Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
It is a wonderful and providential gift that our Sunday lectionary so often provides us with a thundering reminder of how different the Christian life and hope is from what we find swirling around us in the world. St. Peter, in today’s reading from His epistle, did not know that—2,000 years after he wrote those words—we would read them right as we finishing National Pride Month, but the fallen nature of Man has not changed much from then to now. We still naturally love ourselves above all others, and we still seek the approval and celebration of others to justify our self-love. Fornication, pornography, and sodomy are this season’s alternative rites to friendship, chastity, and marriage, and these counterfeit rituals are fueled by a falsely placed pride in ourselves and whichever of our basest desires a hypocritical society says are ‘OK’ this week. Christians should not be filled with anger when confronted by these alternative realities—anger just being another form of pride—no, we should be filled with sorrow and repentance and resolve. We should recognize that we have a message of hope and freedom to share with all those who are imprisoned in a culture which preaches a dehumanizing view of sex and money and status that surrounds the scared and the lost with the fake, plastic shield of pride. A shield which provides no real protection—a shield that can only get in the way of the transcendent love we sense is possible, a transcendent love for which we were made.
Our Gospel reading today tells us of a loving God who is searching for us in the dark wilderness of a fallen world, a God who rejoices upon finding the lost sheep and bringing them back to the fold, but that same God is described by Peter, quoting from the Book of Proverbs, as being quite literally at war against human pride. This war, of course, is a campaign of creaturely liberation, for human beings throughout history have done terrible, terrible things to each other and the creation we were intended to serve as stewards. Our last century was awash in the red tide of pride—staining every nation with its scarlet hue of war and turmoil. In our current century, the richest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world, lost 274 people a day last year to drug overdoses. For a comparison, the US lost 220 servicemen a day in WWII. We have never before had a people so often told to be proud of who they are, and we have never had a people so willing to kill themselves. This is just one example, I’m not even going to mention the people eating or drinking or copulating themselves to death. We say, ‘Be proud of your desires; be proud of who you are; don’t let anyone judge you,’ all while we make more and more coffins to fill with the aborted, the lonely, the sad, and the proud. Based on all the evidence of human suffering born of pride, we obviously need a God who is warring against the cause of so much misery. Unfortunately, mankind doesn’t want a God like that because we are proud; we don’t want a God like that because it quickly becomes clear how often we have opposed Him in His campaign to liberate us from the evil we pridefully call good. Surely, our only response to realizing that we have opposed our loving creator in His mission to save us from ourselves and end all earthly sadness and pain forever is to fall on our knees in abject sorrow, repent, and rise clothed in humility—full of the grace that is building a new world one human heart at a time. That is the Christian response to Pride 2023, Pride 2024, Pride 2025, and every celebration of human pride that comes at us until Christ returns to humble us all.
We see a picture of exactly that humble transformation when Jesus tells us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. He states, ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Peter obviously knows this parable very well. He most likely heard Jesus deliver it on multiple occasions. Now, we have far fewer ‘religious Pharisees’ in our day and age; I very rarely run in to people who are fasting or tithing too much, but we do have people who pridefully believe that they are better than other people and bristle at the idea that all humans are either like that tax collector—on their knees, recognizing their own faults and realizing their desperate need for God’s gracious mercy—or they are damned. This humility is the humility of real repentance which always brings with it a despairing self-distrust that turns to God in saving faith. Not once, like in some dramatic movie where we are the star, but every day in the same way a doctor prepares his mind to war against human decay or a soldier prepares his body for the next battle. We need humility, born of repentance, every single day or our lives. We need it like air because of the poisonous pride that surrounds us like so much gas in a chamber.
