cannot recall a time when our national life felt more divided and fragile—these are certainly times for prayerful waiting upon God. So it seems fitting that we look today at humility and meekness, or gentleness. Steve and I did not plan this sermon series, 6 months ago, anticipating today’s social and political turmoil, but God by His Spirit perhaps knew this is what we need to hear at this time of national crisis. And a crisis it is, make no mistake. What will unravel as we exit the EU is by no means certain, but one thing is likely, the elderly, the poor and the weakest in our society will be adversely affected far more than the wealthier baby-boomers who were amongst those who voted most strongly to leave should an economic downturn materialise. The tragedy of this exercise in democracy is perhaps that those with least to lose voted in favour of a policy that will harm most those with most to lose—and is sign of how deeply personal self-interest has come to characterise the national spirit, drifting ever further from those Christian values and virtues that have previously shaped our national life.
So, forgive me, those of you who disagree with my political preferences. Now I can no longer influence how you would vote, for that is history, allow me the pastor’s charge to speak to his congregation about the times in which we live. Let me say at the outset, I do not think God was on the Brexit side, or the Remain side—we cannot co-opt God to our politics, and he is not at our political disposal. He is Lord of all. There are some principles about how national life is conducted that we can affirm in the wake of the vote, above all that we should be peacemakers, people of hope, and those who keep a watchful guard on our speech. But God is neither pro, nor anti-European. We make our own political decisions, and reap whatever reward or cost that flows.
Part of the issue, I think, is that we have ceased to be a nation of sufficient virtue, and our turning to Colossians 3 as our text for 2016 seems now to be both prophetic and counter-cultural. It calls us to be different from the world in which we now find ourselves, but we must not underestimate the challenge to live this life of Christian virtue— both a challenge from without, and one from within, for we cannot but be influenced by the prevailing spirit of the age. Next Saturday morning we have an opportunity to choose to be different—to come for a short while to discuss, to pray and to seek God for how we might contribute to our corporate life as a church, to choose to be involved and not sit on the side-lines while others shoulder the burden of our being a busy and active church. I hope you will be there.
For almost a century our national life has not valued the virtues. As a way of understanding how we should live they were central to the ancient world, both in the church and in the wider Graeco-Roman culture. The Greek philosopher Aristotle articulated the way of virtue most effectively for his culture, and the early Christians like St Paul saw life in very similar terms. You were schooled in character and virtue until doing the right thing became habit, and so, faced with the many challenges to life, you instinctively knew how to respond. You didn’t need long lists of rules and regulations to cover every eventuality, but rather a character schooled to do the right thing because you were shaped in heart to do so. This way of understanding the moral life was lost with the 18th century Enlightenment, and only really began to be recovered from the 1950s, as ethicists like the Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe sought a renewal of virtue ethics. Today, half a century later, it is widely adopted in all sorts of fields, including educating our children. Christians like Tom Wright have demonstrated how closely this approach mirrors the New Testament, so I believe this recovery of virtue ethics, of the importance of character, is a very Christian enterprise. We need a widespread return to those ways of forming people that depend not on how you might bend the rules, or see how much you might get away with without being caught, but on a deep shaping of character that will do the right thing, no matter the personal cost. It’s called integrity—something gravely lacking in the campaigns fought to persuade us to vote one way or another in the Referendum, as lies and half-truths were peddled to a gullible electorate. I suspect they will not be in huge supply as party leadership candidates vie with one another for political advantage over the next three months.
As Christians we are called to be people of virtue because Christ was the man of virtue—upright, truthful, compassionate, kind, gentle, forgiving and above all self-giving. Colossians 3 describes not only how we should live—what character-clothes we should wear— but also what Christ is like. (10-11)
Today we turn to humility and meekness, or gentleness. It’s what characterises Jesus Christ, so it should characterise us too. Paul uses a hymn in Phil 2 that says ‘he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death’; in Mark 10:43-45 Jesus reminds his disciples that he ‘came not to be served, but to serve’ and give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus is the man who is humble, who knows humility, but that’s not a weakness. He has the strongest of characters, the fierce determination to face down his enemies, and do what is right. He is no softy! But with that strength comes humility.
