"Victory & Vanity: Two Sides of Pride"
A Sermon based on Mark 14:25-38
Today, my sermon is about “pride.” Two weeks ago at our Thank God It’s Tuesday Bible Study at the McNeil’s home, Jim asked me about “pride.” He wondered why it was included in a list of sins. The text we were discussing was Mark 7:20-23.
Jesus said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, & foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile the person.”
Eleven of those behaviors are easily seen as “evil” attitudes or actions. But Jim correctly noticed that “pride” isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, not to have a healthy sense of pride is often what damages a person. (!) Isn’t there a “good side” to pride?
Jim’s question is what gives rise to today’s sermon title: The Victory and the Vanity of Pride. We’ll get into both sides of the story, and we’ll use Simon Peter as a case-study.
So, right up front, let me say that it is important that people have a healthy self- concept, which includes facing the facts of “who we are” and seeing the consequences of our behavior.
A person with a healthy self-esteem will not downplay their abilities with a false humility (which we call: “fishing for compliments”), nor will they feel the need to “puff themselves up” beyond what they know to be true.
A healthy self-concept does not let itself feel overly responsible for the opinions others may hold, nor does a self-secure person waste much time trying to live up to someone else’s expectations. They know who they are, and they feel free to be who they are. That’s the healthy side of pride -- self-awareness and self-love.
But all that is easier said than done. Many of us have very insecure egos (perhaps even an “inferiority complex”) rather than a healthy, whole, self-esteem.
And so, I start this sermon on “pride” with the sincere hope that any of you who may have come to this service feeling insecure about yourself (self-hating, self-rejecting) that you would begin to know yourselves as God knows you: unique and precious -- you are made in the very image & likeness of God, for God’s good purpose -- one for whom Jesus lived and died, so deeply are you loved! God wants you to feel good about your lives. Our church wants you to go out from this service, reassured that God goes with you, and that you can make a difference in the world.
And it is for that purpose (so that you can feel good about yourself!) that we cannot sidestep the discussion of “sin.” That’s because if we harbor attitudes of ill-will, or carry the emotional baggage of memories of wrong-doing (whether known by others or still secret in our own minds), our self-concept will suffer. You have to be able to love yourself before you’ll be able to love anyone else.
In the face of a society that would prefer to forget about sin, Jesus does not let us pass the buck! Sin is real, sin is personal (arising from within the human heart, says Jesus, in all those dozen despicable ways!), and sin is strong as it takes hold of you, from the inside out!
Back in the Middle Ages, the Roman Church came up with a list of “seven deadly sins” – greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, and pride. Pride, they said, was the chief of all sins -- the head, the origin (and if I may be permitted to use a plant image for a very human issue), pride is like “the trunk of the tree” from which all other sins branch forth and from which they draw their strength.
Pride comes first because it can make the other six deadly sins deadlier. Pride makes envy greener and anger meaner. It makes greed greedier & lust lustier. And unlike the others, pride infects our virtues as well as our vices.
Pride alone among the seven “deadly” sins has the power to turn each self-sufficient virtue into its opposite, making even the best in us -- our knowledge, our talent, our beauty; our wealth, goodness, or power (everything that could lead us to “victory”) -- into a means of doing harm.
Pride is a “sneaky” sin, for it uses the strategy of attacking us not on our weak points, but on our strengths. It presumes to place ourselves, instead of God, at the “center of the universe.” The prideful person (the narcissist) thinks he (or she) is at the center of gravity (the world revolves around them!), thereby throwing everything else out of balance.
In Latin the word for “pride” is “superbia.” Superb! Proverbs 16:18 reminds us that “pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (The popular saying has shortened that proverb, namely: “Pride goes before a fall.”)
The Hebrew Bible actually has six different words which are translated into English as “pride” -- and they all carry meanings such as “high & lifted up” -- but one of them (as I mentioned to the children) literally connotes “camel-nosed.”
Have you ever seen a humble looking camel? Of all animals, the camel’s nose is high & lifted up! “Stuck up” would be a fair translation. “Looking down your nose” at someone... We all know what THAT is like!! “High brow” proud... “Nose in the air” kind of proud… the self-satisfied smirk of one who knows “he’s better than you!”
The dictionary also offers a definition of “pride” as “in-ordinate self-esteem; inordinately pleased with oneself.” And I know we have all seen those folks. (!) The chest is swollen. Their walk turns into a strut. We may even say: “She’s as proud as a peacock.”
