I have to admit. I was a bit baffled this week by the relationship between the Gospel and the first and second lessons. Not that we have to make a connection every time, that’s for sure. But you never know what interpretive gem might come surface when you put texts in conversation, which is why the lectionary frequently fascinates me.
But I stuck with it for a while, and here’s what I started seeing. Abraham and Sarah? To what extent they “deny themselves” just as Jesus asks. But it’s not a denial of the self. It’s a denial of remaining by themselves. That is, they deny a life that is autonomous, secured, enclosed, safe, and just the two of them, for a life that propels them into relationship — with God and with a future realized by abounding relationship.
I wonder if this is exactly what Jesus means.
Because I have to say “deny yourselves” has always been problematic for me. Rubs against my incarnational theology that says who I am matters to God. And Jesus wants me to deny that? No thanks. I’ve worked really hard to be me. I’m not giving that up now. And denial is ever so popular during Lent. So we jump on the denial bandwagon and give up all and sundry aspects of our lives that actually might simply give us joy.
Moreover, I think way too much of that kind of denial happens in church, especially for preachers. You know what I mean. To be someone or something you are not. To eschew your truth for the sake of the truth of the Gospel. What do you deny about yourself for the sake of your ministry? And that whole business of “getting out of the way” when you preach to let the Word of God be heard? That’s a load of crap. If God wanted us to get out of the way, God wouldn’t have decided to become human in the first place.
So, what if we take deny “yourself” totally literally? Hang in with me here.
That is, you deny your selfhood when it rescinds relationship. You deny your autonomy when it refuses community. You deny your individualism when it rejects intimacy.
To “deny yourself and take up your cross” invites us into what the cross can also mean — not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be certain of our connectedness.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying. At least today I do.
Because Lent cannot be just about yourself. Somehow, you have defined your identity as that which is connected to Christ and to a community of believers. We don’t do Lent alone. Lent is this radical communal experience in many ways. People willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People willing to talk about their Lenten disciplines — out loud, even to strangers.
Why? Because we realize it’s not just about our own selves. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, the self that refuses community. The self that thinks it can survive on its own. The self that rejects the deep need of humanity — belonging.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. It’s an invitation to imagine that your self needs the other. Desperately. Intimately. Because this is what to be human is all about — intimacy. Belonging. Relationship. Attention. To what extent we barely know ourselves without all of the above in our lives, without others in our lives acknowledging, regarding who we are. We can’t be ourselves on our own. And when we do, it is a self-absorbed existence. It is to be become narcissistic in its truest form, where those around you are only pawns to placate your self-perceived power and importance.
Let’s face it. This is easy to do as a pastor, as a preacher. And this is where a lot of pastors and preachers go array. The self-talk of autonomous importance, self-sustained life, and power-driven ideals. And where does this end up? Broken communities and congregations. And for what? Your own sense of authority? Perhaps this is one aspect of “deny yourself.” The sense that your own authority trumps that of your people, the Scripture, and our God.
And we have seen it. Perhaps even done it. So here is our chance. To deny the impulses that demand reliance on ourselves alone and seek the help of others. To deny the expectations that suggest ministry is a singular existence that works out of some sort of skewed assertions that we have all the answers. To deny the temptations that try desperately to convince us of our own worth without the call of God we initially heard.
The denial of self? It’s embracing the truth that you can’t live in this world, you can’t live your life, without your self being in relationship.
A different kind of denial indeed.