Follow Me! Reflections on Mark 8:34

Exploring and reading around this Sunday’s Gospel from Mark 8 I came across this comment from Matthew Skinner, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St Paul:

As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to another. 

Jesus moves from touring the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile country. Here he has been confronting the generalized suffering of humanity through mighty acts of power and healing. This is the mid point of Mark’s story. From here Jesus turns his face towards the road to Jerusalem. He offers the disciples a prequel of what lies ahead. In a nutshell, the way ahead is one of conflict and death. The conflict begins immediately in the heated confrontation between Jesus and Peter.

Peter rightly intuits Jesus’ identity as Messiah. But his view of what this means is conditioned and imprisoned within his Jewish cultural and religious worldview. Within this worldview the Messiah is the liberator king who will restore Israel to its rightful place in the world and therefore, Jesus’ words of suffering and death not only make little sense but seem somewhat scandalous.

Jesus has to disabuse Peter in the strongest of terms – get behind me Satan!  There now follows the invitation to discipleship in verse 34 : Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must deny self, take up their cross and follow me!

Some of you may be familiar with The Message Bible. It describes itself as a contemporary rendering of the Bible – crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language. I commend to you its interesting translation of Mark 8:34-35

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering: embrace it. Follow me and I will show you how.                                                                                                                                                                                               Self help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.

Like a knife, the Message translation, slices away layer by layer our self-protections from the real meaning of Jesus’ call to denial of self. What self-denial means is to recognize that we are not the ones in the driver’s seat. Following Jesus is not about us exercising our free will from a Smörgåsbord  of heroic choices. In the immortal words of the Carrie Underwood song we are being called to let:

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this all on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
To save me from this road I’m on
Jesus take the wheel.

We are so anesthetized by the traditional Biblical language exhorting self-denial and cross carrying that most of us do one of two things. Either, we let it in one ear and out the other paying lip service to it in the process. Or, we moralize and/or spiritualize its meaning.

We moralize self-denial when we imagine ourselves as heroes personifying the virtues of fortitude, courage, or humility, or projecting those virtues into our spiritual heroes and concluding that these heroic virtues are not for the ordinary likes of us. We spiritualize self-denial when we picture ourselves valiantly achieving control over our desires through delayed gratification, or some form of spiritual hair-shirt discipline. We spiritualize self-denial when we imagine it means embracing a life of suffering, a lying down in front of others inviting them to do their worst to us.

To moralize and or spiritualize self-denial is to individualize it as something we do through our own self-assertion. We imagine that we can triumph over the our suffering. I refer anyone who might be interested for an excellent analysis of what Jesus does and does not mean by suffering to  Matthew Skinner’s paper: Denying Self, Bearing a Cross, and Following Jesus: Unpacking the Imperatives of Mark 8:34

In approaching Jesus’ call to us to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses and to follow him I draw from my formation as a psychotherapist. Now I want to issue a warning here: undisciplined use of psychological analysis of biblical texts may damage your spiritual health. I am extremely cautious about submitting Biblical passages and language to psychological interpretation. Psychological language, in my view, is generally overvalued in our popular discourse because it can feed our craving for explanatory solutions. Having stated this reservation, I want to bring a psychological lens to bear upon the picture Mark paints of what Jesus means by denial of self.

Mark uses the word aparneomai – to disavowonly twice in his Gospel. The first time is in today’s passage. The second time is when Peter denies Jesus three times in the court of the High Priest.

In his assertion of Jesus as Messiah and later in his disavowal of Jesus in his Passion, Peter embodies the psychological concept of ego. Ego – ‘the I’ -was originally coined by Sigmund Freud to refer to a part of the personality whose function it is to mediate between the demands of our inner and outer worlds.

The ego’s function is to navigate between the conflict between our inner desire and constraints of the real world. Freud understood our internal world to be governed by what he called the pleasure principle and this comes into sharp conflict with our experience of an external world governed by what he termed the reality prinicple. The ego’s skilled function in negotiating between the internal world of our desire for pleasure and external worlds of social constraint, ensures our survival and self preservation in the world.

Through our ego we conform to the values of the world. Worldly values promote self-assertion in the face of competition in a world of scarcity. They reward self-protection, self-promotion, and dangle before us the ultimate promise of self-fulfillment.

Roberto Assagioli, an early follower and later critic of Freud, founder of the school of Psychosynthesis, more aptly termed the ego function as the survival personality – that part of us that ensures our survival in a world of competing demands.