Of course, when we say that (most of the time) we don’t mean it to be a put down, or suggesting that she was sinning.
After all, there is that good side to pride! Some of you have been as proud as a peacock announcing the birth of your first grandchild. Rightly so! I’m proud of what this church offers by way of loving one another, and our generosity to the community; the quality of our Bible studies, and our active social concerns.
If conceit & vanity were all I meant by “pride,” then I could quit preaching right now, because vanity is its own worst enemy -- trying to make itself so beautiful, so noteworthy, so ostentatious! Thinking they’re smarter than anybody else; Mr. Know-It-All! Of course we can see right through all that! Vanity is empty, and we know it! Boasting is a major turn-off!
But pride has a good side! If it didn’t, none of us would be tempted by it! Pride (as I said) draws upon our strengths. Pride finds its source among our greatest “victories” -- but turns them, twists them, into a temptation to rely on them for our self-identity, to boast in them, to rest secure on our successes (to rest on our “laurels”). Pride moves into the realm of sin when our VICTORIES become our VANITIES.
If the sin of pride is an “inordinate” self-esteem, then by definition there must be a proper amount of self-esteem, of self-respect, self-worth. As I said at the start of this sermon, you and I must know ourselves, and love ourselves, before we will successfully love any other person. (Jesus implies this when he says you must “love your neighbor as yourself.”) There is no sin in self-love, if it is accurate, realistic, “warts & all.” But the Apostle Paul’s warning to the Roman Christians (Romans 12:3) is also to the point: “not to think MORE HIGHLY of yourself than you ought to think.”
The problem with pride is that it blinds us from knowing the truth about ourselves, and pride gets us thinking we are so much more than we really are. In our pride, we commit ourselves to courses of action that we cannot follow through... and others are then hurt when we fail them, and we are hurt when we fall. Remember Proverbs: Pride goes before a fall... Pride can so quickly turn our humble self-esteem -- our honest self-evaluation -- into an inflated opinion of ourselves. Pride draws on our strengths, our victories, and sets us up for an un-real (& thus ineffective) future.
Isn’t that shown in the life of Simon Peter, as he followed Jesus through the years? From his humble beginnings, the big fisherman “Simon” grew to become “Saint Peter” foremost among the disciples of Jesus. Jesus gave him the nick-name “Petros” (the Rock) upon which his future hopes for their movement rested. Peter was “the Rock” upon which Jesus’ church would be founded.
Peter was first among the disciples, and he knew it! First to follow, when asked to lay down his net and become a “fisher of men.” First to speak up on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Moses & Elijah appeared to Jesus. Simon Peter was the first to announce publicly that Jesus was more than a prophet… more than John the Baptizer, more even than Moses or Elijah... Jesus was (to Peter) the “Christ!” The Messiah! The very Son of the Living God! (Can I hear a “Hallelujah!”?)
Simon Peter knew that he had the stuff of which heroes are made. The right stuff! When opportunity knocked, he opened the door. When things needed to be said, he shouted it out! When things needed to be done, Peter jumped into action. He was always in the right place at the right time; he was always at Jesus’ side; he knew he could be counted on through thick and through thin... Such traits had been Peter’s victories, but they were about to become (through pride) his vanity.
With personal experiences like that, you can imagine the hush of disbelief that settled over the disciples as they left the Lord’s Last Supper, and headed up the Mount of Olives on the road to Gethsemane, when Jesus said: “You will all fall away this night... You will all desert me.” Jesus reminded them that “when the shepherd is struck down, the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”
The disciples were dumbfounded! Hadn’t Jesus seen how faithful they had been, through thick & thru thin?! Had he forgotten how the 12 of them had left everything to follow him!? Didn’t he know that they (out of all the cheering crowds and the curious “looky-loo’s”), they would stick by him, that they would stand up for him!?
Simon Peter -- who was always first among the disciples -- was first to find his tongue. “Even though they all fall away because of you, I will not! -- I will never desert you, Lord!” I’m sure Peter meant it. He was drawing upon his strength, after all -- his long history with Jesus. He probably didn’t think that his words were a symptom of “pride!”
But how do you think his words sounded to the other eleven there on the Mount of Olives? “Even though they all fall away... I will never desert you!”
