17. March 2019

True Modesty

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‘…So, let no one boast of men…’ (1 Corinthians 3, 21)

The most keenly contested football matches are local derbies. Two teams from the same city; a city just for that day divided down the middle. Whoever wins on the day, their supporters get the ‘bragging’ rights – the right to laud it over the losers – until the next time because…

“Who knows himself a braggart, let him fear this, for it will come to pass that every braggart shall be found an ass.” (William Shakespeare).

Paul was having to confront a culture which took pride in its wisdom, more particularly a culture that was divided within itself according to just how ‘wise’ a person might be; or even according to the source of one’s wisdom – who one’s teacher, or mentor might have been. Both within Judaism and Graeco Roman philosophy various schools of thought had grown over time. It was always likely that the newly emerging Christian faith would become susceptible to such a way of thinking; hence Paul going out of his way to get the Corinthian Christians to realise that it did not matter who it was who happened to be in the pulpit on any particular day – Apollos, Cephas, Paul himself – even though each of them would no doubt have presented the claims of Christ in a way suited to their individual personality; no two preachers are exactly alike, nor should they be, because all of us, preachers included are uniquely individual in every respect and that should be obvious from what they say from the pulpit and the way they say it. Both style – the expression of the heart - and substance - the expression of the mind – are shaped by who the person is. But, Paul goes on to say that while this must be so, at the same time it is vital that every preacher realise that they themselves, their own unique personalities, have been shaped by the personality of Christ such that whatever they might say and however they might express it, at the very least it ought to reflect the heart and mind of Christ. They must, at all costs guard against the temptation to over complicate the stark simplicity of the Gospel by infusing it with any amount of so-called ‘worldly wisdom’ – as Paul says in another place, ‘we preach not ourselves’…The cult of personality has bedevilled the Christian Church from its very beginning and ministers, preachers are more to blame for this than most. From my own Baptist tradition, the C19 was dominated by Charles Haddon Spurgeon – people flocked to hear Spurgeon preach; but how many came to hear the Word of God expounded by Spurgeon. The Metropolitan Tabernacle at the Elephant & Castle, where he was minister became known as ‘Spurgeon’s Tabernacle. When the messenger eclipses the message, then we find ourselves, almost without realising it, lapsing into idolatry, fashioning God in human form. And of course, preachers are only human and we are all too easily charmed by the affections of our hearers. When the messenger becomes more ‘powerful’, more ‘popular’, more ‘pursuasive’ then than the message itself; then it is necessary for the ‘messenger’ to stand back, take ‘time out’; it may not be his or her fault but nevertheless, as far as the Gospel is concerned, nothing or no one should be allowed, wittingly or unwittingly, to compromise its essential message. And what is true for ministers of the Gospel in particular – as attested to by Paul when addressing the problem in Corinth – is true also for us all, more generally, whether we care to admit to it or not.

“There is one vice of which no [one] in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when [they] sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people…ever imagine that they are guilty [of] themselves…There is no fault which makes a [person] more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves…The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility.”  (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

There is of course a fine line to tread. There is a sense in which we want to encourage ourselves to take ‘pride’ in our appearance, our achievements etc. But precisely because that line is such a fine line it is all too easily crossed. Paul suggests that the Cross, which is at the heart of the Christian Gospel is the ultimate antithesis as far as human pride is concerned. Jesus did not just ‘die’, Jesus ‘died on a cross’ - rebuked, scorned, humiliated; stripped, scourged, spat upon – why would anyone ‘boast’ of One such as Him. But for Paul, Jesus Christ Crucified’ is the beginning and ending of human pride; the dethroning of human conceit, the debunking of self-centredness, the deconstructing of one’s Ego, he absolute, total and complete demolition of a life built upon self-promotion, self-justification, self-satisfaction. The message of the Cross is dynamite in that respect. And it doesn’t stop with causing us to reappraise our own self-understanding. The Cross serves as a powerful symbol according to which we might understand how even the nations of the world might be judged before God – echoing Matthew 25 -

“When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government.” (Thomas Payne, ‘Rights of Man).