Finding our true selves (Mark 8:27-38)
The beauty and power of sacred texts is that sacred texts can speak to us on different levels and have multiple meanings. I’m sure you have experienced this if you read the Bible devotionally. You may read a text today and find that a particular way of seeing (understanding, interpreting, appropriating) that text helps you in a particular way. Three years from now, you may read that text again, and discover something very different in the text that is a source of help to you at that point in your journey.
On one level this is a text that demonstrates how easy it is for us to misunderstand God’s will because we are so influenced by “group think.” This is true of all of us in varying degrees, of course. We can be blinded to what is good and true by popular cultural, political, and religious influences. Just before this passage (a couple of paragraphs back) in the story Jesus warns the disciples, telling them to “Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” But the disciples don’t get what Jesus is saying. Jesus rebukes them saying, “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” Then, in the very next passage Jesus restores sight to a blind man in stages. At first the man just sees images when Jesus touches him. Then, when Jesus touches him again, he is able to see more clearly. That story is really a parable of how we come to see. It’s a process. The passage today is a story of the disciples thinking they see, but not really seeing at all. And it’s an example of how we can use the same words, employ the same language, but mean radically different things.
Peter acts as the mouthpiece for the group. He’s not offering an independent assessment. He is voicing the belief and perspective of the group. When Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks on all their behalf when he says, “You are the Messiah.” But then when Jesus tells them that as the Messiah he will be rejected and suffer and be killed by those in power, Peter, again acting on behalf of the group, rebukes Jesus. That’s not in their plan. Jesus, in turn, rebukes them, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus viewed the rebuke by the disciples as a temptation to step off the path that is clearly God’s will for him to follow. Do you see what’s going on here? Jesus’ understanding of his role as Messiah was very different from what the disciples believed and what they perceived to be the work of the Messiah. Throughout the course of my Christian journey, I have always claimed Jesus as Savior, but what I mean now when I confess Jesus as my Savior is very different than what I meant years ago when I was beginning my ministry. I use the same language, but I mean different things.
Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, like his disciples, thought of their Messiah in narrow, tribalistic, and nationalistic ways. Somewhat similar to the way a number of Christians do today. They believed the Messiah would deliver his people, the Jewish people, from the Gentile powers that held them captive, and he would effect this deliverance in a forceful, even violent manner. Some thought he would do this through conventional means. Others thought he would do it through a supernatural intervention of power. There were early Christians who carried over this same belief into their Christianity. In the book of Revelation, which is a book filled with apocalyptic symbols and images, which some of you are reading with Dr. Bailey on Wednesday mornings, Jesus returns as a general riding a white horse leading forth the armies of heaven. The writer says that “from his mouth goes out a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God.” There is so much carnage that the vultures and birds of prey have a feast. An angel says to the birds, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders – flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.”
How different is the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels from that portrait in Revelation 19? The Supper that Jesus shares with others in the Gospels is the opposite of the Supper in Rev. 19, except in one way – there is no distinction of persons. But in the Gospels all persons are recipients of grace and acceptance, not fury and condemnation. Jesus doesn’t wield a sword against his enemies. Rather, he models and teaches his disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do them no harm. He doesn’t ride into Jerusalem on a white horse to do battle with the Romans. Rather, he rides a young donkey staging a peace march in protest of all the violence and death with which the powers that be ravage the world. Jesus, in the Gospels, clearly does not come to rule the world with a rod of iron and a heavy hand, but to serve the world as God’s servant.
Three times in the Gospel of Mark (this is true in Luke and Matthew as well) Jesus announces that he will be rejected, suffer, and be killed by those in power. And all three times his disciples do not hear him, demonstrating that we hear what we want to hear. After the second announcement the disciples get into an argument about who is going to be the greatest, who will wield the most authority in God’s kingdom. After the third announcement, two of the disciples ask Jesus if they can have seats of power as his top two power brokers seated at his right and left when he takes the throne. Jesus tells them that the nations of the world appoint rulers who lord it over them, and then he says, “But not so among you.” Jesus tells them that they are to be servants of all people, just like himself, the Son of Man, the human one, who was sent by God not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life up for the redemption and liberation of all.” How could they be so blind and deaf? Jesus wonders that too. Time and again he says, “How is that you have no faith? How do you not see or hear?” How could they not get it? Well, how is it that so many of us still don’t get it. I can’t make any kind of judgment or assessment about Christians in other countries, but here in America, it seems to me that the majority of Christians are drawn more to the image of Jesus in Revelation 19 than they are to the Jesus of the Gospels who is the servant of all. It seems to me that most American Christians want very little to do with a Messiah who is a humble, courageous peace-maker. They want a Messiah who will rattle some cages, break some bones, and spew out fury and wrath. They don’t want forgiveness and reconciliation. They want vengeance and retribution. They don’t want a Messiah who welcomes all to the table in mercy and grace. They want a Messiah who excludes forever those who are different than they are. We are just the like the disciples in the Gospels. We still don’t get it.
