Love Not Fade Away
In Matthew chapter 16 we read, "24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?"
In some Bibles it is sur-titled The Cross and Self Denial. I would take issue with that. I would title it The Cross and Our True Self. Or, The Cross and Denial of our False Self.
In Hinduism and Buddhism there is a clear understanding of a divided self - an outer self and an inner self if you will. Some have called it our False Self and our True Self. It has to do with how we see and present our selves. This of course determines how others see us as well.
In Jnana Yoga there is an exercise in which when you are walking down a path you try to watch your self walking down the path. It is in exercise in discovering that among all God's creatures, we alone are capable of stepping outside ourselves to look at our selves. All religious and wisdom traditions have acknowledged this one way or another. All religious and wisdom traditions have established some form of spiritual exercise like Mindfulness Meditation or Centering Prayer to enable us to access this capability to step outside ourselves and see our selves – our outer self and our inner self.
Freud, Jung, Reich and their disciples have forged new modes of accessing our inner and true selves. In the modern era they have helped us to see how we hide our inner or true self not only from others but even from our selves. When we do this we become a divided self which eventually takes a toll on us spiritually, mentally, emotionally and of course socially.
We become a problem to ourselves. Professor James Carpenter at The General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America often used to begin our Systematic Theology classes by declaring, "Man (sic) is irreducibly a social creature since we are created imago Dei, in the image of God." For Christians this lies at the very heart of our understanding of God as Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver.
Other monotheists find this baffling, as do many Christians. Simply put, however, it suggests that even God is a social creature - God desires and chooses to live in community - within God's self and with God's creation and creatures. To be created imago Dei is to irreducibly live in community with God and with others - all others.
I believe Jesus is getting at just this. After Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, God's anointed one, Peter immediately demonstrates that he still does not "get it." Note that Jesus had anticipated just this when he instructs Peter and the others not to reveal this to anyone. Jesus is clear that he is and must be a Pain Bearer. Peter rebukes and "corrects" Jesus. No way! This cannot be! Jesus' reply strikes us moderns as harsh. "Get behind me, Satan!"
Yet, this could simply be a way of saying, "I need you to follow me, not lead me. You must line up behind me here and now. You must let your false and divided self die, accept and claim your true self, and gain life – eternal life with God."
Find your true imago Dei, your inner self which you will discover is aligned with who I am and what I am telling you. Be a divided self no longer and be free.
It starts at the very beginning, which is seen perhaps most clearly in how Mark begins the story. There are no angels, not wise men, no Mary and Joseph, no stable, no manger. John the baptizer is in the wilderness, which of course is where Moses is commissioned by the Bush, the great I AM, to take the people into the wilderness so that they might be schooled for 40 years in just what it means to be imago Dei. As John is inviting people to repent, that is to turn away from their false self, turn away from their divided self and recommit themselves to the lessons forged long ago in the wilderness.
Jesus arrives in the wilderness as an adult and chooses to participate. Jesus goes under the water of the River Jordan. That is when it is revealed. That is when it happens. That is where we are meant to see and hear what it means to be imago Dei. As he comes up out of the water the Holy Spirit, that part of God's own community, descends upon Jesus "like a dove." It is not a dove, it is "like a dove." The Bible, more than any other literature, speaks in metaphor since it is impossible to describe or explain these things any other way. Then a voice from heaven declares, "You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Literary note: this is the first time that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are on the stage all at one time. That is, at Jesus' baptism by John God's full and undivided self is revealed.
This moment in time on the banks of a lazy river that connects the Sea of Galilee with the Dead Sea is so powerful and transformative that the very first thing Jesus does is to allow himself to be lead deeper into the wilderness for 40 days to ponder just what this means and what he is going to do about it. When he returns he announces the beginning of God's kingdom and invites everyone to repent, to turn away from their divided and false selves to enter into the fullness of God - Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver.
In the Christian rite of baptism we are once and for all incorporated into the Body of Christ, and this bond we believe is indisoluable. After pondering this for some time I finally got it. When we come up out of the waters of our baptism – water that we say is the water over which God’s Spirit hovered in creation, the water through which the Spirit led the people of Israel out of bondage in the empire into the land of promise, and the water of Jesus’ baptism - a voice says to us, "You are my beloved; I am well pleased with you." It is the "I am" of the burning bush speaking to us.
And I have come to believe that at our baptism angels, cherubim and seraphim fly around us whispering and singing into our ears, "You are God's beloved; God is well please with you!" It is the first thing we hear as we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. Then we “grow up,” things happen, life gets complicated and we forget that we ever heard that voice – the voice that tells us who we are and whose we are – the voice that announces the fact of our undivided self: We are God’s Beloved; God is well pleased with us. Even when we are reminded of this we cannot believe it is really true. Yet, Jesus not only wants us to get behind him. He wants us to accept the gift of our belovedness. It is not easy to accept such a generous gift, but when we do our inner self, our hidden self, our undivided self that is incorporated into the fullness of God’s own undivided self begins to emerge. We begin to know what it means to be imago Dei. Made in the image of God. Our belovedness is eternal, grounded in God’s eternal love for all creation – a love that never fades away. Amen.