Was he speaking from a true understanding of himself -- a true sense of who he was and how he actually would perform under the pressures which were coming that night? Or was there a blindness in Peter which could lead to his downfall? That blindness we call “pride.”
It sounds to me like Simon Peter was “puffing himself up” in comparison to the other disciples. “Even though they all fall away, I will not!”
And it must have sounded that way to Jesus as well, for he bursts Peter’s inflated ego by saying: “This very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Your denials of me are going to trip off your tongue faster than a rooster can crow! You’re going to get 3 denials out before the cock crows twice!
Well, like anyone whose pride has become overly-inflated, Peter is not going to sit for that. His ego goes on the defensive. He gets loud! Which could serve as a warning to us: Be careful when you poke at somebody’s seat of pride, especially if they are trying to puff themselves up in public -- because they might explode at you! Narcissists (you know) don’t take criticism well.
Peter said vehemently: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” Big words; loud words. And the other disciples chimed in. They were not going to let Peter cast them in a lesser role nor appear any less faithful than “the Rock!” Can you imagine the anxious chatter... like chickens whose hen house has been invaded! A dozen or so grown men trying to assure Jesus, trying to assure one another, trying to assure themselves that they’re not cowards, deniers, betrayers! Say it because they mean it. They shout it. But it wasn’t true at all...
You know the story. First of all, Jesus asks them to “Sit here, while I pray” and then he takes Simon Peter and James & John with him deeper into the Garden and asks them to “remain here, and watch.” Jesus was distressed and troubled, he said; his soul was very sorrowful, he said; Jesus fell on the ground as he prayed. What did Peter and the others do? They fell asleep. They didn’t remain with him and watch! No, they dozed off…
When Jesus came and found them sleeping, he said to Peter: “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray, that you might not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
We left it there in today’s reading, but Mark tells us that Jesus did the same thing twice more. Three times Peter slept instead of kept watch; sleeping instead of praying! Maybe that’s why Jesus calls him “Simon” again, not Peter. Jesus knew that the Rock had a fault-line, a crack in it!
At that point, Jesus was betrayed, Jesus was arrested, and they all fled. His disciples deserted him. They all fell away, scattered like sheep.
And Peter (warming himself by the fire in the courtyard) denied that he was with the Nazarene, Jesus; again in the gateway he denied knowing him; and then in the road, when a bystander recognized him as a Galilean, Peter denied with an oath (a curse), swearing “I do not know this man of whom you speak!” And immediately a rooster crowed twice to welcome the dawn… and Simon Peter realized what he had done. And he broke down and wept bitterly.
All his puffed up talk about being better than the others -- his self-assured pride in his own abilities -- crumbled. And the truth was known: he was no more faithful than the rest! Despite his big, boasting words -- and his “put downs” of the others -- he’s just like them. And in that, I suppose, he’s just like us: blinded by pride, asserting things he could not fulfill.
Peter probably felt more like a pile of rubble than like a rock! So much for his self-esteem! “Upon this rubble I will build my church”!?
Actually, the answer is YES. For Simon Peter, this moment of revelation, this moment of punctured pride, was the start of his true Christianity. Finally (perhaps for the first time) Simon Peter knew who he was, without play-acting, without puffing himself up; he knew who he really was, & how far short of the mark he had fallen.
That night, Peter wept because he thought it was too late -- that his pride had blinded him once too often. But friends, we know the rest of the story. How out of that admitted weakness, out of those tears, a “new” Peter would be born, fully forgiven & self-assured, after Easter. (!) A Peter done with pride; and in its place, true Christian humility -- an accurate sense of self, warts and all, faults and all.
What the Church needed was a Peter no longer full of his own ideas, relying on his own strengths and efforts to secure the church for the future (making it over in his own image) -- but filled instead with the Holy Spirit, relying on God’s power and presence, ready to follow wherever it led.
Peter became a man in service to God only after he knew himself to be a sinner, broken & blinded by his pride; redeemed & forgiven by the work of Christ.
As we examine ourselves, we may discover there is in us a bit more pride than a healthy self-esteem can handle. (!) It may have become an obstacle, implying we have no need of God, and no need of our neighbors...
Even so, if we do, please be assured: the grace of God will not give up on you! The Holy Spirit will continue to seek a way to “break through” even our virtues & victories -- which have become a “wall” of pride -- so that our lives (like Peter’s) can really begin to make a difference.