Sermon: Hallowed by Thy (Denied) Self
03.01.2015 Preaching Text: “For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake…will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
Jesus tells his disciples, an assembled crowd, and us that those who “lose their lives” for the sake of the gospel will save it.
I may be exaggerating a bit, though perhaps not, in saying that this just may be the most countercultural statement in all of scripture. For we otherwise are told, both implicitly and explicitly, that the task of life is to become “authentic,” meaning that we should pursue and find our real selves.
Throughout much of the history of the West, this rallying cry to become our true, authentic self would have struck people as madness. After all, they believed that the world beyond the self was real, that reality was real, and that the focus of life was to respect and conform to this reality.
So, too, in both Jewish and Christian belief, the world around us is understood to be real, and not merely a mental or emotional construct born of personal choice and/or desire. Why? Because the God who brought the world into being is real, with a life independent of the believer.
This means that the task of life, rather than seeking to fit reality into my worldview, is to fit myself into the realities around and beyond me.
That we must conform to the realities outside of ourselves should be obvious. The law of gravity, for instance, doesn’t care how fervently I believe I can walk off a cliff at the Grand Canyon to get to the other side. I will fall regardless of my imagination or desire.
Similarly, that God is real, and objectively so, is a truth I can either accept or deny. No matter, the reality of God remains. My life, in the end, will take certain turns depending on the ways in which I either accept or ignore reality.
Some years ago, I shared with you a sermon I once read entitled, The Platinum Rule, as opposed to, that is, the “Golden Rule.”
As you know, the Golden Rule states that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But the Platinum Rule takes us to the next level. Do unto others, it reads, as they would have us do unto them!
Note the difference? In the one case, I do for others according to my own wishes. In the other, I seek to discern what the other person wants or needs, and model my actions accordingly. In the latter case, my actions are entirely selfless and outwardly focused, precisely what Jesus is advocating in Mark.
Today, in many respects, we are advised to abide by neither the Golden Rule much less the Platinum one. Instead, we are encouraged to “follow our bliss,” to be “true to ourselves,” to find, as I said earlier, our “authentic self.”
To be perfectly honest, I don’t want to find my authentic self and, frankly, I doubt any of you would want that either!
Our biblical faith, after all, teaches us that we are sinners, each and every one of us, no exceptions – not even the genial host of America’s Test Kitchen! No, biblical faith accepts and addresses the hard truth that we act as gods unto ourselves, meaning that we are, by nature, self-centered and self-absorbed. As Augustine once put it, sin might be defined as the self “curved in” on itself.
Thus enlightenment, or better yet, inner peace, comes not from delving deeper and deeper into the self, which is altogether broken to begin with, but by being drawn higher and higher out of the confines of the self and toward the breadth and depth of our Creator God and His objective good. Navel-gazing will not bring about a higher consciousness, but only narcissistic self-absorption, confusion, as well as, by definition, alienation from nature, God, other people, and yes, even our very own selves!
Christianity has a word for the act of reaching beyond the limitations and ruin of the lone, authentic self: agape love. Herein lies the whole truth of life and all life’s aspirations. We are commanded by the law of Christ to love God and others selflessly, without regard for the stunted and distorted desires of our “authentic” selves.
We are commanded, in other words, to lose our lives in order to save them, to deny ourselves in order to find ourselves. Only in this will we discover the person God created us to be.
And we know the truth of this from real life. We all know those times when we take ourselves out of the mix when faced with a great need of another, perhaps a family member or friend.
In the face of such a crisis, we forget all about ourselves and our needs and desires. The only thing that matters in such instances is that we serve the other, the one in need.
When someone we love is sick or in great trouble, we will sacrifice food, sleep, comfort, health, everything, in order to be there for them, to ease their trouble if even a little bit.
There is a clever ad on television which shows a very serious looking man who walks into a room and says (and a paraphrase), “Dave, I’m just not feeling well today. I’m just not going to be able to work today.”
The punchline occurs when the camera pans over to the one to whom he addresses these words – his small child standing in his crib looking bewildered.
Everyone gets the joke. As parents, we will do whatever we have to do to care for our child, no matter how up-to-the-task we may feel.
The irony, of course, is that we wouldn’t have it any other way. For not only do we put our own desires on hold, in some cases ignoring them to the detriment of our own personal well-being, but in the final analysis we end up immensely blessed by the experience.
Here, then, is the paradox. Jesus commands us to lose ourselves in order to save ourselves. At first blush this sounds ridiculous, counterintuitive, and just plain wrong. But in reality, it fits perfectly with what we already know to be true.
Putting oneself at the service of others is a powerful blessing, not just to the recipient but to the giver. Personal reward, of course, is not why we do what we do as we selflessly serve in love, but the effect is undeniable.
To live one’s life without ever knowing the deep satisfaction of helping others selflessly, of living in a way that requires self-denial and self-discipline, is to live a life that is both emotionally stunted and spiritually impoverished. For it is only in the act of selfless giving that we discover life’s greatest joy…and our true selves! Amen.