Let Go of Your Small Life

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 2—Year B; Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22: 22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

There is a rather significant piece of the story missing today in that part we just heard from the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel. We’ve got to rewind and pick it up.

This story actually begins with 4 verses earlier where we hear this: 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 [Jesus] sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Okay. Got that? Peter—“You are the Messiah. You are the Man. You’re the One We’ve Been Waiting For.”Messiah”—that’s one loaded identity. For a people who had grown accustomed to foreign powers lording it over them and holding them down under their thumb, there was a whole lot of hope pinned to this “Messiah” who was going to restore them to the top place, to “winner” status, to the glory days when David was king and the kingdom was strong. Jesus was their ticket up and out.

So, what Jesus says next comes as a bit of a shock.

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples 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.”

Wow! First, Jesus doesn’t claim the “Messiah” title for himself. He only talks about “the Son of Man,” and actually, the translation is “son of anthropos,” “son of human being,” “son of humanity.” Allusions to the Son of Man image from the book of Daniel aside—Peter elevates Jesus, but Jesus, Jesus claims absolute, total solidarity with all of humanity.

And that “the One” must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed—for Peter, this was anathema! Peter has the good sense to put on, what we might consider, his best southern manners; he knows not to call Jesus out in front of his disciples, so he takes Jesus aside, and privately begins to rebuke him. But Jesus would have none of it. He turns and looks at his disciples and rebukes Peter—even calls him Satan, the adversary!—and tells [Peter] to get behind him. And with a piercing clarity, Jesus declares to Peter, You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. You think this is all about a climb to the top, you think this is all about regaining position and status. That’s the False Self, Peter. That is the way human beings move in the world, but that is not the way of God. Solidarity, Peter. Solidarity with God; solidarity with all of humanity. Position, power, prestige, privilege, status—this is the currency of the elders and chief priests and scribes; this is always the currency of those on top, and anyone who stands apart from these will suffer and be rejected and will be killed.” Remember, Jesus had wrestled with the temptations of the False Self in the wilderness. Jesus had made peace with the path that was his to walk. Clearly, Peter still had a ways to go. And probably, so do we.

And Jesus wants us to be crystal clear about the path that he is laying out before us. Unlike credit card companies and mortgage lenders, he is giving us the fine print up front and writ large. Hear the text again: [Jesus] 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.”

There is a lot here. First, the paradox to end all paradoxeswhen you try to save your life, you lose it, and when you lose it for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel, you save it. Okay, I’m going to pull out my trusty Richard Rohr picture again. It seems we’ve got to keep going deeper down into this teaching. What if we think of this small self as our life? And when we think that this little life is what will save us, when we think that our roles and identities and accomplishments and failures, when we think that our positions and status and power and prestige and privilege are the things that make us whole, then we lose our capacity to discover and taste the wholeness that truly is whole, that wholeness that truly is worthy of the name “salvation,” that truly is the LIFE that is alive, instead of an imitation of life, which is what many of us settle for.

BUT, when we can lose this small life, when we can shed all these layers and masks, all this armor that we use to shore up this small life, when we can lose that and give ourselves over to simply abiding with Jesus and the good news of this unshakeable union with God that Jesus manifests so beautifully and that he promises is ours if we will just open our eyes to see it, when we can lose this (the False Self picture) and give ourselves over to this (the True Self picture), then we discover this wholeness that truly is LIFE. Remember, “save” is connected to “salvation” which is connected to “healing” and “wholeness.”

And we know it’s true—you can gain a whole lot by the world’s standards, and completely forfeit your life in the process. This is the ol’ it-looks-really-good-on-the-outside-but-it-is-painfully-empty-on-the-inside scenario.

And this LIFE that is rooted and grounded in union with God and Divine Love, you can’t give anything in return for it (the True Self picture). This world over here (the False Self picture) is always trying to sort out position, power, prestige, status, privilege—it’s always transactional; it’s always trading in this for that; it’s always measuring; it’s always keeping score. But this LIFE (the True Self picture), you just can’t give anything in return for it because IT’S ALL GIFT—all you can do is collapse back into it; all you can do is be awake to it; all you can do is be present to it, drink of it, share it.

This last piece is challenging. After a week of training in Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, I am not sure at all what to make of Jesus saying that those who are ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory. It does seem that adulterous and sinful accurately describe the world of the False Self—this little life does experience itself as cutoff, separate, and that self acts in all kinds of ways that miss the mark as it tries to assert its place.

And adulterous, well, the False Self does have a certain amount of allure to it, a certain amount of adrenalin; this world can be a real rush as you’re climbing the ladder and falling down and conquering it again. This True Self world is characterized by peace, equanimity, contentment; it is solid, but to this addicted small self over here, it might feel boring. It is tempting to forsake this union (the True Self picture), for the rush of this little life over here (the False Self picture). And when you’ve invested a whole lot of time and energy succeeding and climbing in this world (the False Self picture), then it’s pretty easy to look down on, to be ashamed of, this world (the True Self picture) where striving a) gets you absolutely nowhere and b) doesn’t even exist.

That much I can sort of make sense of, but I can’t get my head around the son of humanity, the One who LIVES in complete awareness of his union with God, I can’t my head around that One being ashamed of anyone when he comes in glory. The only way I can possibly get my head around this is to think of what shame is. According to Brené Brown, Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Maybe Jesus is saying that this False Self world is flawed because you can’t ever belong here, not truly, because it’s simply too unstable and insecure—it’s the house built on sand. For Jesus, true belonging happens here and only here, in union with God and with all that is (the True Self picture). But even this way of understanding this presses this out to the outer limit. I still don’t like Jesus using shame as a strategy for changing hearts. The research shows—shame doesn’t transform people; faith knows that only love, unconditional love, can do that.

So, let’s pan out just a bit. This exchange with Peter and the disciples and the crowd; it happens up at Caesarea Philippi—that’s about as far north as you can get in Israel, and this represents the farthest north Jesus travels in his ministry. Once he turns south from here, he is bound for Jerusalem. The cross of which he speaks here, in Caesarea Philippi, will become his lived reality there, in Jerusalem. I think it is quite possible that some more refinement (as in refiner’s fire) is yet to come for Jesus as he passes through the trials of being betrayed and denied, abandoned and forsaken. Something more is yet to be deepened in Jesus’ being—death and resurrection will do that—because when he emerges on the other side of all this—he doesn’t speak of shame, but only of FORGIVING LOVE (see the exchange with Peter in John 21). I would like to think that if Jesus were speaking these words from Mark 8 to Peter and the disciples and the crowds by the Sea of Galilee about 50 days from now, having lived through his cross, having given himself over to death, having yielded to resurrection LIFE, I would like to think that shame would not be his go-to strategy, but instead, only the language and way of RECONCILING LOVE and FORGIVENESS.

So, on this Second Sunday in Lent, what pieces of your small life are you trying desperately to save, and how are you losing your big LIFE in the process? And if you were to lose, if you were to shed, if you were to lay aside, if you were to loosen your grip on this little life, what wholeness might you discover in this larger LIFE that catches you when you finally turn loose and let go of this small life? What might you discover as you free fall into the hands of the Living God?

Saving is losing, losing is saving. It’s the paradox to end all paradoxes, but within it lies the path to the only LIFE worth living. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

March 1, 2015