In this season of Easter we are paying attention each week to the letter of 1 John in order to discover some of what it means for us, the church, to be Easter people. Easter people are those who have received the gift of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are Easter people when we share that gift with others in order to have a common bond with them, in order to be the church together with them. And Easter people are of all ages, because the gospel is for everyone. These are some of the marks, some of the signs, of Easter people.
In today’s reading, from chapters 2 and 3 of 1 John, we hear about yet another characteristic of Easter people. But this one is a little harder to catch, because while John spends a good bit of these chapters describing it, he never actually uses the real name. You won’t hear it in the translation we read this morning or in any other translation because the word is not on the pages of 1 John. But it’s essential, and it’s at the heart of nearly every word and sentence that you did hear just a few minutes ago.
It’s like being at a big family picnic. Somebody drops something on the ground, and some uncle or cousin starts to say, “Hey, you remember that time when…,” and everybody in the room says, “Uh huh.” A few people start to giggle a little, and somebody else says, “Oh, yeah, that was something, and then…,” and she doesn’t get to finish her sentence because now everyone’s laughing a little. Finally maybe you say, “I still can’t believe…” and the whole room is rolling on the floor. No one even needs to say exactly what happened, because everyone there knows exactly what you’re talking about.
And sometimes Scripture is like that, where from the way the text runs you can that tell everyone, the original author and his audience, knew exactly what they were talking about, so no one needed to say it out loud. Only sometimes, you and I are like the new boyfriend or girlfriend at our first family picnic, and we don’t have a clue what’s going on. We might start laughing just to fit in, or we might try to put together in our heads what everyone else is laughing at, but we really need someone to help us put everything together.
Here are a few of the pieces: “little children, abide in him”; “everyone who does right has been born of him”; “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are”; “Beloved, we are God’s children now”; “We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother”; “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”; “Little children, let us love.” Now, hearing these pieces and maybe remembering some of the other parts of this passage, we might start to think that this passage is about being children of God, loving by deeds and not just words, or receiving grace from God. And those are all fine and probably right. But I still think there is something John leaves unsaid, a word that fits these pieces together just a little differently. The word is “humility.”
Think about it. John writes to people of all ages, but he addresses them all as “little children,” and he calls himself a child too, for all are, by adoption, children of God. Children in the first century, when John writes, were not just objects of doting and sentimentality the way they are today. They were inferior, with no real social standing of their own.
John tells the church not to be like Cain, and in Genesis 4, Cain murders his brother out of pride and jealousy, the twin mortal enemies of humility.
And when John instructs us to lay down our lives for each other, he does not mean that we should jump in front of oncoming traffic without a really good reason. He means that we should never think so much of ourselves that we wouldn’t be willing to put our brother or sister in Christ or our neighbor ahead of ourselves.
Friends, that’s humility.
In our day, humility has fallen on tough times. We have a culture of sports, of self-promotion, of preening that puts a lot of pressure on us to say that we’re the best at something, even when it’s not true. On the other hand, all too often when people who find themselves hurt by or left out of society cry out for justice, they are told they should be more humble and should accept their lot in life. And frequently, humility means something like, “achieving a whole lot but then insisting that you are really just an ordinary guy.”
Not that the church is much better in this department. How often do we tell people we go to the best church? How often do we strive to be the biggest, the best, the most important, the most effective in our ministries?
But humility has nothing to do with any of these things. Being humble is not about how much you’ve accomplished. It’s not about accepting injustice. And it doesn’t even belong in the same room as what David Brooks has called the culture of the Big Me.
Humility is living your life as a response to a gift. So humility is a virtue for everyone, because all of us depend on the gifts we have received; you don’t have to be a Christian to live in humility. But for those of us who are Easter people, humility is more than a virtue. It is fundamental to who we are and what we are about. Everything we have—everything—is a gift, a precious gift that we could not possibly create for ourselves. Because the only thing we have, the only thing we can rightfully claim as ours, is Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Savior. And everything we are—everything—is a gift. Because we are children of God, not by biological birth or because of any inherited right, but because in baptism you have put on Christ, in him you have been baptized. God calls you his own children. Think of how God loved you!
Everything we have is a gift. All that we are is a gift. And everything we are called to do is in response to that gift: loving our neighbor, loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, offering worship and praise to God. And this means that, as Easter people, our lives are top to bottom, left to right, lives of humility. In fact, humility is so important to our Easter faith that love itself depends on humility. Any love that lacks humility is just another way of us bending the world to our pride and jealousy, or of us being defined by an inferior gift.
So seek humility! Come to the Communion table this morning. Christ summons you to his feast. Meet him in the humble elements of bread and wine. Live according to the life you receive from him here. Seek humility, and you will find holiness—of the Father, who calls you his children, of the Son, who humbled himself for us and for our salvation, and of the Holy Spirit, who fills you with the love of God. Amen.