Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sermon: 13 Pentecost (30 August 2009)

Sermon: 13 Pentecost (30 August 2009)
(Song of Solomon 2:8-13/Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9/Ephesians 5:21-6:9/Mark 7:1-23)
It All Boils Down To This

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

I have never found reductionism very helpful; much of life – seemingly all the important aspects of life – is irreducibly complex. So, when someone says to me, “Well, it all boils down to this one thing,” I know that it generally doesn’t and that the speaker has probably failed to grasp the true complexity of the situation. I once listened to a Christian speaker tell a congregation that the entire gospel boils down to loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself. Of course, Jesus never said that – not about the gospel anyway. And I wondered: Does the speaker really see vanishingly little importance in the incarnation, ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Can these really be boiled down and out of the gospel? Certainly, the framers of the Creed and the fathers of our faith didn’t think so. No, I have never found reductionism very help.

So, no reductionism for me – well, except maybe for this once: because progress in the Christian life really can be boiled down to one thing. Perhaps there is better way to say that: no significant spiritual growth will happen without one particular quality, a quality which serves as the foundation upon which Christian character is built. Since the Desert Fathers (abbas) – monks of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries who left their cities for solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria – knew and explored this quality so thoroughly, I’ll let their stories and sayings introduce this one essential quality.

Macarius was once returning to his cell from the marsh carrying palm leaves. The devil met him by the way, with a sickle, and wanted to run him through with it but he could not. The devil said, ‘Macarius, I suffer a lot of violence from you, for I can’t overcome you. For whatever you do, I do also. If you fast, I eat nothing; if you keep watch, I get no sleep. There is only one quality in which you surpass me.’ Macarius said to him, ‘What is that?’ The devil answered, ‘Your humility; that is why I cannot prevail against you.’[1]

And Theodore, deacon in Scetis said,

‘Humility and the fear of God surpass all the other virtues.’ ‘The gateway is humility: our predecessors suffered much and therefore entered heaven joyfully.’[2]

And there it is: if progress in the spiritual life must be reduced, boiled down, to just one thing, that thing would be humility.

Examples abound in Scripture, some from the mouth of our Lord, himself.

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14, NKJV).

And when his disciples asked Jesus who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus

called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:2b-4, NKJV).

Of course, Jesus didn’t simply talk about the importance of humility. Jesus was himself the greatest example of such humility, as Paul reminds his brothers and sisters in Philippi.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phil 2:5-8, NKJV).

Clearly then, even if you are not willing to boil down progress in the spiritual life solely to humility, you nonetheless have to admit that it is exceptionally important. We have it on Christ’s authority.

If humility is so important, how do we get it? How do we cultivate humility, even presuming we’d want to? Well, you’re not going to like the answer: I don’t; no one does. But here it is: Submit to one another in the fear of God (cf Eph 5:21). Paul says it here in Ephesians, and both James, the brother of our Lord, and Peter insist upon it also.

Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for

“God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you (1 Pe 5:5-7, NKJV).

I know what this looks like in a monastery where each monk takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; being submissive means obeying the abbot in all things and living under the order’s spiritual rule. I know what this looked like among the desert fathers and mothers; being submissive meant deferring to one another’s judgments, putting the others first, and considering oneself truly as the chief of sinners. But, we are not monks or desert abbas or ammas. How do we acquire humility through submission? What does that look like? Before I answer – before Paul answers; I’m not taking the heat for him on this one! – let me warn you that you’re really not going to like the answer. We learn humility not within the cloister or out in the desert, but within the familiar territory of human relationships: in the home, in the workplace, in the church. We learn humility by being submissive to members of our own family, to our employers, to our elder brothers and sisters in the faith. And that is hard, especially when our husband is a boor, our wife is a nag, our boss is a jerk, and the saints of God are hypocritical prigs. Do I really mean to tell you that you must be submissive to these kinds of people? Of course not, but Paul does – if you want to make progress in the spirit, if you want to have in you the mind of Christ.


wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything (Eph 5:22-24, NKJV).

The battle of the sexes – skirmishes and all out war for dominance and advantage – is a consequence of ancestral sin. In the beginning Adam loved Eve as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone and Eve was delighted to be his helper, comparable to him. The two were joined and became one flesh. But then came the deceiver, and the sin, and the separation, alienation, and accusation. In consequence the woman was subjected to her husband: “Your recourse will be to your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16b, OSB).

I can’t hear this text as a woman; I don’t know how most women react to it. But I do know that submission by anyone in any form is an affront to the fallen nature of man. The passions of pride and selfishness war against it. And that is precisely the point: the passions must be put to death and the only way to do so is willingly to embrace submission – as an act of obedience to the Lord – and to pray for humility. Christian wives practice submission and perfect humility in the most intimate and challenging relationship of all: marriage. This is not about who’s better or smarter or any other comparative you want to name; this is about spiritual growth and transformation. This is not about subjugation; this is about spiritual freedom. This is not about punishment; this is about the means to a glorious, spiritual end. This is about the mind of Christ in the person of a Christian wife.


Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish (Eph 5:25-27, NKJV).

I probably shouldn’t presume to speak for all men, but that won’t stop me. Men get married for a variety of reasons: love, lust, convenience, family, stability, economics – some reasons noble and some reasons base. But I don’t know that I’ve ever met a man who married solely, or even primarily, for the spiritual welfare of his wife: to sanctify her and cleanse her, to present her holy and without blemish to the Lord. No. Our motives typically are much more self-centered and self-serving than that. So Paul asks from Christian husbands – as he does from Christian wives – a most difficult measure of submission: to subordinate self-interest and personal satisfaction to the interest and satisfaction and welfare of another. Husbands are asked to view their wives through the lens of Christ, to see them first as spiritual sisters – for whom they are responsible to the Lord – and only second as physical mates. I don’t know whose task of submission is more difficult, wives or husbands. But that way lies humility – and only that way – and it is humility we must have.

Children do not escape Paul’s notice either.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (Eph 6:1-3, NKJV).

Is there anything more headstrong, more opinionated, more naturally resistant to obedience than a teenager? Oh sure, a teenage child most always will do what the parents require because they have little choice. But I’ve heard the under-the-breath muttering often enough, seen the roll of the eyes and the hands-on-the-hips slouch and experienced the whatever attitude often enough to know that obedience frequently is grudging at best, and certainly not rendered in a spirit of willing submission and respect. And I have a great teenager. I can only image what some parents experience.

But, frankly, parents – fathers – we often provoke and exasperate our children by speaking foolishness. “Do this,” we say, sometimes for no apparent reason. “Why?” they ask, sometimes reasonably, sometimes with attitude. And then we fathers play the trump card: “Because I’m your father and I said so.” As Christian fathers we can do better than that; we must do better than that. “Why?” a child asks. “Because whether I’m right or wrong, your obedience is right and pleasing in the Lord’s sight and will make you holy.” That is an answer full of Christian wisdom and humility.

And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4, NKJV).

The Christian family is among the best of all human relationships, and is fertile ground for the practice of submission and the development of humility. Some human relationships, though, are by their very nature coercive; yet, even these can be fires in which to refine humility.

Bondservants [slaves], be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is slave or free (Eph 6:5-8, NKJV).

I’ve seen and heard this passage cheapened in commentaries and study Bible notes and in Sunday School classes. This text is not about employee-employer relationships. This is about slaves and their masters, about humans owned by other humans, about men and women in the most vulnerable and powerless of situations.[3] It is about the restaveks in Haiti – children sold into chattel slavery because their parents can no longer feed them. It is about the millions of slaves in India and Pakistan and Sudan. It is about the forgotten ones who are not forgotten by God, about the powerless ones who nonetheless have the power to be holy. It is about redemption of a seemingly hopeless situation. For the slave – like the husband and wife and child – hope and power lie in submission, not submission in fear but in promise that submission produces humility and humility produces Godliness. Obey not because you must, but because by God’s grace you can and because by God’s grace your obedience furthers your salvation. In this way the slave becomes as powerful as any master.

And Paul certainly limits the power of the Christian master – actually exhorts the master to be submissive to the needs of the slave, a thing unheard of in Paul’s day.

And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him (Eph 6:9, NKJV).

This is a remarkable passage emphasizing the equality of master and slave before God, and yet for some people even this is not enough: they condemn Paul because he fails to condemn slavery. But surely this misses the point entirely. Paul’s concern is not whether the social institution of slavery should stand, but how Christians should stand within that, or any, social institution – stand in such a way that submission, humility, and salvation are possible within that institution. This theology nullifies the power of any institution to demean or coerce by giving individuals the power to choose holiness. Yes, there are still many coercive and abusive social institutions. But, thanks be to God, we do not have to wait until they are all abolished before we can practice submission, develop humility, and work out our salvation. In fact, those very institutions might even come to our aid by providing us the arena in which to battle our pride and lust for power.

So, it all boils down to this. Beloved, be submissive one to another. Wives, honor your husbands and do all things with respect. Husbands, love your wives and put their welfare – spiritual as well as physical – before your own. Children, obey your parents, not because you have to, but because it is right and pleases God. Mothers and fathers be good to your sons and daughters and raise them in the Lord. You powerless, remember that God empowers you through your willing submission. You powerful, remember to submit yourselves to the Lord who alone has true power.

Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for

“God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. Amen.
[1] Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. Penguin Books, p. 156.
[2] Ward, p. 154.
[3] While there were varieties of servitude in first-century Roman culture, the term Paul uses in this text – doulos, pl. douloi – is most typically used to indicate a slave as opposed to an indentured servant.

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