Delivered May 23, 2019
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4: 1-3
One of the enduring memories I have of Encaenia was the time between the chaotic end of my final semester and the graduation celebrations. With the lease having run out for our house on Henry Street, a friend in Middle Bay allowed me to crash on his floor. During that time, however, I had the chance to get to know a little better some of the members of my class. Particularly rewarding was the opportunity to talk to those with whom I had spent four years at King’s without having had much contact. Some had lived with me in Chapel Bay, Cochrane Bay and latterly North Pole Bay, but they had studied science or journalism and moved in different circles. Some had lived off campus and were only occasionally around. Others were familiar faces from Prince Hall, but we had exchanged few words over the years.
In our last few weeks together something changed; we all knew that we were moving on to other places and that our undergraduate years had come to a close. It was an emotional time, and the ending of the formative, or, better, transformative, undergraduate years and it occasioned increasing reflection on what we had done and experienced together as a community. Our years at King’s had provided a strong element of shared experience, despite the diversity of our various paths and interests.
In his letter to the largely gentile community at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul is thinking of unity and what holds a community together, namely a diverse gathering of men and women who claimed faith in Jesus Christ. Up to the point of our passage this morning Paul has been dealing with the great claims of that faith, and the role of the Church in God’s mysterious plan. Now he turns to those men and women to speak of who they must be and become to fulfill lives that will bear the fruits of their calling. Paul establishes his authority to speak by describing himself as a “prisoner of the Lord.” He adopts a hortatory stance and is not in the mood for mere suggestions or oblique references – he is going to tell the people what is expected of them. Paul intends to set out what it means to be a new humanity. What marks that life is unity, a unity fostered by the virtues that make life in common possible, a reality, not simply an ideal or a utopia (nowhere). And the glue that holds together faithful community consists of humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance.
Paul’s message speaks to us this morning: he challenges us to reflect on the communities lived at King’s and the communities into which we now move and seek to serve. His message may be challenging, but his words touch us on this celebratory day when we gather with family and friends to mark tremendous achievements and a rite of passage: Paul asks us who we want to be.
The inspiration for Paul’s words in Ephesians comes from his letter to the Colossians, where he says, ‘Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (3:12-13).
As in all his writings Paul weaves various themes and metaphors into a cloak, constantly shifting tones and voices. I want to share a few thoughts with you this morning about what the Apostle has to say about the first virtue he offers as crucial to the life worthy of true community. “Be completely humble.” The Bible has plenty to say about humility. Perhaps most well known are the words of the prophet Micah: ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (6:8) And in Proverbs we find, in the words of the King James Bible, ‘The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility.’ In the Pentateuch we hear that ‘Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.’ In Philippians, Paul reminded the community that Jesus himself “being found in appearance as a man, humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross! (2:8)
It is often remarked that the classical world had no sense of humility as a virtue. The point is not so straightforward. If we turn to Plato, humility lies at the heart of wisdom itself and of knowing oneself. Socrates in the Apology speaks of going to a prominent figure widely regarded as wise by the people of Athens. He quickly learns that this man possesses no wisdom whatsoever. ” So I left him, saying to myself as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.”
In Plato’s account, Socrates defends his life in earnest and acknowledges that he must sound arrogant – but insists that he is not. He upends the views of his opponents by claiming that their arrogance and misunderstanding of his own humble dedication to philosophy has brought him to stand trial.
In our passage from Ephesians, Paul places humility together with gentleness. For me the most powerful evocation of this pairing is found in the novel Gilead by the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. Gilead is largely the story of Rev John Ames, a kind, humble, and generous Congregationalist pastor in his sixties who knows that he is dying. He has suffered bereavement with the loss of his first wife and their daughter, and he had lived much of his life alone until marrying the much younger Lila. Soon they discover to their surprise that she is expecting a child. Ames assumes that he will never see his son grow into adulthood and writes a letter to be read after his death in order that the young boy might remember him. Ames loves his wife and daughter and the letter reveals a life well lived, graced with humility and wisdom. It is a life filled with gratitude, in particular for the beautiful Lila and their son, but also the created world around him fills Ames with a sense of wonder and delight. He is passionate about his call to ministry, loving all those he has come to know in his humble service to God. Ames has devoted his life to the gifts of the Spirit and striven to be faithful to the sanctifying grace he believes suffuses creation. In both loss and joy he praises a God whom he knows to be benevolent and kind.
Humility is not self-deprecation, faux humbleness or self-congratulatory: it make us more human, it allows us to flourish, to love, to create, and to transform. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has drawn our attention to the difference between true humility and its poor imitations. “There is a fundamental difference”, he writes, “between two words in Hebrew: anivut, “humility”, and shiflut, “self-abasement”. So different are they that Maimonides defined humility as the middle path between shiflut and pride. Humility is not low self-regard. That is shiflut. Humility means that you are secure enough not to need to be reassured by others. It means that you don’t feel you have to prove yourself by showing that you are cleverer, smarter, more gifted or successful than others. You are secure because you live in God’s love. He has faith in you even if you do not. You do not need to compare yourself to others. You have your task, they have theirs, and that leads you to co-operate, not compete.”
Where I currently live, the qualities of which Paul, Marilynne Robinson and Rabbi Sacks speak are often derided in political discourses as signs of weakness, a loser’s creed. Yet, if we have seen anything recently, it is the power of hatred and self-love to destroy communities and inflict extraordinary pain. For Paul true humility stands in contrast to pride, which is unbridled selfishness. Humility is not weakness, nor is it a rejection of ourselves or of our identities. It is a readiness to take the gifts we have been given, to cultivate the wisdom gained in seminars, reading, lab work and journalistic investigation and put it to the service of others. It is a self-awareness that enables us to bear the burdens of others. My experience of involvement in the world of mental health – so close to my heart and that of my family – is that compassion consists of listening, encouraging and being present, not in imaging ourselves able to cure through a migsuided belief in our own wisdom.
Throughout the New Testament it is the demons and devils who most readily recognize Jesus. The writer C.S. Lewis played with this surprising truth with his devilish protagonist Screwtape, who claims: “The Enemy [God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.” I would have said that it is unlikely that we shall build cathedrals, but after the fire in Notre Dame, the need is now real. God not only calls us to use the gifts, talents and skills we possess to do remarkable things – as you will do – but to rejoice in the wonders achieved by others in our community. Their success does not diminish you. Lewis’ fictive demon restates our passage from Ephesians: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Paul tells us that the communal life flourishes when we are the best we can be. My time at King’s gave me a sense of community that has been a gift I continue to live with and aspire to, and I hope that will be your experience. Paul says we live in one hope, one body, one Spirit.” I hope that on this wonderful day that sense of our unity will inspire you to great things, above all to meaningful deeds of service with humility and gentleness. As a community in a moment of exciting transition, let us depart this morning together for today’s celebrations with Paul’s words to the men and women of Corinth: ” I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.” (2 Corinthians 7:4)