MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH AND THE MEDITATION OF MY HEART BE ALWAYS ACCEPTABLE IN THY SIGHT OH LORD MY STRENGH AND MY REDEEMER
"For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of god. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain." (1 Corinthians xii. 9.)
To St. Paul the most precious thing in the world was that Jesus had appeared to him personally after the resurrection. That was the turning point and most dynamic moment of his life. Verses nine through eleven of today’s Epistle tell us a great deal more about St. Paul.
The verses of the Epistle tell us of his utter humility. He is the least of the apostles who has been glorified with an office for which he is not worthy. Paul does not claim to be a self made man or someone who accomplished everything by his own doing. It was by the grace of God that he was what he was. They tell us at the same time of his consciousness of his own self worth. He was well aware that his labour and efforts went beyond anyone’s and his was not a false modesty. But he always spoke not of what he had done but of what God has enabled him to do. They tell of his sense of fellowship. He did not regard himself as an isolated phenomenon with a message that was unique. He and the other apostles preached the same gospel.
As a zealous Pharisee, Paul had been an enemy of the Christian church even to the point of capturing and persecuting believers. Thus he felt unworthy to be called an apostle of Christ although he was undoubtedly the most influential of the apostles. Paul was deeply humble. He knew he had worked hard and accomplished much, but only because God had poured kindness and grace upon him. The American Heritage Dictionary defines humble as modesty in behavior, attitude or spirit. True humility is not convincing yourself that you are worthless, but recognizing God’s work in you. It is having God’s perspective on who you are and acknowledging his grace in developing your abilities. During my years in business I read a lot of resume’s and one thing that I notice time and time again was that people would claim to have accomplished something that no one person alone could have done in the time frame that they claimed. And if I interviewed that person I would find out that they had a part to play in what was accomplished but they had not done it all by themselves. The more senior the person the more reluctant they were to admit that a lot of people contributed to that accomplishment. They were boastfully proud and not the least bit humble. And they wondered why they did not get the job. Paul has given us an example of how to be proud of what you have accomplished using the gifts God has given you while remaining humble by acknowledging that what you have done is by the grace of God.
It is not just individuals that have a problem with humility. Some branches of the church have failed to teach humility as part of Christian life. Each week we say the Prayer of Humble Access which opens with the words “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” This prayer was composed in 1548 and its name derives from the Scottish Liturgy of 1637. In the 1552 Book of Common Prayer it was inserted immediately after the Sanctus and it remained there in the 1662 Prayer Book which is the basis of our 1928 BCP. However, in some modern Anglican liturgies it has been made optional and in others the prayer has been dropped completely. The message then is that being humble is either optional or not required at all. This is contrary to the scriptures. A quick search turned up twenty scripture readings about being humble. Mark 10:45 says “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” But those who would say humility is optional have rejected scripture because it does not fit their modern social views. Proverbs 11:2 tells us “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.”
And so it is that once again we Christians are faced with a delegate balance between seemingly opposite aspects of Christian life. On one side there is pride and the other humility. Pride can be sinful as we heard in the Gospel lesson today. The Pharisee prayed not to God but about himself and how good he was at obeying the law. Whereas the publican “smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” At the end of the parable in today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells us that “every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” Paul shows us how to find the balance between pride and humility; he always spoke not of what he had done but of what God has enabled him to do. We need to acknowledge that whatever we have accomplished has been accomplished by the grace of God not by our own doing or we commit the sin of pride. We need to be humble just like the publican recognizing our sinful actions and asking for mercy and forgiveness. And so we pray “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
Christians have been consecrated to God by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be one for whom Christ died and to know it, and to realize that that sacrifice, in a very special way, makes us belong to God. If people have been marked out as specially belonging to God, they must show themselves to be fit in life and in character for that service. We can follow the example Paul has set by being proud of how we have used the gifts God has given us and humble in our knowledge that without his grace our fallen nature would have led us to a life of sin.
And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion as is most justly due this day; world without end. AMEN