Jesus, take the wheel

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Matthew Skinner, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St Paul makes a timely comment when he says:

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 one another

A recap in the Jesus storyline

Jesus moves from touring the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile lands. Here he has been confronting the generalized suffering of humanity through mighty acts of power and healing. This is the mid point of the Jesus storyline. 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 has rightly intuited Jesus’ identity as Messiah. In my last post: Who do you say that I am?, I explored what it looks like for us to move from a cognitive to an intuitive acceptance of our confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In today’s gospel reading we see that despite Peter’s bold assertion of Jesus’ identity 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 also seem somewhat scandalous.

Jesus has to disabuse Peter in the strongest of terms – get behind me Satan!  The meaning of the name Satan is a personified reference to the general temptation for any of us to see the world only in worldly-cultural terms. Having rebuked Peter’s mindset Jesus now issues an unambiguous invitation to discipleship:

Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must deny self, take up their cross and follow me! 

Alternative translation of the text

Some of you may be familiar with The Message – which 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 Matthew: 24-27:

Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. 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.

We are so anesthetized by the traditional Biblical language exhorting self-denial and cross carrying. We pay lip service to it. We also 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 these virtues into our spiritual heroes we conclude that these heroic virtues are not for the 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, inviting others 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 our suffering. I refer anyone who might be interested for an excellent analysis of what Jesus does and does not mean by suffering to take a look at Matthew Skinner’s paper: Denying Self, Bearing a Cross, and Following Jesus: Unpacking the Imperatives of Mark 8:34[1] http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/23-3_Icons_of_Culture/23-3_Skinner.pdf 

A psychological angle on the text

In an attempt to explore Jesus’ invitation to self-denial, to take up our cross and to follow him, I want to draw from my experience in the world of dynamic psychotherapy[2]. 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 plays into our craving for explanatory solutions. Despite the Surgeon General’s warning on the bottle of wine about the harmful effects of alcohol, we know we are, nevertheless, going to drink the wine. Therefore, having stated my warning of the dangers of psychological interpretation of biblical language, I want to bring a psychological lens to bear upon the task of intuitively interpreting Jesus’ invitation to self-denial and cross carrying.

In his confession of Jesus as Messiah, 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[3]. Thus, the ego is always culturally conditioned, as we see in Peter’s Jewish objection to Jesus’ prequel of his suffering.

As it was so for Peter, so it is with us. Through our ego we conform to the values of our world. Our 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 – the part of us that ensures our survival in a world of competition between internal and external demands.

The call to self-denialimages-1

Jesus is calling us to disavow the way our cultural and societal formation limits our view of him. One way our culture limits us is through our over- identification with our ego or survival personality. Jesus is asking us to hand-over the direction-setting of our path in life, to God. To do this we have to become deeply countercultural.

My often used phrase: God’s dreaming of us into that which is yet to become known, captures in essence what this looks like. A different road opens up before us. We are now on the road of transformation. As the fear-driven grip of our over-identification with our individualistic ego loosens, this transformation results in us becoming, not only more closely aligned to God, but more connected to one another!

Winning and losing life?

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 theoretical system (Freud, Jung, Assagioli) you are working within. A general term might be the real you is the true as opposed to the false you.

The concept of the true-self comes as close and psychology can come to the spiritual language of soul. It’s difficult to directly equate the two because 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.

So much of the conflict and violence (physical and systemic) we see in the world around us is caused by our ego-driven (individual and collective) self-assertion. 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. Be under no illusion, such a giving up of ego imperatives will involve us in real suffering.

Our response to the invitation to discipleship

The popular cultural worldview of ego driven American Christianity is that it’s our individuality that matters. I am saved through my own self-assertion of the right faith formula. I live in right relationship with Jesus because of I possess the moral authority that flows from my personal assertion of faith. I exercise my moral superiority through sitting in judgment of others.

Episcopalians are Christians of the Anglican Tradition. The Anglican Tradition is a transmission of historic (catholic) Christianity that resists the focus on individual self-assertion, a chief characteristic of current culturally driven versions of Christianity. In our historic (catholic) transmission the emphasis is on community and membership within the community of faith.

We are saved through becoming members of the saving community of the Church. As members of the 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-into electronic versions of morning and evening prayer. This form of prayer is called common prayer because it is the shared-action-prayer of the redeemed community we call the Church. Our governing authority in the Epsicopal Church is not a Confession of Faith that we all have to sign-up to. It is the Book of Common Prayer, which is a reorganization of the Bible for the purpose of the common worship of the people of God.

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, heroic or otherwise.  He is inviting us to join together to form his Body in the world. This is the saving community we call Church. We become disciples of Jesus through our baptism into, and life-long participation within the saving and cross-bearing community that is seeking to live in contrast to the individualized, ego-driven perspectives of our society. If you want to know what that looks like then revisit the five baptismal promises all Episcopalians make at every occasion of baptism http: episcopalchurch.org/page/baptismal-covenant

For Jesus, fidelity to God meant taking the path to the Cross. For Matthew and his community, discipleship meant risking persecution by standing together in opposition to the religious value system of Imperial Rome. For us, it is to stand together in opposition to our world’s valuing of isolated, ego-driven individualism.

St Martin’s in Providence is a community on a journey. We affirm each Sunday that we are a community of seekers, in search of that for which we most long. While our longing often remains inarticulate, Matthew: 16-21-26 sheds a little light on an aspect of it, i.e. our desire to find fulfillment in relationships in which we make room for 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. The Message

Or in the words of Matthew Skinner I opened with:

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 one another. 

[1] Mark 8:34 is the equivalent to Matthew 16:24-26

[2] Psychotherapy is the application of psychology to increase an individual’s range of emotional choices in the living of life. Dynamic psychotherapy is a broad designation encompassing a number of schools of depth psychology, which despite theoretical differences all accept that the area of focus in psychotherapy is on uncovering the roots of the dynamics of unconscious emotional conflicts that drive us to repeat the same choices over and over again; choices we are compelled to make even when we consciously realize how poorly they serve us.

[3] 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 principle. 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, and success in the world.


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