September 3, 2017
Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
Then Jesus told his disciples, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Back a few years, I attended a wild weekend retreat in Essex called “An Emotional Reeducation Workshop”—recommended by my therapist at the time. The first night we did a role playing exercise to determine our emergency defense, when we are in a highly charged situation, like an argument with a spouse or a parent. We know that there are three basic strategies: fight, flight, or freeze. When the emotional poop hits the paddles, what do we do? When they arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane Mark tells us that a bystander attacks with a sword. (John says this is Peter!) Another follower runs away naked. And we can assume there were others who were frozen in place—unable to fight or flee.
These three reactions are ego defenses designed to protect us when we get anxious, angry, and afraid—overwhelmed.
But we notice that Jesus doesn’t employ any of them: he doesn’t fight, he doesn’t run away, and he doesn’t freeze because he talks to his captors about why they arrest him in a garden at night instead of in the Temple during the day.
I am not saying that Jesus doesn’t have an ego. Of course he does or else he wouldn’t be able to plan and execute his ministry strategy. Without an ego he’d be as useless as a quivering bowl of Jell-O.
Jesus has an ego and he has an emergency defense hardwired into it. But Jesus also has something else: he makes a choice early in his life and ministry that his highest goal in life is not to protect himself, but rather his highest goal is to serve the Father….which is to say, he models for us what it looks like to give up saving his life, in order to find his life for God and neighbor.
In J. B. Phillips’ famous paraphrase Jesus says: “If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps he must give up all right to himself.”
Karl Barth comments on this passage by saying: “The [person] who is called to follow Jesus has simply to renounce and withdraw and annul an existing relationship of obedience and loyalty. This relationship is to himself.” Church Dogmatics
The New American Bible has this note: “To deny oneself is to disown oneself as the center of one’s existence.”
Jesus models a fully human being who is connected in love and obedience to the Source of All, the Ground of Being, who he calls his Father, and therefore Jesus is open in love to every person, no matter what tribe they belong to, even if it is an enemy tribe.
Paul likewise describes today just such a person who is living from a center other than herself:
“Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil…”
Now if this were a self-help talk I’d encourage us to go out into the world to deny and disown ourselves as the center of our own existence, so we can imitate Jesus and listen to the Father, even when our enemy comes to take us down.
And since we are sincere, idealistic people, we’ll say “Yes, sir, Jesus, that’s just what we’re going to do!”
That’s what Peter says he is going to do: “Don’t worry Jesus, I’ve got this! I won’t forsake you. I’ll overcome my emotional hardwiring and be right there with you! Don’t you worry about a thing! That’s my plan!”
But like Mike Tyson famously said: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Peter’s plan vanishes into thin air when a young serving girl asks him if he is a follower of Jesus and Peter’s emergency defense kicks in as he hides and lies.
So much for self-help! Let’s be clear: Everyone wants to save their life. From the moment we take our first breath it’s our job to save our life. Our situation is very tenuous: we are on a rock hurtling through the void at 26,000 miles an hour heading toward our last breath when we slip into nothingness. You bet we are trying to save our lives—every second of every day.
So what is Jesus talking about?
First, Jesus is pointing out the failure of our strategies that are built on the shifting sand of the ego and its defenses. Peter is the poster child for the many ways our self-help strategies let us down: strategies like being a people-pleaser or a narcissist, or a show-off, or a crank, or a coward, or super-busy, or a person of violence.
It is clear that Jesus is being ironic when he calls Peter the Rock!
Jesus wants us to see in Peter the many ways we seek to save our lives that in fact rob us of our true humanity. We talked last week about one chief strategy to save ourselves by making our tribe the center of our existence. It feels safer to build our lives on the “White Race” Tribe or the English Tribe or especially the American Tribe until we realize all tribes fail when they become substitutes for God. Justifying our violence becomes a perpetual motion machine of they hurt us, then we hurt then back and they hurt us back, world without end, round and round into the ground. Amen!
Jesus is not just pointing out the uselessness of the ego’s strategies; he is also showing us his strategy for saving us, so we don’t have to follow the world as it circles the drain.
It is called Crucifixion.
When Peter hears the cock crow and remembers Jesus prediction of his failure, Peter weeps bitterly…because he now sees that the story he always told himself about how faithful and true, how strong and courageous he is, is just that, a story he has made up. For three years Peter is able to inhabit that story—He is The Rock—until he crumbles.
As Peter weeps he no longer knows who he is. He has grounded himself in a false story, so now he is ungrounded and lost which puts him in the perfect place for the Risen Christ to re-ground Peter in his Crucifixion that is grounded in God.
As long as we trust our ego stories and our tribal stories we will continue to miss the depth and beauty of our lives. So it is always a good, though painful, day when our stories fail us and we fall into the hands of the loving God.
What stories do we tell ourselves that help us maintain the illusion that we can save our own life?
The story of how loving and faithful I am? One about how non-violent and generous I am? The story about how superior I am to others. The story of how faithful and successful I am.
How about the story that I am in control of my life!
All these stories are like the security blanket I carried around as a child until it finally fell apart in the drier—when I was 12!
Jesus lives the truest story on the cross where he surrenders to the lose of everything that had grounded him, even his sense that God was present. He is willing to fall into human nothingness in order to know God.
This is the death of all stories we are invited to experience before we die.
I find it helpful, when I am feeling my ego defenses kick in, which is often during the average day, to look on the crucified man and how he lets go as an invitation to let go of myself. To take a deep breath and fall beneath my defensive stories.
This is to know the peace of God that passes all understanding.
So in the Divine Love Jesus calls to us today:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”