He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30
This morning I would like us to consider one sentence from our Gospel reading today. It is that phrase spoken by St John the Baptist, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.
With many of the great saints there is often one phrase which describes their heroic virtue and which makes them a model for all Christians. And it seems to me that in the case of St John the Baptist we understand him best when we recall these words, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.
It is so with the Blessed Virgin Mary as well. In her case we recall the words, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be unto me according to your word’, and those other words which she spoke at the Wedding in Cana, ‘Whatever he says to you, do it’. She was the complete expression of these words, and becomes for us a model of how we should strive to live the Christian life.
But what of the words of St John the Baptist, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’. Who is the person that he is talking about? We know that the disciples of John had seen him baptise someone in the Jordan who had been pointed out as being special in some way. But clearly they had not fully understood what John had meant when he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’. Was he a prophet, was he even the Messiah? He was much more than that, if that meant that he was only a man, following after the ministry of John the Baptist. John describes him in much more exalted terms.
He ‘comes from above and is above all’. He is ‘sent from God’. He speaks the word of God. He is the Son, into whose hands God has given all things. And to trust in him is to have everlasting life already.
None of this could be said of a mere man. It was becoming clear to John the Baptist just who Jesus of Nazareth was. And so he is able to say from the depths of his heart, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.
In a practical sense, he understood that the coming of the promised one, the one who he had been preparing for, meant that his ministry must decline as that of the one who had come from above must become more important. Like the herald in a royal court, he had done his job. The trumpet had sounded clearly and the attention of all was turned to the entrance of the king. But if the trumpet continued to play then it would not be doing its job at all. It would begin to distract attention from the king.
Here we see the humility of St John the Baptist. He had given his whole life over to this ministry. He had taken the life of a Nazirite, and coming out of the desert places he had preached a baptism of repentance, and was one ‘preparing the way of the Lord’. But when his Lord appeared he stepped back into the shadows again. He did not promote himself. He understood clearly that his ministry had been for the sake of God’s purposes and not for his own glory and honour.
And what of us? What lessons can we learn from St John the Baptist? It seems to me that much of our Christian experience is taken up with this struggle between the He who must increase and the I who must decrease. The Christian life is not one in which we are called to lose any sense of our personhood. The person God has created us to be is of infinite worth, since God Himself became man to free us from the curse of death and unite us with him for ever. As we become more completely Christian we do not cease to be ourselves. We do not believe in a Buddhist worldview where heaven is essentially the dissolution of our personal being. On the contrary, we believe that throughout eternity Peter, and Michael, and Julie, and David, and each one of us, are persons who will exist in God’s loving presence, and have a relationship of love with each other.
Nor do we believe that in the manner of many cults, our personhood should be broken down, so that we become almost like robots, doing simply what we are told. The Christian life, when we live it most completely, is one in which we choose positively at each moment to embrace the will of God. It is a life in which our personhood is set free from the bondage of sin, by unity with God.
So what does St John mean when he speaks of the I who must decrease. It seems to me that we are aware within ourselves that there is an I who always insists on getting his or her own way. An I which is proud and selfish. The I which is our ego in the worst sense. When we say someone is egotistical we are not making a psychological statement, rather we are saying that they are ‘full of themselves’, taken up with their own life at the expense of everyone else. It is this I which must decrease. It is the false person that we become when we try to live apart from God.
I rather think of it as the character Gollum in the Lord of the Rings story. A character who has become corrupted and consumed by turning so entirely in on himself. This is not what true personhood in God is like. Some of the most truly human persons I have met have been monastics who have spent their lives seeking to be entirely alive in God and for God. They have not ceased to be true persons. But having discovered their true personhood in God they become unique as creations of God.
We often see groups of young people walking down the street, or in the shopping centres, and they dress exactly the same. They are seeking their identity but they do not find it in life without God. Indeed they lose their identity and are afraid to be different. Yet the one who knows God and is transformed by God is unique, and truly a person.
How might we cause the I inside us to be diminished so that the true person we are might become known? St John tells us, ‘He must increase’. And this is, in one sense, entirely the answer. To become the person God wishes us to be, to be freed from the I inside so that we might become a person truly in relationship with God, we must seek in all things that the one who is from above rules over every aspect of our lives.
If he is above all, then he must be above all in every moment of our lives, and every aspect of our lives. It is not enough to engage in religious activity. There are a great many people from all Christian traditions who have been born into a Christian family, and have picked up certain patterns of behaviour, even attending Church regularly as a matter of habit. But, to a great extent, this only serves to feed the I inside. If we are only Christians in the same way that many people are football supporters, then we are not becoming the person God created us to be.
No, it seems to me that we must make a choice for God, if we are to be freed to become the true person we could be. We cannot accidentally become that person. St John the Baptist made the choice, expressing it in the words, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.
It was not that his hopes and dreams were to be denied for the sake of God, rather his hopes and dreams WERE entirely that God’s will be done. If he had been filled with regret then he would not be the saint we venerate, but the I inside him would have dominated, whispering to him, ‘You could have been someone if it wasn’t for Jesus’.
Is Jesus Christ the Lord of every moment of our lives? Is he above all in everything we do? It seems to me that if we are to become truly persons created by God and in a life-giving relationship with him then we seek to make him our Lord and King. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added unto you.We are each of us individuals. But we are called to become persons bearing the image and likeness of God.
This is true life. This is life lived with God. Where the life of a mere individual is one which leads to a gradual disintegration, the life of a true person is one of increasing wholeness and integration, even in the middle of the most difficult circumstances.
May we choose this life. It is our salvation. To be truly alive is to be in a relationship of persons with God and with each other. It is a life in which the I inside us is diminished, and God becomes all in all. May it be so for each of us as we choose life with God at every moment and in every circumstance. To the glory of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.