On the other hand, we are instructed by the world to take our pride and apply it like a Garfield Band-Aid on an amputated leg, for make no mistake, we really are hurting people; we are all suffering, in one way or another, from the grievous injury pride is so powerless to help. That injury is called shame. Peter certainly knew what shame felt like. The apostle, who pridefully boasted to Jesus that he would not let Him die, folded like a damp paper towel under the intense interrogation of a few men and a teenage girl. Luke writes thusly, ‘And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly”” (St. Luke 22:59-62). One wonders if Peter could ever hear a rooster crow again without returning to that night and remembering the look in the eyes of His master and friend and savior. In that moment, Peter knew a shame that surely should have crushed him (it did crush Judas), but in his honest and humble repentance, the grace of God found Peter and prepared him for future glory. Remember, Peter must have told this story over and over again, unashamed that he had failed so miserably on the day of Christ’s betrayal, but that same Peter would go from denying Jesus on the Thursday before Easter to proclaiming Him as Messiah on Pentecost morning. Even going so far as to join His beloved Lord on a cross, naked and unashamed, because Jesus had taken all of his shame forever on Good Friday. There is no shame anymore for Peter or for any other repentant sinner. The mighty hand of our God has cast all shame away—never to return—and this has limitless application for the new life of the believer. As we read in the Book of Hebrews: ‘Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus has taken our shame with Him up onto the cross, and destroyed it forever: from His suffering comes limitless glory and a real and lasting cure for the shame our pride tries to cover up.
How extreme is this cure? How powerful is the death of shame for a believer? In the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo could counsel the women of Rome—freshly assaulted by the lustful armies of the barbarians—that Jesus had taken their shame and there was no need to kill themselves like the pagan women were doing. The mighty hand of God was more powerful than their shame. In the 18th century, when John Newton, a black-hearted sailor working on a slave ship, humbly called out to God for salvation during a terrible storm, he felt the grace that would lead him to renounce the slave trade, become an Anglican priest, and write these famous words: ‘Amazing grace! How sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me!/I once was lost, but now am found;/Was blind, but now I see.’ The mighty hand of God was more powerful than his shame. In the 21st century, a woman named Kimberly Henderson, sat in an abortionist’s waiting room—abandoned by all the friends who encouraged her prideful life—she sat ready to take the life of the only person who hadn’t abandoned her. Until a card fell from her purse with a passage from Isaiah written upon it. The card read, ‘Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand’ (Isaiah 41:10). Kimberly walked out of that building and now feels the love of her beautiful daughter every day. The mighty hand of God was more powerful than her shame.
Peter tells us to cast all of our cares and all of our anxieties on that God, St. Paul tells us to lay aside the enslaving sins that weigh down our souls and trust in that God. These men had seen with their eyes the only ever concrete reversal of sin and death in the risen Christ, and they knew the power of the Holy Spirit as it gave them the strength to fight against the empire of evil ruled by Caesar and lorded over by Satan. They both knew the shame of their past: one denied Christ; the other actively persecuted His disciples, but they knew that the God who defeated death was stronger than their shame. Likewise, all the suffering of their here and now, all the beatings and crucifixions, all the mockery and disdain, all of it could be given as a reasonable sacrifice to the God who had wiped away all their shame. All of it is connected: the God strong enough to defeat death can certainly defeat our shame, carry us through our suffering, and exalt us as kings and queens of paradise in the new earth to come. Our past shame is as immaterial as our present suffering when compared to our future glory. And it is that eternal glory which the God of all grace, has called us to in Christ. It is that grace which will restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us.
People often ask in the midst of their suffering or in response to the suffering of others, ‘Where was God?’ Whenever this happens in a movie or a TV show everyone just clams up and looks sad, but in this room and in all rooms we take the Gospel, we do not ever need to apologize for our God. We can say without doubt or fear or shame, ‘Where was God? God was walking out of a tomb in A.D. 33; God was establishing a holy realm of faith and hope and love every day since; God was preparing an eternity more glorious than our imaginations can even begin to comprehend. That’s where God was.’ For the question no one will ask on the day our King returns, the day Satan is ripped from his perch, the day pain and sickness exhaust themselves, the question no one will ask is ‘Where was God?’ We will see and feel and taste and smell and hear his dominion and finally know that the question was never ‘Where was God?’ The real questions was ‘Where were we?’ Let our answer on that day be, ‘Humbly, by thy side my Lord. Humbly by thy side.’