Jesus is calling us to disavow our over identification with our ego-survival personality. He is asking us to hand-over the direction-setting of our path in life, to God.  My often used phrase – God’s dreaming of us into that which is yet to become known captures in essence what this looks like. Through letting Jesus take the wheel a different road opens up before us. We are now on the road of transformation. As the fear driven grip upon us of our over-identification with our individualistic ego loosens, this transformation results in us becoming, not only more closely connected to God, but also, to one another!

This psychological approach now helps us to see why Jesus goes on to talk about winning and loosing our life. Once again, the translation in The Message cuts through our over familiarity with the standard text.

What good would it do to get everything you want and to lose you, the real you?

What is the real you?  Psychologically, it goes by many different names depending on whose system (Freud, Jung, Assagioli) you are working within. A general term might be the real you is the true as opposed to the false self.

The concept of the true self comes as close and psychology can come to the spiritual language of soul. It’s difficult to say they exactly equate. Direct equation across completely different discourses is not possible.  Nevertheless let me put it like this.  We have a soul and a personality, and they are not the same although they are interconnected.

Jesus is saying that we can win at the ego game, the projection of ourselves according to the values prized by the world, and lose our soul, our sense of who we truly are being dreamed by God into becoming.

The violence unleashed in the Arab World to what some claim is only an exercise in freedom of speech shows us an example of what an excess of individualistic, ego-driven, self assertion leads us to. Contrastingly, a direct result of giving up self-assertion enables us to make room in our lives for one-another – in Matthew Skinner’s words quoted above, we come to belong to (one) another. This is the principle upon which all community is based.

So then, what does it mean to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus?

Episcopalians are Christians of the Anglican Tradition. The Anglican Tradition is a transmission of historic (catholic) Christianity. What this means is that for us baptism is not so much something that alters our relationship with God, i.e. before baptism we are unsaved and after we become saved. Baptism is entry into belonging within the community we call Church. We are saved through becoming members of the saving community of the Church. As members of a saving community the spiritual journey is a journey we make in the company of others.

As Anglican Christians Episcopalians believe that God does not speak to us as individuals acting alone. As the Early Church Father Tertullian said: one Christian is no Christian. We believe that God encounters us through our membership of the Body of Christ in the world. God becomes knowable to us when we come together in worship at the Eucharist. God speaks to us as a community when we as individuals use our smart phones or tablets, on a daily basis, to plug-in to electronic versions of morning and evening prayer, which  is the common, as in, shared action of prayer by the sacred community we call the Church.

Coming back to Mark 8. When Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, he is not inviting us to embark on a solitary road of personal suffering.  He is inviting us into identifying ourselves with, and committing ourselves to belonging within, his Body in the world. This is the community we call Church. What this means is to become part of a cross-bearing- community which seeks to live in contrast to worldly values.  For Jesus and for Mark and his community this meant risking persecution by standing together in opposition to the worship of worldly power of Rome. For us it is to stand together in opposition to the our worlds valuing of isolated, ego driven individualism.

Now it might be a bit of a stretch to see the Episcopal Church as standing against the worship of worldly power. We whose historic privilege as a church caused others to refer to us as God’s frozen chosen. We are they who follow in the English tradition of tasteful elitism. Yet, the Holy Spirit has been powerfully moving is this church of ours.

We who at one time seemed the most unlikely seedbed for energetic social change now find ourselves in the vanguard of the engagement with the big cultural questions changing the way we view issues of gender, human sexuality, the dynamics of privilege and the challenges of injustice and poverty.

We may not all agree among ourselves about the solutions. Yet, we are a church that is no longer afraid to engage with the issues of our age. This throws us into the turmoil between the tradition we receive and the lives we actually live.  As a consequence, the Episcopal Church Community pays a price for carrying the cross. We are the focus of much attack and ridicule. The accusation is made that we have abandoned the Bible. We are frequently assailed by the prophecies of our premature demise.

All of this affirms for me that we as a Church are attempting to accept the invitation Jesus makes in Mark 8.  We are far from perfect, yet we understand that to take up the cross, as Jesus exhorts us to do, leads us beyond our ego defenses to a new and transformed manner of experiencing the presence of a relational God, a God-in community in the world. This is an experience that carries a cost at the heart of which is a daily discovery that we belong with one another. 

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering: embrace it. Follow me and I will show you how.                                                                                                                                                                                               Self help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.

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