In an essay titled “Holding Each Other Loosely,” Peter Marty tells the story of his wife Susan’s recovery from a brain aneurysm. He writes:
I use “my Susan,” a phrase of affection, with great reservation these days. I love her dearly and count 31 years of marriage as my stroke of luck. But our journey together through this traumatic brain injury taught me some powerful lessons of non-possessive living. Before she collapsed on the kitchen floor in 2013, I knew that life was a gift to be shared, not a possession to safeguard. But that was mostly knowledge in the abstract. These days I live far more intentionally in the gift-to-be-shared zone.
He concludes the piece by saying:
On many mornings during her 18-month recovery, Susan and I found ourselves waking to the same curious ritual. I turned from my pillow to hers and said almost instinctively, “I can’t believe you are alive,” to which she responded by glancing over from her pillow to mine, whispering, “I can’t believe it either.” Then we arose from bed and went about our day, trying to live as gratefully as possible, treating life as a gift to be shared.
Today’s text from the Gospel of Mark addresses the question of Jesus’ identity—but not in the abstract. When Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” He means, who am I to you, in relation to you? And who are you, in relation to me, as my disciples? What kind of life do you mean to live because you follow me? Jesus’ words about discipleship in this passage are demanding, and can even sound harsh. “Deny yourself.” “Take up your cross.” “Save your life by losing it.” Some Christians, over the centuries, have taken these words to heart by becoming ascetics, isolating themselves from the rest of the world, refusing every creature comfort and pleasure, seeking out suffering as a way to grow closer to God. Meaning no disrespect to those giants of the faith, I wonder…if, by self-denial, Jesus means something a little different? Something more like the grateful and non-possessive way of living that Peter Marty describes?
New Testament Professor Matt Skinner writes this: “Self-denial (a notion John Calvin said constitutes ‘the sum of the Christian life’) is not primarily about squashing our desires or delaying gratification. Jesus calls us to separate ourselves from what defines us…. Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete redefinition.” And Professor David Lose adds this:
We all too often view Jesus’ language of cross-bearing and denial through the lens of Weight Watchers. You know, have a little less of the things you like, don’t over indulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories whenever possible because they’re not finally, I don’t know, Christian. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about at all. I think instead he’s suggesting that the “life” that has been packaged and sold to us isn’t real life and we need to die to those illusions to be born into the abundant life God wants for us.
Self-denial is complete redefinition. It is a rebirth. I’m thinking of Peter Marty’s essay and the way serious illness can change the being and the outlook of person, a family, and even a whole community. I’m remembering those whose stories of recovery from addiction I’ve been privileged to hear. I’m pondering the words of my new next-door neighbor, whose editorial in the Advocate this week describes the joy of finding that he can live authentically as a black gay transgender man who aspires to a life in politics.
These examples offer an analogy for how it is that we are reborn, redefined, through following Christ. Disciples let go of the self that is shaped around the world’s definition of a life well lived; its notions of success, its values, its assumptions about relationships and power. We let go of a false sense of security, control and possession, a distorted image of our bodies, our health and our human worth. We take up a new life formed by our belonging Christ, a life of gratitude, of holding our blessings loosely, non-possessively; a life that is whole because it integrates our pain with our strength a life that is authentic and bold.
This past Wednesday, we hosted Aaron Lauer’s Ecclesiastical Council here at First Church. For those who are stumped by this terminology, ecclesia means “church,” so an ecclesiastical council is quite simply a church-y gathering. An ecclesiastical council is the unique way that the United Church of Christ makes the final determination about whether or not a person can become an ordained minister. The candidate, who has already been vetted through a long process, presents him or herself to the church, and is questioned by those present. Then a vote is taken. I am thrilled to report that Aaron has been approved for ordination! Congratulations, Aaron!
As Aaron’s council unfolded, I realized that these gatherings, at their best, provide an opportunity not only for the church to examine candidates but also for the candidate to lead us all in examining what it means to be church. Here is a portion of what Aaron said on Wednesday, which really struck me as I thought about the way belonging to Christ changes us:
As a millennial who is entering the ministry, I often get asked if I have worries and doubts about the future of the Church in the United States. Declining membership, aging clergy, and an increasingly secular society are usually high on the list of reasons. Though I do have my concerns about the future of the Church, I also have much hope, because I believe that many of the problems the Church faces today are our own doing, and therefore, we have the power to solve them.
I believe that the greatest threat to the Church today is neither atheism, nor legalism, nor fundamentalism. The Church’s biggest threat is individualism, the idea that we are independent of those around us and of God, that we determine our own future, our own ethics, our own experiences of the Divine in complete autonomy, and that we can live as self-defined disciples of Jesus with only the occasional visit to the church that we consider our community of faith.
Our culture is individualistic in a way that people in Jesus’ day wouldn’t have even understood. No one, in that time, thought of him or herself as a person apart from the groups to which she or he belonged. The early Christian community was counter-cultural because it contradicted the notion that a person was completely defined by his or her birth into a certain family, household, gender, ethnicity, religion and social status. The new community that formed around Jesus shocked the world, because people gave up their loyalty to those culturally defined groups in order to take up a common identity in Christ. For us, discipleship is counter-cultural in a different way. Our culture that says that freedom, autonomy and self-sufficiency are the highest human values. The life of discipleship, in contrast, calls us to depend on one another and God, to value community more highly than independence, and to shape a common life around our belonging to Christ.
Aaron, in describing a church that chooses community over individualism, drew from the work of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who writes:
[The Church seeks to be] a place clearly visible in the world, in which people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God. This Church has no interest in withdrawing from the world, but it is not surprised when its witness evokes hostility from the world. This church knows that its most credible form of witness is the actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith.
In today’s text, Jesus confuses his disciples greatly by insisting that his process of becoming the Messiah will include the cross. This rejection and suffering, dying and rising is the way in which Jesus lives into the identity of God’s anointed one, God’s embodiment of a new creation. Jesus knows that neither he, nor his disciples, can bring God’s vision of a just and peaceful world into being using the methods of violent oppression that presently rule the world. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” These words are not an endorsement of suffering for its own sake. They are a call to let go of what has defined us, to turn our backs on success as the world understands it, to belong to Christ, and share in his willingness to endure the birth pangs of a new life and a new world.