Friday, 14 September 2012

15th Sunday after Trinity : Self denial first requires self-acceptance

I really had to wrestle with this passage.  I hope you'll understand why when you read the Gospel section below! 


Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


I find it really quite hard to spend money on myself to buy something really decent. For most of my adult life it’s been a sense of buying something that’ll make do. It’s been the norm for us to have old cars and an old caravan to go away on holiday in, and I found it really difficult, back in early May, to actually buy a decent caravan, knowing that we’d be living and studying in it for more than three months.

The same goes for clothes. I’ve never bought expensive suits, or even expensive jeans or shoes, but I have to admit to myself that even though I might wish it was for some sacred reason, it’s not, not really. Buying cheap stuff for myself, if I’m honest, is symptomatic of not wanting to spend too much on me simply because my self-image is not brilliant. I tell you this not because it’s public confession time but because I think that in the Church of England there are plenty of us who are like this and maybe inside you know exactly what I mean.

We don’t think much of ourselves, but then we dress that up in self-denial and pretend that what we’re doing is carrying our own cross and being like Jesus. We make a virtue out of our own self-dislike, and the problem with that is that it blinds us to the many layers that we can learn and apply from what Jesus is saying here in what sometimes feels like a very difficult passage.

So the first thing that you need to take away from this is that God places a huge value on you. You are temples to the Holy Spirit and so She lives within you. Jesus’s second commandment is that you love others as you love yourself. Self-denial in the Jesus movement is not an excuse for having a poor self-opinion. I think you actually have to start from recognising your own value.

After all, what is there to be gained by denying something that you don’t value at all? That’s easy. How is that a worthy gift to God? So before we can even begin to deny ourselves, we have to value ourselves. Now the truth is that the best way to see yourself is not through your own eyes. Most of us see ourselves as insignificant and unimportant, excepting of course the one or two narcissists who might not like what they actually see if they were to look through another’s eyes at themselves!

But if you allow someone who loves you to show you what they see, and trust their image of you, that’s a good place to start. So before trying to deny yourself and pretending that’s holy, learn to value yourself, then you have something worthwhile denying. But of course there’s more since this is not about self-flagellation.

When we move on a little in the text, Jesus says this:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Before we look at the Gospel application of this, consider this. If you do value your life, there is a very real reason not to then try and save it, to hang on to it, and it is summarised in one word; transience. Everything is transient. Someone who is trying to save their own life is a little like the child on the beach who is piling more and more sand on to his sandcastle in an attempt to beat the power of the tide.

Life changes. What you have is yours only for a while, but more importantly, who you are should change to. And we shouldn’t be afraid of that change. One of the things I learned about while I was away was that in some Pagan communities they have rituals for what they call saging and croning. These are ways of recognising the transition into older age and valuing the wisdom you have grown and can impart to others.

Compare that with the ways in which we try hard to hang on to our youth. Consider the lengths that we will go to in our western culture to not change, to not grow old. If we are forever trying to stay the same then the one thing that can be guaranteed is dissatisfaction. We all grow older. With the growing older should come a welcoming of who we are becoming.

Unfortunately western culture doesn’t like that. It can’t sell beauty products, hair dyes, six-pack exercise routines and slimming plans to people who are comfortable in who they are becoming. Consumerism depends on us fighting change, fighting to stay the same, fighting not to get old. And Jesus says, “ For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

If we will accept ourselves and value ourselves for who we are now, and if we can continue to accept ourselves in who we are becoming, then imagine the release and the possibilities in what we can offer to our communities. Imagine how much light people would find in their community if they discovered people who were at ease with themselves and therefore able to accept others for exactly who they were, therefore enabling new people to accept themselves.

And so we come to the good news about what is in many ways a piece of scripture that we have to wrestle with. If we accept ourselves, and we accept each other, if we live in mature love, valuing people for who they are rather than dismissing them for being different from us, then the model of being willing to lay down our lives, of following the will of God, begins to make sense.

I firmly believe that we all have numerous callings in our lives, callings that will change as we move from one aspect of who we are to the next, as we age and mature. In accepting ourselves and accepting others, and in seeing the inherent value there, so we become naturally more willing to lay aside our own desires because that’s what spiritually maturing people do.

It is in the giving up of the desire to ‘Be’, to be someone that everyone looks up to, and instead accepting who we are in order that we find the strength and the willingness to lay that aside for the good of others. And if we don’t care what other people think of us, because we are secure in who we are, then we will affirm who Christ is and not deny him, because it simply won’t matter to us what people think of us for being followers of Christ.

Some of the critics of true Christianity see us as people who perpetually have to deny everything that makes us who we are, seeing us as life-denying. Sadly I think many Christians actually do live like that, and many branches of our religion have leaders who spend much of their teaching time telling people what not to do. How quickly we have forgotten that Jesus was criticised by other Rabbis because of the people he associated with and the parties, the feasting and drinking that he was a part of.

I think that following the way of Christ is life-affirming because in him we become who we are meant to be, and in accepting that, so we can lay down our own desires to be important and noticed because we realise that we are important, simply because we exist. Knowing that gives us the strength to lay our own wants to one side. Then we can really make a difference for others.

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