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University Sermon on Sin of Pride – Rt. Rev’d Michael Perham

 

For a Bishop of Gloucester to preach in this chapel is to be reminded of an important piece of Worcester College history. Medieval Gloucester was, like Oxford, a great religious centre, and more precisely a centre of the religious life, in the more technical sense, with Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines and more, and the jewel in the crown was the great Benedictine abbey of St Peter. In Oxford, meanwhile, there stood on this site the Benedictine Gloucester College, founded in the 13th century. That is an important historic link. With the coming of the Reformation, both institutions underwent a change. In Gloucester the abbey became the cathedral of a new diocese; for the first time Gloucester had a bishop. In Oxford the college experienced something of the fate of most of the monasteries and, though it survived as Gloucester Hall, it had to wait until the eighteenth century for a rich benefactor to re-found the college and give it a new name. The association with Gloucester was lost. Today I would celebrate that historic connection with a certain delight and pride, were it not for the subject of this sermon.Among the clergy of the Diocese of Gloucester in the second century of its existence was one William Master. He ministered in the parish of Preston, near Cirencester. It is a village of less than 500 souls, with a beautiful 14th century church, on the site of one going back to Saxon times. In those days the incumbent of Preston had only this one parish for which to care. Now his 21st century successor has four. When William Master died in 1684, he bequeathed a sum of five pounds per annum to the University of Oxford to maintain two sermons. And, again as the Bishop of the diocese in which he ministered, I would celebrate his benefaction with delight and pride, were it not for the subject of this sermon. For one of the two is a sermon on the grace of humility, to be preached on the Sunday before Lent, and the other, that you hear today, on the Sunday next before Advent, is on the sin of pride.William Master gave twelve New Testament texts on which the sermon should be preached. The one I have chosen is Acts 20.24. In the King James version of the Bible, authorised in the same century through which Master ministered at Preston, it readsNone of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Or, to hear it in a contemporary translation:I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace. The setting, of course – we heard it in the second reading this evening – is the eve of the apostle Paul’s journey to Jerusalem that he is convinced with lead to troubles of various kinds and to another and final journey to the city of the Rome where his ministry will eventually come to an end. He has a strong sense that he will never see again those from whom he is now departing. This is serious leave-taking. And so he summons the elders of the church at Ephesus and speaks to them in impassioned tones before they embrace him and accompany him to the ship that will take him to Jerusalem. And, as part of that farewell discourse, come the words that William Master wanted to hear explored in a university sermon. But to make sense of the context of this verse, we need to have clearly in our minds the four verses that precede it. Listen again – this is from Verse 20.I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus. And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. And then comes William Master’s verse:I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.Master asks for a sermon on the sin of pride, but provides a verse in which there is no hint of pride. “I do not count my life of any value to myself,” says Paul. There is a kind of self-emptying, a humility, worthy of Jesus himself. I think we need to explore those preceding verses a little to find out why the sin of pride has not taken foothold in Paul. And I detect four ways in which pride has been held at bay.First Paul lays emphasis on our human failure, on sin that spoils so much. He reminds his hearers how often he has testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance towards God. And indeed that has been a key part of his message in place after place. Like John the Baptist, like Jesus, Paul has called his hearers to repentance. And repentance is always about facing up to the truth, not deceiving oneself with a false and flattering image of one’s goodness. “I’m good,” nearly all of us say nowadays, when asked how we are. But the classic Christian answer is that I am not entirely good, for sin has its foothold, but, praise the Lord, I am forgiven.” A sober and honest estimate of ourselves, warts and all, as they say, will always save us from that most pernicious sin of pride, a sin that will make us blind to our folly, our failure, our foolishness and to our need of the forgiveness of God and of our fellow humans. That is Paul’s first key to avoiding the sin of pride.The second, perhaps more positively, is to hold constantly in one’s mind the picture of Jesus Christ. Paul says that he has testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance, but also about “faith toward Jesus Christ”. Now partly that may be simply an extension of repentance. We fix our eyes and our minds on Jesus and we see one who lived quite wonderfully in the light and grace of God, one who modelled magnificently how to be a human being, living life to the full, and our response is repentance as we see how hopelessly far short we fall of the ideal that Jesus present to us. But it goes further than that. From birth to death Jesus models the humility that makes all attempt at human pride look pathetic. Looking towards Jesus and responding in faith banishes pride. Paul himself explores this fully in his letter to the Philippians, when he writes about the self-emptying of God to become a human being in the person of Jesus.Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. The one who comes into the world as a little child, born in poverty and in obscurity, is the humble Son of a humble God. The one who never wants his deeds of power or his divine nature spread abroad is the humble Son of a humble of God. The one who gets down on his knees to wash the feet of his disciples is the humble Son of a humble God. This is humility unsurpassed and, those who have looked into the face of Jesus and seen humility in it, looked into his mind and try to be conformed to it, will always understand that there no place for human pride in the face of divine humility. A recognition of our failure, a looking to Jesus, and, thirdly, a sense of fragility in the face of trial and persecution. You can catch some of the emotional intensity of Paul’s meeting with the Ephesian leaders. As a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Paul is in a vulnerable place. Already in his ministry he has experienced persecutions and calamities. Now he is living with a strong conviction that more of this awaits him. He is sure he will not see his friends again. The lives we lead are not often surrounded by such danger as his. But within each one of us there is fragility and vulnerability, even when it doesn’t always show. And Christian discipleship, because with it goes always the adoption of a risky adventurous embracing of a life of faith and a willingness to abandon security, a vocation to turn up side down the conventional wisdom of the world, is often an invitation to embrace that fragility and that vulnerability and not to fight it off by erecting strong barriers, which will often be barriers of pride. Pride sometimes comes with a determination to be strong, never to allow oneself the liberation of weakness. But the way of Jesus is the risky path, the vulnerable encounter, the fragile hold on life. Paul is clear that this is what he is called to now as he sets out for Jerusalem. There is no room for the sin of pride here in this man who recognises his weakness.A recognition of failure, a looking to Jesus, a fragility in the face of trial. But, fourthly, and perhaps at first surprisingly, pride does not get a foothold because of Paul’s unshakable sense of calling. It is there in William Master’s choice of text.I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus.And I say “surprisingly” because Paul’s ministry might be the very thing of which he might be proud. He has been an effective missionary. He has been a creative theologian of the first order. He has laboured hard. He has come through many trials already. He has, as he says elsewhere, “fought the good fight” and he does look forward to the reward. So might this not be a source of quite a lot of pride? Well, it might be, except that Paul has long since discovered for himself and insisted in his writings that God chooses not the wise and the successful, but the weak vessels, and that he delights to work in this world through a kind of divine foolishness that chooses unlikely people to be his collaborators.Paul shared something of this with the church at Corinth.Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. And he adds, to ensure the point makes its mark, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” He is making the same point in a later letter to the church at Corinth, when he writesWe have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. Because Paul understands his calling in these terms, his vocation as an apostle, a highly effective one at that, does not develop within him the sin of pride. Rather it reinforces humility, for it reminds him that he is an effective minister because God has chosen him as one of the foolish, one of the weak, one of the low and despised. If he is going to boast at all (and he does feel the need to sometimes), he will boast in the Lord. All that is implicit in our text when Paul saysI do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.For it is the good news of God’s grace that is at work in him, and that is he is commending to his hearers. It is God’s grace that, despite (perhaps because of) Paul’s failure and his fragility, is making him an effective minister of the gospel.So, if we are to avoid the sin of pride, Paul’s message to us has at least four elements. First, look at yourself honestly and repent. Second, look to Jesus and put your faith in him, Third, embrace fragility and live the adventurous Christian life of risk. Fourth, consider your calling, whatever it may be, and recognise that it is simply by the grace of God that you are enabled to fulfil it. And that is a sobering message from Paul and sends us off, determined not to so neglect reality that we fall into the sin of pride, opening ourselves to receive the grace of humility. Paul, like William Master, wants to undo our pride, but it is important to say that he is not wanting to undo our confidence, which is quite different. We are to boast, but not to boast about ourselves, but to boast in the Lord. His message to us is, in the end, a confident one, just as it was a confident one to the church leaders from Ephesus, even if they heard the message through tears.I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up, and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. We are to be confident Christians, confident in God, confident in Christ, confident in grace, but there is no room for the sin of pride. In the end what God asks of us is what he asked of Micah.What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and – this is the key – to walk humbly with your God? +Michael Gloucester:

Rt. Rev’d Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester
22nd November 2009