Giving yourself away and looking after yourself
A reflection on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 & Mark 4:35-41 by Nathan Nettleton, 25th June 2000
Self sacrifice and asceticism are not incompatible with the call to care for oneself and live life to the full.
Many Christian teachings seem, at least on first hearing, to contradict each other. We are told to do one thing, and then we hear that we are to do the exact opposite. Jesus says, Love others as you love yourself, and then in the next breath we hear him say, If you love your own life youll lose it. There are plenty of examples of such apparent contradictions. The frequently heard answer is that we have to keep all things in balance. There may be some truth in that answer, but it is also an easy cliche that often just represents an unwillingness to face the tension and wrestle with its implications.
The icon of Jesus Christ that we have in our worship space each Sunday is a representation of Christ that the Greeks called Christ Pantocrater. The basic meaning of the word Pantocrater is he who rules over everything, but as is often the case with words, there are layers of meaning that are not exhausted in a single definition. Pantocrater also speaks of the one who, by his rule, holds everything together, and within this aspect of its meaning is a powerful symbol. The Pantocrater is the one who holds even the opposites together. Those things which cant be simply reconciled are held in creative tension by Christ the Pantocrater. The image is not of one who simply eliminates the tension. Rather the Pantocrater takes things which are seemingly irreconcilable and holds them together in tension until a new truth is born of them. Christ Pantocrater does not settle for the easy wisdom of keeping everything in balance, but instead calls us to live with the tension, to seek to live fully two irreconcilable truths until we discover the mystery that embraces them both.
Our two New Testament readings this week contain images that represent one of the big paradoxes at the heart of Christian identity. The Christian tradition teaches us on the one hand to care for ourselves, to nourish our own souls lovingly and restfully, and on the other hand it teaches us to sacrifice ourselves for others, to pay no heed to our own needs but to expend ourselves for the life of the world. While I want to suggest some ways in which we can begin to live with the tension between these two teachings, I dont think there is any easy way to reconcile them and I dont think that talking about keeping things in balance will actually help much.
Lets have a look first at the reading from Marks gospel. It is the well known story usually described as Jesus calming the storm. Jesus does calm the storm, but there may be something even more significant in what he was doing before he calmed the storm - sleeping through the storm! It is the view of most of those who have done a lot of study of the gospels, that the main point of this story is not about Jesus relationship to the weather, but about Jesus relationship to the church as the church weathers the storms of life. Mark is saying that we Christians are all in the same boat together and though there will be storms which threaten to destroy us, Christ is with us and there is no storm that he cannot get us through. I want to pick up Jesus earlier behaviour though, because although it is not the main point of the story it does illustrate an attitude in Jesus that seems to in stark contrast to what Paul is on about in the other reading.
The storms are raging, people are panicking, everyone is working frantically to try to save the day, and Jesus is taking time out, asleep in the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. It reminds me a bit of another incident where the disciples are looking for Jesus and they eventually find him hidden away in silent prayer and meditation and they are saying, Come on, Jesus, everyone is looking for you. Theres work to do! (Mark 1:35-37) There are numerous occasions when the crowds are all seeking Jesus, all coming with genuine needs, and Jesus backs off and takes some time out. This story started with just such an event - the crowds are there and Jesus hops in a boat and says to his disciples, Lets get out of here.
Clearly, Jesus believed that he needed to look after himself. He knew that if he didnt take care of himself he soon wouldnt be able to care for anyone else either. Those who are burned out are no good to anyone. But I think the point goes further than that too. Nurturing ourselves is actually a key aspect of our participation in Christs mission of saving the world. The world will be saved by bringing people into the experience of the fullness of life, not by burning people out. The salvation of the world will be advanced as people become more peaceful and loving and prayerful, and that has to start somewhere. If we cant model it well be wasting our breath preaching it. If you panic in every storm, theres no point in trying to tell everyone else to have faith because God can get them through. The Jesus who can sleep in the back of the boat while the storm rages is telling us something important about the kind of people he would have us be.
