Sunday 27th September 2020 A reflection for Trinity XVI by the Rev'd David Warnes

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 26/09/2020 - 12:34

Good Shepherd Trinity 16 Proper 21 27 September 2020

In this time of pandemic, we are hearing a lot of expert advice from scientists, and you may be feeling, as I am, a bit frustrated that they all sound very confident in their views, but they aren’t all advising the same course of action. Pondering their confidence reminded me of a true story concerning a very distinguished professor of Physics at an American university who agreed to be an expert witness in a trial. During cross-examination, counsel for the defence asked him “What qualifies you to be an expert witness in this matter?” The Professor, who had the reputation of being a modest and retiring sort of person, replied “I am the greatest living authority on this particular branch of science.”

Later a friend of the Professor’s expressed surprise at this answer, which seemed to him uncharacteristically boastful. The professor answered, "What did you expect me to say? I was under oath."

It’s a story about humility, and it reminds us that true humility isn’t about doing yourself down or understating your abilities. To have said “Well I know quite a bit about it” or “I’ve written a book on the subject” would have been the kind of self-deprecating understatement that most of us sometimes indulge in because we want to seem humble. The wish to be thought of as a humble person is, of course, a form of self-centeredness. And self-centeredness and humility are opposites. As C.S. Lewis put it:

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

That’s a clue to the idea that St Paul was expressing in today’s beautiful passage from Philippians when he wrote of Jesus that:

These verses from Philippians are a reminder that we believe in Incarnation, in a down-to-earth, Incarnate God, a God one of whose qualities is humility. And humility is derived from the Latin word for earth or soil, so humility is all about being down-to-earth.

“...being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

Today’s Epistle gives us a glimpse into the beliefs of the very first Christians, those who knew Jesus during his earthly life, those who encountered the Risen Christ and those who heard the Apostles’ preaching. Philippians was written, at the very latest, only thirty years after the Crucifixion, but in verses 5-11 of today’s reading Paul is quoting from an even earlier Christian source – either a hymn or a poem used for teaching purposes. And we discover that the first Christians had quickly developed a rich and deep appreciation of who Jesus was, and of what he accomplished. They believed that, in Jesus, the love of God was revealed and that he

“...emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

In other words, they already had a clear belief in the Incarnation.

That’s interesting and important but it isn’t Paul’s main message to the church at Philippi. The self-emptying, the self-giving love of the down- to-earth God is offered by Paul as a pattern for Christian living.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Paul sometimes wrote rather lumpy Greek and, in writing those words, he didn’t bother to include a verb, a fact which has challenged translators ever since. The version we use reads like a call to imitate Christ’s self-giving love. Other scholars have argued that what Paul meant was:

“Show among yourselves the attitude that stems from the fact that you are in Christ as members of the Christian community.”

New Testament scholars disagree as much as the scientists who offer the government advice about how to respond to the pandemic, and they can be just as confident in their assertions. Happily, in the case of this disagreement we don’t have to choose. Paul’s instructions to the Philippian Christians are both an encouragement to imitate Jesus and a blueprint for community life “in Christ”.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Christian humility is inspired and enabled by the self-emptying action of our down-to-earth Incarnate God and we are called to be humble in the sense of being earthed; not to live as free-floating, assertive individuals but to be rooted in community, aware of our dependence on one another and of our calling to love one another. Which is good advice for all times and seasons, including a time of pandemic.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

Amen.