My self tells me whose I am
Gospel: Mathew 16:13-27
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.18And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’
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I'm often asked about my South African accent, although I'm 6th generation Australian, on both sides. "I just pick up the accent of the folk I'm talking to," I say. That's the simple answer, and it's true. If I like you, I will sound like you before I know it— admiration, and a desire to be accepted, work in concert.
But there is more. I know exactly where 'the South African' comes from. It is Meryl Streep playing Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, talking down heartbreaking betrayal, with quiet and civil mastery, and clever words, in a refusal to be beaten and diminished. My accent is my 'tell,' and if I am present minded enough, I can often tell what is 'pressing my buttons' by my accent, phrasing, and cadence, alone.
We are all like this, formed by, and still imitating, those we admire; those who had something we wanted. I have a senior colleague with whom I have some disagreement. When thinking hard, while preaching, he has a habit of placing his hand on the top of his head. We were vastly amused when one of our number preached his Homiletics sermon one College Chapel, with much placing of his hand on his head. A friend told me, of arriving rather late to a church function on the other side of the country: he could hear that same senior minister holding forth as he entered the church porch. Except… it was our same student colleague! The joke is that a few weeks later in my student pastorate, a parishioner kindly told me that "to be a good minister you don't have to preach for as long as [insert same senior colleague here].
These 'tells' go deeper again. On Saturday, I decided to clean down the high cupboards in our kitchen, which had a two-year film of accumulated steam and other cooking grime. I was a miserable wreck by the end.
Again, I know why. It's because of doing housework with, and for, my Mum; not because she was abusive, but because of her pain and trying to overcome being shackled and diminished into a creature whose main purpose was to keep a house spotless. She knew, and even I could see it as a child, that it was destructive of her.
But was I thinking about my Mum on Saturday? No, I was churning constantly, not able to stop it, over mentors from my youth— people I admired greatly, and to whom I owe much; they helped me become myself— but who are now actively advocating against marriage equality.
Our current argument about marriage equality has little to do with sex or gender. It's about privilege— who defines and who controls the church, and who controls society for the benefit of their self, just as the 90's savagery towards LGBTI people in the Uniting Church was about who owned and controlled the church.
Excluding LGBTI people from the full humanity in which God had made them, or accepting them, was, God forgive us, often much more about who owned the church, and who was in, and who was out.
And the church, of course, was the arbiter of our selves. It gave us validity, or removed it from us. The constant temptation in such a situation is to make decisions, and form alliances, based on the people we like and admire, and whose acceptance we desire and crave.
The result then, as now, was unwarranted violence against others, much of it completely unconscious, because we were too often unconsciously focused on our selves rather than following Jesus.
So on Saturday, the received pain of my mother was the pathway for the pain of some of my own exclusion, and the possibility of it happening again.
I've taken this long discursive route via some of my own foibles for one reason: what shapes the things which come out of our mouth and heart to defile us— and injure others— comes from deep in our past, often from trivial hurts, or even only from modelling a behaviour driven by the hurts of others— nothing to do with us at all!— and all this is extraordinarily difficult to escape.
When I catch myself 'talking South African' I deliberately, and with some effort, drop into the 'Australian received accent' the voice tutor taught me at Theological College. Which I now realise to be modelled on my mother's polite public voice when she was covering pain.
The methods we use to manage our pain— that's what 'talking South Africa' does for me— can vent violence upon others. It's because, at base, they are simply one more working out of survival of the fittest. They are seeking to get a possession in order to survive.
At one level we understand our addiction to possessing quite well; we live in a sea of advertising. But it's not the thing itself we seek to possess; we seek to possess what the thing symbolises; that is, if we have the thing then we will be like the person who already has it. We will be the person we admire.
Why do we admire them? It's because it seems to us that they have life! They are alive. They have that 'something' which we lack. They are free of the lack which eats us from inside out. They have a kind of perfection that possesses life.
This is why we are often devastated when we find out the Minister is human, and it's why some are so hostile if we challenge their imagination of Jesus: both things threaten our longing and hope of appropriating a perfect self. It is appropriate that we call excessive admiration idolisation.
If we talk of getting and having a self, it implies getting and having for ourselves, at the expense of others. Joint ownership is something we do poorly. It's why we privatise state assets; those of us with privilege cannot bear to share it with others.
