STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 8, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
NEVER AGAIN: LOSE YOUR SOUL
Ephesians 4: 20 – 24; Mark 8: 34 – 38
This weekend we’re celebrating my daughter’s 30th birthday, which is amazing because now she’s older than I am. Our tradition is to have theme parties. Sarah loves to travel so our theme is “countries”. We had food from various places; played games to guess which places of special interest are found where; played “20 questions” to discover which country is pinned to your back. And we played “Fun with Flags” where you’re shown a flag and guess the country. Part of the amusement was dressing up in traditional costumes from around the world and making up a name and a back story for the character you’re portraying. It can be fun to purposely “play” at being someone you’re not, but it’s a problem when we we’re playing at being who we are.
The question is: who are we? Years ago, a friend of mine lived in a village; whenever she left the house, her father would say, “Remember who you are.” He meant she was not to behave in ways that would embarrass or shame her mother. But, behaving as other people expect us to, doesn’t define us. Who was she really? Who are you? Psychologically, biologically and socially many things influence an individual’s character. We’re shaped by our families, schools, social groups and activities, and by our peers. We may be shaped by the codes of a religious system or the social pressures within it to conform, if only in our outward behaviour. We’re influenced by what we read, by TV and movies. And our most current character shaper is the internet. Is it any surprise that people are such a mess?! At our best humanity has some moral values, ethical guidelines and basic decency, and we can also be amoral, unethical, selfish, cruel, arrogant and blind to our flaws. Spiritually, though, our identity and character have a different source. As Christians we find our identity in Christ. Just as a Canadian is one who lives in Canada, a Christian is one who lives in Christ. In Canada, if you’re born here or you get government approval, pay your taxes and obey the law you’re a citizen. They’ll even give you a passport. Sometimes Christians think that if I was born Presbyterian or join a church, put money on the offering plate, and be good, I’m a citizen of God’s kingdom. I’ll even get a passport to heaven. To be a Christian is to live in Christ. It’s to receive by faith through baptism the grace God offers through the death and life of Jesus. Who we are is found in Christ. So much so that the phrase “in Christ” is used 98 times in scripture. Because we are “in Christ” when God looks at us “in Christ” he sees the holiness of Jesus. He sees us as the fully redeemed people we will be in heaven. Unfortunately, we’re not in heaven yet. We still live with outside influences that shape us. We are still drawn to and tempted by enticements that do not lead to the fullness of life. We still want to fit into the world and belong. So, Jesus gave us his Spirit – Holy Spirit to aid us in “putting off our old nature”, renewing our minds and helping us grow into our new and truest self. Paul writes, “Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything—and I do mean everything—connected with that old way of life has to go. It’s rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you” (Ephesians 4: 22 – 24). The Holy Spirit is working from the inside to create our truest and best self. The Bible refers to this process as “sanctification” and we are consistently called to repent of our old ways and become more like Christ.
I used to tell my kids, “when you grow up you can be anyone you want to be”, turns out that doesn’t mean what I thought it did – it’s called identity theft. When I was young, burglars stole money, jewellery, drugs and TV’s, today thieves steal the identity of others. Identity theft is a devastating experience that leaves people in ruins and takes years to straighten out. After all, when someone has all your I.D., your credit cards, and access to your computer, you have nothing left to prove you are who you say you are. Fortunately, identity theft is rare and there are safeguards in place to protect it from happening. However, there are no safeguards to prevent us from being someone we’re not, from being less than our true self in Christ. It is so easy for us to “lose our life; to lose our soul” (Mark 8: 37) This week the news has reported that Jean Vanier, the founder of L’arche International which operates not-for-profit communities for the disabled, and a man admired for his Christian faith also abused women emotionally, spiritually and sexually. It turns out, that like most of us, Vanier robbed himself of his true identity in Christ. He wounded many women in the process and cast a shadow over the good work he’d done.
