Sunday, September 25, 2011

Imago Christi

Philippians 2: 1-13

Humility. What is it? Is it the ability to self-deprecate, which means to downplay your own achievements, as if they do not mean much? Is humility a low opinion of yourself, in relation to others?

It seems to me that there are two poles of humility. The first pole is that there are some people in the world who think that they are the best at everything they do, and while they may sometimes indeed be very good at something, they don’t always have such a realistic view of themselves.

The other pole is the complete self-negation of someone who thinks they are worthless. They’ve always been told that they are worthless, and now it has seeped into their mind, into their heart, into even their bones.

True humility, I think is the ability to be realistic about one’s talents, gifts, and graces, to be able to accept correction from others. To have pride in yourself is ok, because pride, in moderation, rather than swell someone’s head, can also drive you to be excellent.

True humility, also, is the ability to place one’s gifts and talents into the service of others, and not to always have it be used only for gain and fame and fortune.

But humility is a slippery slope. St. Benedict, in teaching monks to be better Christians fifteen hundred years ago, used the image of a ladder, by which you can only climb to heaven by seeking to minimize yourself in the eyes of God. By looking to God more, and to ourselves less, we become more like the image of Christ. It is easy, when doing this, to think that you are worthless, and that is the quickest way to heaven, but it’s not true. If you think that there is nothing that you can give to the world, nothing to offer, then you are withholding what you can offer, and that is a sin. There is no quicker or slower way to heaven, anyway-there is only your path through life and your daily relationship with God.

Benedict’s key is that humility is the ability to look to God in thanks for our gifts, and to learn how to look to God for leadership in how to use those gifts. The more we are able to consciously serve God, the more we imitate Christ in our lives, the more we approach true humility.

Let me say again-humility is not thinking of oneself as worthless-humility is not accepting the judgment of those who are mean and evil and call us useless, worthless, and trash. We all have something to offer this world, God has placed within us some gifts and talents with which we can provide grace to this world. All of us. Acknowledging what we are good at is the first step, ironically, toward humility. Placing it in God’s service are the rest of the steps toward imitating Christ.

This idea of placing gifts in the service of God comes directly from verses 5 to 11 in today’s scripture. Jesus is our model. Paul writes that Jesus was in the form of God, and equal to God. Yet, in service to God, he emptied himself, he gave away everything that made him supernatural, and submitted to the chains of a mortal life. Freely. Not because he thought he was worthless, but instead, he was the one of most worth, the only one for the job. Once here, with a stomach that growled when he was hungry, a body that needed sleep, that felt cold, that needed washing periodically, that could suffer pain and ultimately, death, but with the knowledge that he was here serving God, he submitted himself further, even to accepting death, even a death that was the most humiliating type that the Roman Empire could muster. Not because he felt worthless, but indeed because he knew that his death would demonstrate in the purest way the love of God. It was the whole reason for coming, the whole point of the exercise.

Why? Because he loved us. Because God loved us, and our ancestors had forgotten. And God knew that every generation would forget. So the story carries forward everywhere, that God loved us so much that he gave us Jesus, and when they killed him, as every generation most likely would have, God did not retaliate in anger, but responded in love, while still showing God’s ultimate power, in resurrecting him.

I am struck by the lyrics to the hymn “Trust and Obey”, specifically verses three and four, as they are in the United Methodist Hymnal:

But we never can prove the delights of his love, until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor he shows, for the joy he bestows, are for them who will trust and obey.

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at his feet, or we’ll walk by his side on the way;
What he says we will do, where he sends we will go; never fear, only trust and obey.

True humility isn’t minimizing one’s own spirit in fear of being thought haughty or bold by our family and friends, our husbands and wives or parents. True humility is being realistic about our gifts and graces, given to us by God, and choosing to put them into the service of God. When we do this, we imitate Christ, which, after all, is the point of living Christian life.

May we all imitate Christ this week, and the rest of our lives. Amen.

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