So when Peter says that Jesus really is the Messiah and the Son of the living God, his great insight is nonetheless corrupted by his need to own, to be safe, and to have a self. And all of that is formed by his past. Peter's neediness didn't affect his accent, as we know, but the same human neediness as mine meant he could not deny himself, just as I so often cannot deny myself. This is who we are.
Deeper again, the getting of self is, finally, the desire to be the god of our personal universe. Most of us have no need to be Caesar, we only want that Caesar leaves us alone to be us. So Davies and Alison say following Jesus is
a surrender or denial of self … [a] displacement of the ego from the centre of its universe. (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, pp273)
Girard sharpens this:
The first time Jesus predicts his violent death ( Matthew 16:21-33), his resignation appalls Peter, who tries to instill some worldly ambition in his master: Instead of imitating Jesus, Peter wants Jesus to imitate him. (Are the Gospels Mythical?)
Peter can't have a Messiah who dies, any more than some of us can bear a minister with failings: it undermines his project to place his ego in the centre of his universe.
I often say to my congregation that when we practice compassion (rather than the mere sympathy of privilege) it is to practice dying. Folks struggle to hear that. How can that work?
When we are truly compassionate, when we are truly alongside a person, and feeling what they feel, it pulls our ego off the throne. We have no defence, we begin to die.
I had to broach a serious and difficult topic with someone yesterday. There was no argument with me, no self-justification, none of the anger and push back I had feared; only naked grief and loss. It disarmed me. I had nothing to give, no authority to wield, nothing I could say. I had nothing, and was nothing. Yes it is this losing of our self, this dying, which must happen before we will find the life for which we long.
This faces us with the crux of who we are— I use 'crux' deliberately. If I simply give myself, I will die. I will be destroyed, brought to nothing. I have to stop giving somewhere. I have to draw the line, somewhere. I've said this to myself, and had it said to me more often than I can remember. This paradox is the great stumbling block to discipleship.
It rests on the idea that we already have a self to lose! But we don't. I am a mix of memories, and modelling, and envy, formed by my past and by the people around me. I 'talk South African' without realising, as much as my old colleague places his hand on his head without knowing; as much as another friend constantly calls herself stupid whilst I am awed by her equally constant acts of love to those around her; while another, genius-level, constantly sabotages himself.
We are a mess of rivalry, desire, and trauma, which has no solid centre. We are a derivation, despite our conviction that we are a solid self. We do not have a self. We are formed by others. To die, first of all, means to let go of the idea that we form ourselves. Then it means to let go of our formation, and to follow new models.
If we choose Jesus as our model, we simultaneously choose his own model, God the Father. Having no appropriative desire, Jesus proclaims the possibility of freedom from scandal. But if we choose possessive models we find ourselves in endless scandals, for our real model is Satan. (Rene Girard Are the Gospels Mythical?)
Having no appropriative desire… the stumbling block (scandal) could be seen as the desire to own my self, to have and to hold my self— through whatever possession— at the expense of others. To insist on being a self is to create "an unavoidable obstacle that somehow becomes more attractive (as well as repulsive) each time we stumble against it." (Ibid)
But Jesus finds himself without "appropriative desire." He does the thing we fear could be the death of us, and sometimes is; he gives up his claim to own himself, and finds life.
This is almost impossible to imagine, because my entire formation is based on the imagination of the opposite: to have life is to get a self, to possess my self, by not being subject or vulnerable to others.
It is only when I have forgotten myself— let go of myself— through compassion to others, that I am given a glimpse of a life and a self not based on owning and possessing. Remember that although this "owning and possessing" includes material possessions, I am speaking of something far deeper: the possessing of the self.
A self is not to be owned; it can only be in the light of others. And we can choose to be in the light of the ultimate reality behind things, or we can pretend to light our own little candle at our centre, which will be a darkness; a darkness which hides us from the great terror: we do not own ourselves. Ever. We are owned by what forms us. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 16 - Of Burning Bushes and Messiahs (2008)
Matthew 16:13-20 - The Roller Coaster Ride (2008)
Matthew 16:13-20 -The Keys to Our Authority (2011)
Matthew 16:13-20 - Cry Out at the Gates (2014)
Matthew 16:21-28 - Take up the cross (2008)
Matthew 16:21-28 - Life (2011)
Matthew 16:21-28 - Lose the Empire, Mate! (2014)
Matthew 16:13-28 – The Hero Must Die (2017)
Matthew 16:13-28 – Jesus and Jonah (2017)
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.