The world tells us that to be someone is to have status, education, and wealth. To accomplish this, we need to look out for number one, be in control of life, and at all costs, avoid suffering or any unpleasantness, both your own and that of others. Jesus says that to find our true self in him, we need to be like him. “Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? For what could you ever trade your soul? (Mark 8: 34 – 38). Not only are we to sacrifice and “Take up our cross” we’re to do it willingly. Often, we speak of an illness or a difficult person as “our cross to bear.” Jesus meant much more than this. He didn’t mean for us to “put up” with things, he wanted us to be different. To find our identity in him. So, what does that entail?
The first thing we need to sacrifice is our self-image. The false self we want everyone to see and admire. Over our lifetime, we build layer upon layer of outward images. Our false self has a lot of faces – it could be the person in the Gucci dress receiving accolades or it could be the person in sack cloth and ashes making a show of how holy they are. This can become so refined that the people who know us best – those with whom we live – don’t recognize us outside the house. It can get so that we don’t know which mask is really us. In our teen years part of our growth is trying on different personas. That’s why one week your teen is a rebel sporting a mohawk and the next they’re preppy and the next they’re an existentialist and then a communist. In my teens, I had a friend tell me “you’re an actor and you’re not very good at it because I can see through it”. Take about stripping away our masks! But our self-image should never be confused with our true self in Christ.
When people today embark on a spiritual journey it’s often about “finding themselves” or finding comfort. They do this on their terms – they reject religion for spirituality. The word “Religion” means to be bound to or united with. That requires commitment. Jesus would say that a spiritual life is a commitment you choose, and it will mean giving up other things. The first step is realizing that “it’s not all about you.” We must sacrifice our false self – nail it to the cross and let it die, if we’re serious about discovering our being in Christ. This sacrifice includes letting go of all sense of entitlement. How often I hear people angry that God has made a loved one ill. We’re not entitled to wealth or health or even life itself. It’s not our possession, it’s God’s gift loaned to us for a time. We also sacrifice our self-indulgence and learn to be giving. Self-indulgence may look like treating others as your personal slave or it may be indulging in self-pity or indulging in the things of life you crave. It may be indulging in your favorite sin, or in your inability to change, or being hurtful to others, or being arrogant. We also give up assuming that we’re deserving or can become deserving by manipulating God with our good behaviour or piety or false modesty. To find our true self, we let go of any sense that we are even a little bit righteous or spiritual and we cling to the cross. We receive from God because of his love and grace. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
We lose our soul when we forfeit our true self. No relationship should require you to less than you are in Christ. Not doing something because of a controlling partner or presenting yourself as smaller in spirit than you are or not using your God-given spiritual gifts isn’t sacrifice, it’s an imposed slavery which will crush you. In Christ we are free. In Christ we let our light shine. We are fully alive, and we use all of our gifts, not for our own glory, but to please God. We may also lose our soul by giving in to peer pressure. While peer pressure really ramps up in our teens, it never goes away, because we all want to belong. We are willing to compromise our values, exclude people from our circle and change opinions like a chameleon in order to fit in. We become like the disciples who would not stand up with Jesus in his final hours. We sell out and what we’re selling is our soul.
Having said that, sometimes we will sacrifice something important to us for something more important. We’ll let go of some part of our self, to be truer to who we are. I may work in a job I hate, that doesn’t use my best talents so I can provide for my family. I may be a very gifted golfer or love sailing but I put off those pleasures for a greater, long-term goal – like my education. I may not take a promotion so I can better care for an ill spouse. Throughout our lives we are always giving up one treasure for another. Part of being “in Christ” is discerning what God is calling you to and choosing to let go of other things that may also be good and congruent with who we are.
A true sacrifice is doing something unpleasant or even painful, giving up something or offering something not because we’re masochistic or want glory but because it’s truly you. Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross and suffer, he did it because he knew it was the only way to save humanity and at the core of his being, he is our Saviour. At the core of our being we are united to Christ; we are his followers and we may give up even our lives because of the love of God which flows in us. The irony of the Christian’s life is that when we lose our life, we find it; when we let go of our false sense, there is space for our true self in Christ to shine through, not only in this life but in the next. Follow Christ, live in him and you will never again lose your soul.