But what are we to make then of what Paul has to say in our reading from one of his letters to the church at Corinth. He defends his ministry and his endeavours to clear the way of salvation for everyone with an extraordinary litany of hardships suffered. He not only talks about how badly he and his partners have been treated by their opponents, but he also talks about things that sound more like self-abuse. He speaks of how they worked themselves to the bone, often going without enough food or sleep in their endeavours to commend the gospel to all. He almost seems to be rejoicing in the amount of suffering he is enduring, and all for the sake of the gospel. He sounds like he is living the life that is often depicted by the skin and bones monk, fasting and praying in his hair shirt in the desert. Perhaps youve heard the word asceticism used to describe this kind of life. The word comes from the Greek word for discipline and is often used to describe a lifestyle of rigorous self-denial. Self-discipline and the willingness to give up things for a greater cause are characteristics that are highly valued and encouraged in the Christian tradition, but how do we express this without denying the example of Jesus that we should also be people who know how to have a good time at a party and who know how to take time out to look after themselves? The Kingdom of God we are working for is after all a great party of well cared for people.
As I said earlier, I dont think that just talking about keeping things in balance helps very much. Looking for a middle way is probably even less helpful. There is too much truth in both extremes to risk them with an easy solution. We are going to have to fully live the tension before we are going to arrive at the truth that holds them together. I think we can see good examples in Jesus of living the paradox, but that doesnt answer all our questions. In Jesus we see the ultimate in self-sacrifice for the sake of others, but we also see one who was criticised for being too much in love with the partying life and for spending time on himself when everyone else wanted a piece of him.
Although I cant spell out a solution to the paradox, I do want to offer some ideas that might help us as we attempt to live within it. The Christian tradition has not generally understood asceticism as a value for its own sake. We dont impose disciplines on ourselves because hardship is good. There is always another goal in mind. Usually that goal is greater joy and fullness of life that will be made possible, either for ourselves or others, or usually both, by enduring some hardship now. Let me give an example. Marriage is an ascetic discipline. People dont often think of it that way because celibacy features more prominently in the language of asceticism, but it is. Just like the celibate, the married person takes vows to confine some aspects of their life within certain boundaries, and they do that because of the conviction that the full life is a deep life and that you can develop much greater depth in a relationship if you are not spreading your efforts across several. It is unquestionably a form of self-denial, but we rightly celebrate when people choose it because we recognise that they are embracing something of great worth.
Another example is the covenant vows that some of us in this church are making this week, vows we intend to endeavour to live by for the coming year. This vows are an attempt to impose certain disciplines on ourselves. They are not easy. All of us who have attempted to live by them have failed in some areas of them, and we all will again this year. But we dont make these vows because we want to make life more difficult and miserable. We make them because we believe that these disciplines will enable us to experience life more fully - to draw closer to God and to deepen our ability to love one another and taste the richness of the life God created us for.
There are countless examples of ways in which our Christian tradition of asceticism - of embracing the disciplined life - is actually part of Christs mission of drawing us into the expansive abundant life that is the fruit of the Spirit and the essence of the Kingdom of God. This doesnt solve the riddle or reconcile the paradox contained in our two readings, but hopefully it gives a valuable insight into how we might live creatively within the tension. Ultimately though, it will be as we live within the life of Christ the Pantocrater that the paradox will give birth to the new truth that will unlock the deepest mysteries of life in all its fullness.
Questions for thought and discussion.
What are some of the ways in which Jesus was criticised for being too pleasure-loving or for attending to his own needs when he could have been attending to those of others?
In what ways do such examples speak to us about our treatment of ourselves?
What are some further examples of ways in which we make hard choices in order to gain some definite benefit?
Are there areas in which self-denial for the sake of a greater good is ridicules or made more difficult by the values of the society we live in?
How can we better support one another in living by hard but valuable choices?
Are there other ways you would describe or respond to this paradox of self-care and self-denial?