From Self-Centeredness to World Loyalty

By Bruce G. Epperly

Date Delivered:  March 8, 2009

Lent 2, Year B

Mark 8:31-38

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and Pharisees, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” In just one paragraph, we have Holy Week in a nutshell. We also have a vision of atonement, of the reconciliation of all things, and the surprising adventure of resurrection life.

Now, this passage reverses our expectations of spiritual leadership and divine blessing. The disciples didn’t understand it and, frankly, neither do we! “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering” – Isn’t this statement an antithesis of what many of us expect in terms of the fate of spiritually-evolved and faithful persons today? Many evangelicals and Pentecostals speak of the “prosperity gospel” – that God wants to bless us with property and financial success, and that if we have the right faith, and enough of it, all these things will come to us. As the Prayer of Jabez advises, we are called to pray that God will expand our territory and fill us with riches and blessings beyond belief. New Age and Science of Mind spiritual guides speak of the financial and relational benefits that come from aligning yourself with the Universe through affirmations and positive attitudes. The best selling New Age self-help book,The Secret proclaims you can have everything you want from the parking place nearest to your destination or financial security or a loving relationship if you follow the spiritual laws of success, visualize what you desire, and open to the resources of the universe.

Now, don’t get me wrong! I believe that faith opens the door to new possibilities and that discovering your life calling will bring you joy and create an environment in which we can become vehicles of blessing – in which we are like Abraham and Sarah, blessed to be a blessing. I believe in the power of affirmations to change our lives – that’s what the Holy Adventure  is all about! But, prosperity gospels and creative visualization are not the whole story – faith also calls us to suffering and sacrifice, and this means we may have to give up our parking place, to choose “downward mobility,” to let go of small blessings so that we might experience the great joy God has in store for us, and to live simply so that others might simply live. Faith calls us to take up our cross and embrace sacrifice for the greater good of the planet and those we love.

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering.” To those who see spirituality as connected primarily with prosperity consciousness, such words are scandalous. Jesus’ words assert that the One most aligned with God must experience suffering, loss, and abandonment. But wait! This, too, is not the whole story. Those who follow the way of Jesus – those who embrace his radical and subversive hospitality – must also “deny themselves and take up their cross” and “those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

There is sure a lot of gray as well as grace in this passage. It overturns our cultural, political, and relational values. As Americans, we don’t want to sacrifice, we try to avoid pain, and self-denial is countercultural in an age of consumerism and quick-fix solutions to life’s problems. Remember the counsel of President Bush following the tragic events of September 11 – “go shopping, travel, don’t let the terrorists win!” Remember the conduct of the War in Iraq – going to war while lowering taxes; hiding the costs of war; and acting as if life is going on as usual, except for our soldiers and their families. Remember the greed and individualism that have led to our economic collapse and the current anger that some persons may have to pay more taxes – those who make over $250,000 a year – so that others might have adequate health care and hold onto their homes and not have to regularly rely on refinancing from Sambla to get by! It’s tough to escape these cultural values, but the gospel tells us that we must – the gospel tells us that apathy leads to destruction; but it also promises that embracing others’ pain may lead to joyful transformation and new life.

What might self-denial mean in an age of self-centeredness and instant gratification? What does it mean to move from self-centeredness to world loyalty? How can we love ourselves, care for our own spiritual and personal well-being, and reach out sacrificially to others?

The problem with self-centeredness, as we typically live it, is that its world is too small. It glorifies individual achievement when, in fact, very few of us achieve personal greatness, financial success, or physical well-being on our own or by ourselves. It sees others’ gain as our loss and looks for immediate self-gratification, when sacrifice may lead to a greater good for all parties concerned. Yes, the “American Dream” of success requires ingenuity, great effort, persistence, and creativity – and these are positive virtues; but every individual achievement requires the “behind the scenes” efforts of countless unheralded persons – Henry Ford needed assembly line workers; Helen Keller needed her tutor and companion Anne Sullivan; and Barack Obama needed the sacrifices of his grandparents and single mother.

Conversely, failure in life is not always intentional or the result of lack of effort or personal drive – for instance, we know that the quality of a child’s health over her or his lifetime depends the parents’ or guardians’’ level of education. We know that negative social messages about our ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, or family role can stunt our sense of self-worth and hopes for the future. Failure and success are never individualistic, for in the body of Christ, all achievement is both personal and relational, and individual and holistic; and despite our attempts to deny it, the same is true for our so-called secular achievements.

The problem with “gaining the world” is that the “world” we seek to gain is not large enough and is constantly under threat. This is surely one meaning of Paul’s counsel, “be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This “world” of self-interest and success is too small, too polarizing, and too fear-ridden to ultimately satisfy our quest for joy, wholeness, and self-actualization.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once defined religion as “world loyalty.” Whitehead also noted that the experience of peace emerges when the small self is transcended as a result of our identification with larger realities beyond our own individual self-interest. Later, my own teacher Bernard Loomer spoke of healthy religion in terms of “size,” that is, how much of the world a person can embrace without losing her or his personal center. Now, this is a different kind of self-centeredness, isn’t it? It is the self-centeredness that emerges when we let go of the petty, individual, and isolated self and its inclinations and experience the well-being of the whole as essential to our own well-being. It is the authentic self-centeredness, described by the South African concept of “ubuntu”: “I am because of whom we are” or “I am because of who you are.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaims:

Ubuntu is the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

As paradoxical as it may seem, losing our individualistic selves means finding our greater self, the self through which divine love and possibility flow without loss or obstruction. In embracing the larger self of the universe, we will become like the Bodhisattva, who delays enlightenment until all sentient beings experience enlightenment. Or, like the fully human Son of Man, the Christ, we will experience greater pain, but the pain will be part of a much greater, indeed divine, joy. This is what some of us have experienced as parents, when our child’s well-being dwarfs our own comfort when we get up in the middle of the night to go to the pharmacy or spend hours on Christmas Day sitting as your child receives chemotherapy or when we give up a holiday or purchase so that our child can go to camp or get braces. Losing is gaining, because the narrow self has embraced the well-being of another and has become larger in the process.

Yet, we must save ourselves to be able to lose ourselves. This is the paradox of true self-centeredness found in the counsel we hear on every plane departure: “if there is a sudden loss of air pressure, put your oxygen mask on first before helping your child or a dependant.” We must love ourselves enough, be authentically self-centered enough, to truly center ourselves on what brings joy and peace, so that we can share God’s shalom with others. Good parents sacrifice themselves for their children, but they also take time for “parental Sabbaths” and days with one another. Refreshed and renewed, they discover new well springs of parental creativity and patience. This is true for justice seekers and life-companions as well.

This is what Peter and the others, and ourselves, often miss, when we ponder the sacrifices entailed in following the Way of Jesus. We often only hear Jesus’ first words, “the Son of man will undergo great suffering….and be killed.” But, we miss the final phrase, “and after three days rise again.” Tragedy is real, but tragedy does not have the last word. Greater self-awareness means experiencing greater pain and suffering. Taking up your cross means embracing loss and choosing to let go of the small self.

But, there is more. When we let go of the individualistic, small-minded, self-interested, greedy, and clutching self, something new is born…the butterfly emerges from the cocoon. The narrow self dies and the new larger self rises again and again. We experience “resurrection,” finding our deepest and truest self, and experiencing the joy of truly being part of God’s dynamic and everlasting universe and God’s beautiful and unwavering vision.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.