Humility 101

Sermon for 28 September ’08

Philippians 2.1-13

Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God  as something to be exploited…

These are the opening words of a song. I don’t mean a song that was based on the scriptural text. Bible scholars tell us that these words begin a song, well-known to the Philippian believers, that goes from chapter 2 verse 6 to verse 11. The song is the biblical text. Paul was quoting it to the Philippians, reminding them of its words. The song describes the one who let go of all his privilege and, humbling himself, becoming one with us; and going even further still: dying the death of a criminal. For this, he is Lord of all. He has the authority and the name of God. You may have heard that a Uniting Church minister from Melbourne has recently said that this kind of thing is unbelievable these days. Well, it is believed and therefore it is believable, and the Uniting Church teaches it. As the song we sang at the start of the service proclaims:

He left his Father’s throne above (so free, so infinite his grace!), emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.

Paul isn’t just celebrating the great love of Christ in emptying himself for our sakes. He is offering Christ as a pattern for our lives, and for our life together. Before he quotes that song, he says why he’s quoting it. He wants the Christians in Philippi to:

be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.’ Take this to heart, that he humbled himself, he took the form of a servant, he even went to the cross for us. So, how can we look more like Jesus? How can we grow to be more like Jesus? I want to suggest that we could engage in ‘spiritual practices’. You may or may not have heard of spiritual practices; they are things like prayer; scripture study; meeting in small groups; simplicity of life; confession of sin; service to others. They are things we’re either doing or things we want to do more of but we keep getting derailed. Spiritual practices are things we do to put ourselves in a place where we may be more alive to God. Spiritual practices can bring us into God’s light, into a place where we may find healing and peace. So we read the scriptures that God might speak to us. We pray, and God opens our hearts to the needs of the world. In a small group gathering, we speak and listen so that God’s Spirit may enrich and deepen our fellowship. We confess our sins, and receive again that assurance that God our Father truly forgives and fully accepts us, just as the father of the prodigal son did.  To grow to be like Christ, we practise these things. We do them regularly and repeatedly. We make them into good habits. St Paul considered the Christian life to be a two-way street. After all, he wrote these words:

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Our relationship with God is a shared project. God activates and nourishes a desire within us to follow Jesus; God inspires us to do things that express that desire to follow Jesus. In turn, we respond by deciding to follow, choosing to listen for God’s voice and do what the Spirit is prompting us to do. Christ humbled himself for us. If we want to have the same mind that Christ had, I think we could look at humility as a spiritual practice: a practice of willingly and deliberately choosing the humble path in life. I think we could say that the practice of humility is the most basic spiritual practice. How often do you hear people telling you to be humble? I’d venture to guess it doesn’t happen all that much at all. Humility may have characterised the life of Jesus, but it is not at all prized in our culture.  Let’s look at a misconception people often labour under. Humility is not thinking less of yourself. Humble people don’t go around saying, Oh, I’m not good enough for this… I really couldn’t do that… That’s a perverse way of thinking that just screws us up. No, humble people think of themselves less. They’ve learned not to think first about themselves at all.  Let me say this again: Humility is not thinking less of yourself. Humility is thinking of yourself less. Humble people know they are no better and no worse than anyone else.  Humble people are realistic about themselves and others. Humble people know they will sin. Every day. Humble people look at others as equals. They aren’t impressed by wealth, neither are they envious of the wealthy. They aren’t dismissive of the poor. Humble people cast their cares upon God. They accept that to be human is to be spiritually weak, and they look to God for help. Above all, humble people know that Christ has brought the kingdom of God into being through the very way of humility. His victory is a victory of humility.  If humility is a spiritual practice, then we must be able to do something practical. What would that be? One thing: Wake up every morning and remember that this is a day in which you will sin. Don’t looked shocked! Be calm! It’s true—isn’t it? Then when you sin, you won’t be surprised. And when you sin, you can smile at your humanness rather than get all upset about it. What I’m trying to say is this: When you sin, don’t lose heart. Take sin seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. Humble people have a sense of humour. God can do more in us when we’re smiling at our humanness than when we’re beating ourselves up about sinning. And while you’re at it, when you wake up in the morning remember that the other people in your life will sin too. If you’re married, you’ll wake up next to someone who will sin that day. Maybe they’ll sin against you. At the breakfast table, after your morning coffee when you can focus your eyes, look at whoever else is there. They will sin that day. Maybe they’ll sin against you.  At work, look at your colleagues. They will sin that day. Maybe they’ll sin against you. And you may sin against any or all of them. A humble person knows all this, and does not despair. And still loves these people just as much as before. Do you want the same mind as Jesus Christ? Spiritual practices are a good way in. They can bring us into God’s light, into a place where we may find healing and peace. We need to find that place.  Do you want the same mind as Jesus Christ? Humility is a good spiritual practice to begin with. It may not be prized in our culture, but neither are many of the other spiritual practices; we need healing and peace, but we avoid doing what is needed for healing and peace. Just as well humble people are realistic about themselves! So, the spiritual practice of humility is simple: Wake up every morning and remember that this is a day in which you will sin. Take sin seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Be like Jesus, follow him, make him your centre. Adopt the spiritual practice of humility.

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