Here is a question. Don’t answer to me. Answer to yourself. Be honest. Are you drawn more to the image of Jesus as a warrior and vengeful Messiah or the suffering servant Messiah? How you honestly answer that question should tell you much about where you are in your own spiritual and moral development. It’s not difficult to understand why so many want a Revelation 19 Messiah is it? If we follow the Suffering Servant Jesus of the Gospels, then we will have to be the servant of all people too, even those we don’t like. And we may even have to suffer for the cause. This Gospel, Mark’s Gospel was written in a time of great trial and suffering. The consensus of mainline scholarship places the date of this Gospel either just before, during, or after the Roman war against the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem. The Romans would have made no distinction between Jewish followers of Jesus and Jews who were not. And any Roman who confessed Jesus as Lord would have been considered disloyal to Rome, where Caesar is Lord. All of Mark’s original readers faced suffering and death as a real possibility, or perhaps in many cases, a real probability.
We American Christians don’t know diddly about persecution. None of us are persecuted. In fact, in many American communities, like Frankfort, we are the majority of the population. There are churches of every kind on every corner. The sad thing is that there are some Christians who think they are being persecuted. The reason they think they are being persecuted is because more recent court rulings have prevented them from imposing their religious beliefs and practices on the rest of society. Listen sisters and brothers, being prohibited from imposing one’s faith and morals on others is not suffering for Jesus. It is, however, a safeguard for our democracy, but I won’t go there.
After Jesus speaks of his suffering and death, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” He goes on to talk about losing one’s life in order to find one’s life. Originally, as I have pointed out, this was about persecution, suffering, and counting the cost. And as I also said the beauty and power of sacred texts is that they speak to us on different levels, in different contexts, in different ways. Wherever we find ourselves today, if we are to follow Jesus there is a “self” that we all must let go of and a “cross” we all must bear.
The “self” that we must deny or relinquish is the false self, and the “cross” we must take up is the path that will free us from the false self. Some of the great spiritual writers of our time have spoken and written rather extensively about the false self. Let me offer you a layman’s explanation. The false self is the self that we have been told we are by others, and that many of us actually believe we are. The others include parents, peers, teachers, all the people who have had some influence in our lives. This includes cultural images and stereotypes. First and foremost, the false self is the self operating out of the ego. It’s the self that craves recognition and acclamation. It’s the self that craves status and the applause of others. It’s the self that seeks glory and honor, power and position, prominence and place. It’s the self that gets easily offended and wants retribution rather than forgiveness. It’s the self that wants to always be right and be in control. It’s the self that is addicted to negative thinking and is easily swayed by “group think.” It’s the self that is attached to the opinions of others and is “up” or “down” depending on what other people say. It’s the self that compares itself to others and always needs to win. It’s the shallow self, the superficial self, the ego self, the little self. If we are going to follow Jesus, this “little, false self” has to go.
Sue Monk Kid tells about the time she slipped into her young daughter’s room at night to make sure she was covered, because she had a habit of kicking her covers off. She found her blanket at the foot of the bed. As she drew the blanket up around her, she noticed that her daughter was clutching a half-eaten lollipop – one that her grandmother had given her. It was one of those gigantic all day suckers that had turned into a two day affair. Now it had made a sticky purple splotch on her pillowcase and a few strands of hair were stuck to it. She managed to pry it out of her daughter’s hand and then tossed it in the trash. The next morning her daughter confronted her in a blaze of indignation. She screamed, “But it was mine, and I wasn’t ready to throw it away.”
All the stuff of our false selves is our stuff. It’s mine and it’s yours. We have picked up this stuff, we have picked up these thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, values, habits, patterns, attachments, and addictions from many people and places and made them ours. But that’s not who we really are. Buried beneath and behind all the stuff, all these layers of the false self is the true self. The true self is the divine self, the Christ self, the self I am in God. That’s who we really are. The task we have as followers of Jesus is to shed all the layers of the false self that hides and conceals the true self, the Christ self. Richard Rohr likes to say that we grow more through subtraction than addition.
There was once a country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, working away, letting the shavings fall all around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed at his work, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”
Listen carefully sisters and brothers. We don’t acquire the true self. We find the true self by losing the false self. We whittle away, strip away the layers of our false self so that the true self we already are can emerge. We don’t acquire God’s Spirit. We don’t earn God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is not a reward for being good or believing the right things. God’s Spirit is already in us and with us, essential to our very existence. Our task, our part is to relinquish, to uncover, expose, and let go of these layers of the false self, so the Spirit of Christ can love and work through us. So that our true self in Christ can flourish. Following Jesus is a journey of discovery and recovery. It’s a stripping away of all the layers pervaded by the ego, so the love, generosity, humility, honesty, authenticity, courage, grace and goodness of the true self, the Christ self can abound and thrive.
I believe the Christ is saying to us today, “If you want to be my disciple, if you want to be my follower, then you must become aware of, be willing to struggle with, and let go of the false self, so that you can become what you are, so that the Christ self can emerge.” Now the question is: Am I willing to be honest about my ego? Am I willing to open my spiritual eyes and see all the stuff that prevents the Christ self from emerging fully in me and being expressed through me? Am I willing to do the hard work, and enter into the struggle to be free of all that the false self feeds on and craves? Am I willing to stay the course and keep whittling away until the Christ that is in me shines through?
Our good God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Give us the courage and will to honestly acknowledge all the ways our false selves keep our true selves from shining through. May your love by our strength and guiding light. Amen.