“What Everybody Needs to Know About Us”
Summer Series: Virtues that Will Keep Us Stable
July 26, 2020, GENTLENESS
Some years ago, you may remember bumper stickers were the thing. You don’t see them so much anymore, which I have found to be somewhat gratifying, especially when it comes to Christian-themed bumper stickers. I remember seeing some doozies in my time. “Jesus is coming; look busy.” “Warning: In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Unmanned.” And my personal favorite. “Honk If You Love Jesus,” along with its more unsettling addendum: “Text if you want to see him.”
What each of these bumper stickers has in common is that beneath them all is a not-so-subtle resentment over how our culture has veered from its spiritual foundations.
Now, I’ll have to say that it bothers me just as much as the next person how far people in our day have in fact seemed to move from a place of appreciation for things spiritual. The postmodern drift away from a respect for spiritual authority to what might we might even call a disdain for spiritual authority is something that weighs most heavily on my soul.
But I don’t think the way to reverse that trajectory is through snarky stickers and other in-your-face pronouncements. If we’re ever going to be successful in helping others in our day revisit and see once again the benefits of living with at least an openness to God, it will be because they see in us something that soothes the savage beast within them, instead of something that only feeds it. And so, this morning, I would hold up the virtue of gentleness as a step in that direction.
Of course, I’m not the first preacher to have come up with that idea. The Bible is filled with preachers who thought of it first, such as the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi.
Philippians is one of Paul’s prison letters. While under Roman arrest, word had reached Paul that the Philippians were in danger of losing the joy of God’s salvation. A good part of that danger stemmed from the harshness that believers in Philippi were showing toward one another. So, as Paul comes to the conclusion of his letter, after he has spent a good bit of time instructing the believers on what it means to live “with the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5), he ends with a series of imperatives, one of which goes as follows: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” But not just to others in the church, notice. “Let your gentleness be known to all.”
From Paul’s perspective, there is something about gentleness that counters harshness and vitriol and spitefulness and ugliness whenever and wherever those attitudes show up, even when they show up among those who claim to be followers of Jesus.
Unfortunately, most people equate gentleness with weakness and sappiness; do they not? Ask most people where they would rank gentleness on the list of attributes they’d want to possess, and my guess is that it would be somewhere on the bottom of the list. They think that gentle people tend to get run over and taken advantage of. They see them as easily manipulated and a foil for the powerful.
So, why would we want to let that be the first thing others see? Because gentleness is in fact the mark of a mature Christian, as it represents better than any other quality the manner in which the attributes of God’s nature are being worked out in us as we act in ways toward others that promote fairness and equity and justice for all.
Gentleness may be a less than popular trait in our 21st century world, but in ancient times it was considered essential to creating a smooth and orderly society. Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, who wrote extensively about gentleness in his Nicomachean Ethics, considered it “a work of the gods.” Others in Aristotle’s day looked upon it as an outgrowth of brotherly love, as the virtuous person makes the choice not to be harsh or rash or angry or rough. Did you hear that? A virtuous person chooses to conduct himself or herself in that way. Consequently, it is the gentle person who creates fewer enemies and more friends. He still speaks truth, but he does so in a way that it conveys tenderness and compassion so that the truth spoken to others is always well-received.
Paul in his letter to the Philippians draws upon this deep reservoir of meaning, which would have also been very much apparent to his readers. They would have known that Paul was not calling them to be spiritual patsies to one another, and certainly not to their outside world, but that he was only directing them to relate to others in ways that would, in the words of Hippocrates, which medical doctors learn even today is their first order of protocol, “do no harm.” And when you think about it, only the strongest and the most mature of persons is capable of doing that.
Think about it this way. Those of you who are parents, when your children were younger, did they ever try to squeeze your hand as hard as they could and try to make it hurt? Of course, they did. Chances are that they used both of their little hands. And even though they squeezed yours with every fiber of their being, it never hurt. Not for a moment. And did you ever, just for fun, squeeze back? Not a big squeeze, just a tiny one that made your little one wince just a bit? It’s the strong hand, not the weak one, that must learn how to be gentle.
Now, you can understand what Paul was getting at. If in the midst of a world that is far too mean-spirited and harsh acting we want to make an impact for Christ, we really do need to act toward others in a way that shows them Jesus. Out of the strength his grace provides, we need to treat others in such a way that it makes room for them to feel a touch that won’t cause them any pain but will only take their pain away. If we were to offer our world that kind of witness, how many more might we reach for the cause of Christ?
I’m reminded of the story of a mystic who had a deeply moving experience as he was walking through an orchard on a particularly windy day. Coming to a fence that divided the grove from an adjoining forest, he imagined hearing the different types of trees talking to one another. Boastfully, a maple tree said to one of the nearby fruit trees, “Why don’t your leaves rustle in the wind like ours do, so that you can be heard from a great distance?” To which the fruit tree answered, “We don’t need such useless fluttering to draw attention to or presence. Our fruit speaks for us!”
That story reminds us of what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount. “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:20) – not by their fluttering.
There’s no need for us to employ any snarky stickers to convey to others our faith. We just need to let our gentleness be known to everyone. For when we do, we will then be to those persons the presence of Jesus. They will see that Jesus is in us and they will see that he is near. And when they do, they will most certainly rejoice, because his gentle presence will meet all their needs, all their needs according to God’s glorious riches in Christ Jesus.