Humility and meekness were not virtues in the culture of the Greek and Roman worlds in which the church began. Humility was thought of as servitude and cowardice, and the Romans valued pride and self-advancement, much as our culture does. One of the difficulties the early church had was to persuade the pagan world that someone who was utterly humiliated through crucifixion could possibly be thought of at all favourably. As Paul says in 1 Cor 1:23, ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks,’…. But ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ But this taking of human form by the one who is God, the coming of Jesus Christ, now determines entirely for Paul how we read the world, and turns both his and our world’s values upside down.
Humility is not at all the same as that psychological ill, low self-esteem. It does not dismiss one’s very real achievements and gifts, but rejoices in them, but then holds them so lightly that they do not come to define who we are. There is a self-confidence in knowing who we are in Christ, that enables us to take delight in others without having to diminish them in order to hold at bay some fragile inner chaos. Humility is the opposite of pride, of course, which lies at the heart of self-centredness and self-advancement. The humble are able to be emptied precisely because they knows their strength comes from an inexhaustible external source—God’s own self-emptying love. In Colossians Paul contrasts the heretics, with their rituals and fasting festivals and their ‘self-abasement’ (2:18) with true humility, that is an inner confidence in Christ. These kinds of ritualised humility ‘have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.’ (2:23) —it is falsely trying to do in our own strength what is only attainable by putting on Christ and relying upon him. So, seek true humility—it calls for great strength!
Meekness is a similar characteristic of Christ—Paul entreats the Corinthians ‘by the meekness and gentleness of Christ.’ (2 Cor. 10:1), and it does not mean simply avoiding difficulties or being wishy-washy, but rather an exercise of temperance in our passions—it is (i) an aspect of self-control, so that our anger does not cause harm to others who do not deserve it, and (ii) an exercise of proper, sober judgement upon one’s own life so as to avoid self-importance. In its wider use it was an admirable characteristic of friendship, so we might say the virtue is to be gentle and friendly, not prone to outbursts of anger but quietly bearing with difficulty—and so is allied to kindness and patience, it means not domineering others. If humility counters pride, then meekness counters outrage and fury and self-importance. Those who are furious and passionate to the point of losing control lose their world, but Jesus says the meek, or the powerless, will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5)—their quiet, gentle but steely resolve to do the right thing and pursue the Kingdom of God will lead to their gaining what the world thinks by violence and fury is theirs by right—which is why ISIS can never win, the bully in the family or work-place never wins, the angrily destructive can never win. Ultimately meekness triumphs, not by rolling over and giving up, but by acting with quiet determination.
We have been urged to “put the great back in Britain”—and to do so by taking back control of our laws and our borders, to take pride again in our own sovereignty and perhaps try to recover a lost era when we ran half the world and Britannia ruled the waves—a Last Night of the Proms nostalgia at best, a xenophobic and hate-fuelled rejection of others at worst (and I believe better of ourselves as a nation to anticipate the worst). But the New Testament says that we are to clothe ourselves, not in pride—be that in country, education, class or material wealth—but in humility. After all, it’s not ‘my country’, but God’s, if we take the sovereign reign of Christ seriously. Britain is loved by God not any more, or less, than others, for he is Lord of every nation. Britain is not any more, or less, special than those separated from us by geography. ‘He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, he has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the humble and meek,’ sings Mary as she carried her baby—perhaps that is what is happening to us now.
We are to clothe ourselves in gentleness which welcomes others, treats them kindly, understands our own limitations and reaches out to others; that rejoices in our abilities and gifts, and generously offers them to others. This, for me, is why any turn inwards or some of the reasons for our rejection of membership of the EU, is symbolic of something profoundly at odds with what it means to clothe ourselves with Christ. Pray God we recover that in some way in our new relationship with our European neighbours as it unfolds, even if we learn it through discovering just how much we need them, and they need us.
Meanwhile, in our putting on of Christ, our following him, humility and gentleness are essential parts of the life of virtue to which we are called, in everyday relationships as much as in national character and global policy-making.
As followers of Christ we do not have the freedom to abuse our enemies, be rude to those with whom we disagree or put political conviction ahead of Christian solidarity. Love-infused, cross-shaped humility, lit by the light of eternity, must be the order of the day.