Sermon: 15 th Sunday after Pentecost, 28th August 2016, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 28th August 2016


Rev. Paul Weaver

(Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-59)

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” We’re familiar with the proverb, even if we usually quote its abbreviated version.

  1. S. Lewis described pride as “the great sin”, the basic sin. Of course, comparing sins is a fruitless task! There’s no point in arguing that pride is not as bad as murder, or it is worse than robbery. Sin doesn’t work that way!

What then was Lewis getting at? He takes us back to the opening chapters of the Bible, and the story of Adam and Eve. They weren’t satisfied with the blessings that they had: blessed human beings in the image of God, in a beautiful world and a direct relationship with their Creator. But they were far too easily persuaded that by eating the forbidden fruit they could become like God. They weren’t satisfied with the wonderful privileges that they had. They came to resent the reality that they were not as great as God. Pride was at the heart of their sin, and offended pride was then behind Cain’s murder of Abel in the following chapters.

After all, what is pride all about? It is about being on top. Being ahead of others, looking down on others. In its ultimate form it is about taking God’s place, being independent of God. There is something of pride in all sin: for when we sin, we put our will ahead of God’s will – we say “What I want is more important than what God wants. I will be on top, not God.”

In our Gospel reading from Luke 14, Jesus takes up the subject. At a formal meal, he saw an example of the pride of many Pharisees. The table and couches were probably set up in a U-shape. The host and guest of honour would have been at the centre. There was an implied pecking order, and most guests would have looked around to work out where they ranked, and therefore where they should sit themselves. But when time came to sit down, there was probably a moderately dignified scramble to get the best spot people could get away with.

Jesus saw it all, but this was not the time for an impassioned tirade. I think there might have been an amused smile on his face as he advised his listeners not to try to sit down in the best places. Just think how embarrassing it would be if your host had to ask you to sit at one of the lowest places because you had chosen a more important place than you were entitled to, and only the lowest places were now available!

Jesus suggests that it would be wiser to choose the lowest place. Then perhaps your host will see you down there and invite you up to a more esteemed position. I can imagine some of his listeners thinking: “What a good idea. If I make myself more obvious in a lower position, the host will notice me and he will move me up to an honoured position and everyone will think what a humble person I am.”

Of course, Jesus wasn’t concerned with social position: he was really pointing out the foolishness of pride. And when you think about it, pride is foolish, pride is unrealistic, pride is blind.

After all, what is it that makes us feel so proud? Our appearance, our abilities, our personality, our achievements, our work, our wealth, our position, our family, our connections. Or even in the church is it our position, the responsibilities we have been asked to take, our knowledge or our godliness, our knowledge of the liturgy and knowing what to do when, our orthodoxy or our liberal approach, our open-mindedness or our strong stand against error. No doubt there is good reason for us all to give thanks to God. No doubt there are reasons to take pleasure in various things we do or have done. But of these things would be a reality without God’s blessing. But pride is another thing. Pride puts us in competition with our neighbour, rather than in loving relationship with our neighbour.

Now you will notice that once more it seems to be the Pharisees who are in trouble with Jesus. A Jewish Rabbi I know thinks that the Gospels are quite unfair in their presentation of Pharisees. To him they are the “good guys”, and I think he actually has a point.

They are people who really took their faith seriously. They were devoted to obeying the teaching of Moses and the prophets. They saw that God was not only interested in what you did when you went to worship, or even whether you went to worship. They aimed to please God in every part of their lives. They believed that God had plans for his people not only for this life: they believed that there would be a resurrection, and sought to be prepared for it. As far as doctrine is concerned, I would judge that Jesus’ position was very close to that of the Pharisees. In devotion to God they were probably second to none. They sought to consistently obey God’s commandments. Why then was Jesus so hard on them?

I think part of the answer is that they had so much in common. They had so much of the knowledge, but distorted it. And they fell into the trap of using it as a weapon against those who didn’t share that knowledge. They were devoted, but that devotion became an end in itself and a means of testing others, rather than an expression of their love for God and for others.

As most of you know, I grew up in this diocese and trained at Moore College, and in a sense hold a good Sydney evangelical pedigree. I sometimes find myself having to explain the actions and attitudes of the diocese to those who do not understand, and I sometimes find myself defending the diocese to its critics. But I also feel especially critical of what I see as the failures of the diocese, because I think that it does not always act consistently with the things it knows. In particularly, for a diocese that majors on the grace of God, it too often acts ungraciously. Its leaders and people ought to know better, but they don’t always show it. I sometimes think of the diocese as a bit like the Pharisees. The Pharisees knew better, but they so often didn’t live it out. They fell into traps they should have known how to avoid. And those traps were the ones that devoted people so often fall into: the traps of pride, of judgementalism, of the closed mind, of hypocrisy.

Pride. Devoted people say: we have the truth. But how is that expressed? Surely the truth should be shared humbly and graciously as the opportunity arises. But it is so easy to say instead: if you don’t seem to hold the truth as I understand it, you are wrong, you are excluded. We can often use our understanding of the truth not to spread light, but as a weapon against those who may not hold our understanding of the truth. Pride.

If we believe we have a basic hold on God’s truth in a world where there is so much confusion, we must be thankful. We have easy access to the scriptures, and every opportunity to explore their message, and to think through what they teach and how their message speaks to us in the 21st century. But we must never assume that we have taken in every bit of God’s truth: there will always be more to discover, and even some misunderstandings that we may need to correct!

Pride that we’ve got it right so easily flows into judgementalism against those whom we think have got it wrong. That attitude is described many times in the Gospels, particularly in relation to the Pharisees. And we see it so often today. It is expressed in an extreme way by militant Islamists, but also in so many forms of religion. Over the centuries it has been Catholic and Orthodox, then Catholic and Protestant. We have seen it in the violence of Ireland, and at least some of the violence in America arises from this kind of attitude. And we see it so often in arguments between Christians of different traditions and different theological approaches.

And don’t forget that it is not only conservative Christians who can be judgemental: there are plenty of arrogant comments and even books from perhaps a supposedly liberal viewpoint which are judgemental of the diocese! And athiests are arrogant towards believers too. The traffic is not one-way!

It is good and right to explain and defend our understanding of the faith, and even to point out where and why we believe a particular viewpoint is wrong. But we are not to be judges of other people, particularly of those who profess the faith in a different way. Only the Lord has the knowledge to be the perfect judge.

And then there is the pride of the closed mind: the sense that I have nothing to learn from someone else, and especially from a person who has a different outlook. Conservatives do have much to learn from liberals and liberals have much to learn from conservatives. A few years ago I was involved in helping to put a book together. It was called “The Gift of Each Other”, and its theme was the idea that Christians from different denominations and traditions need to stop approaching each other on the basis of “What is wrong with them? They are different from us.” Instead we must seek to understand and appreciate each other, and to look for how we can benefit and what we can learn from each other. Let us remember that God can teach us in many ways, and he can use many sources to teach us, and to enrich what we have already learned.

Pride takes many forms. It may be the almost childish desire to be seen as better than others, as we saw in today’s reading. It may be the personal decisions in which we knowingly put our will ahead of what we know to be God’s will. It may be the arrogance which judges others or closes its mind to what may well be God’s truth, or insists that everyone who is not like us is out.

No, it is not pride to hold our convictions: but we need to hold them with humility, still being ready to learn what else God may have to teach us, ready to accept correction and new insights where they may be appropriate, ready to relate to all people in humility and love. We are not called to compete with our neighbour, but to love our neighbour as ourselves. Amen.

Paul Weaver