For Reflection: this week reflects on the change God invites us to make through Lent.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
A few years ago I was fortunate to be invited to take part in a week long course entitled “Nurturing our Growth as Ministers”. The course focused on supporting clergy from across the whole of the Anglican Communion. At the heart of the course was a deep idea which seems, to me, very helpful to revisit as we reflect on today’s Gospel and our place within our wider Lenten journey.
The deep idea was that our flourishing, not just for us taking the course but for all of us, came from a three-fold movement we take through life as we become who God truly calls us to be in Christ.
The first was the recognition of, and laying down of, the egotistical self. This is the view of ourselves, not in terms of who we truly are, but limited and crippled by who we think we think other people think we are. It is the version of ourselves, which is all based on the surface, all based on how we present ourselves to others, which worries more about what others think of us.
The second movement was termed the essential self. This is understanding of who we are when the mask is taken off. When we look at ourselves truly in the mirror and recognise ourselves with all our limitations and failings, who we are “warts and all”.
This second movement is only a staging post to a final movement – to the surrendered self. The understanding of who we are when, stripped of all the earthly things that we think matter, we allow ourselves to surrender to the love and grace of God.
This is a hugely simplistic account of a very complex idea which we only scratched the surface of during the course. However my understanding of this movement was deepened by the words of George Herbert’s poem Love (III) which wove itself through the week of the course.
The poem, if you don’t know it is widely recognised as Herbert’s finest. Based on the courtesy and courtly etiquette of the Tudor world Herbert lived through the poem takes the form of a dialogue between God – always called “Love” – and the “Guest” who narrates the poem.
The poem begins, beguilingly, with an invitation:
Love bade me welcome.
Recognising their unworthiness in face of this invitation, the “Guest” keeps on finding ways of avoiding this invitation and accepting it. The “Guest”, caught in my mind in the role of the egotistical self, is focuses in these initial exchanges on what he thinks “Love” wants to heard from him. Obsessed still with what others think of him, and almost in a mock-piety, the “Guest” thinks he will impress “Love” and cries out:
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
But through all of this “Love” perseveres with patience and tenderness. Eventually, and only when taken by the hand by “Love”, the “Guest” allows the egotistical self to fall away, and as the mask slips they admit why they felt so unworthy to respond to the invitation that “Love” makes.
Recognising the sinfulness and fallenness that lies at the heart of all our lives the “Guest” cries out in lament:
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
It is only at this moment of self-recognition that the “Guest” can hear again the invitation that “Love” makes. And with this realisation the “Guest” surrenders finally to the invitation of “Love” as the poem comes to its tender and glorious conclusion.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
At the heart of Herbert’s poem is the journey we are called to make through our lives. It is not an easy one, and a process which – particularly as we are called to move from the egotisical-self to the essential-self – is so challenging. It is worth noting that in Herbert’s poem it takes two of the three verses of the poem to peel the masks of ego and self-importance away before the real work can begin.
If this is the work of a life, it is also the work we are called to take up through our Lenten journey each year. And here is where we come to our Gospel reading.
If Herbert’s poem gives us a view of this whole journey, then today’s Gospel gives us a close-up view of the key movement through process of spiritual awakening.
The most challenging moment in this journey – the one which take the longest for the “Guest” to arrive at – is allowing ourselves to get to the place where the egotistical-self melts away
When, in our Gospel, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and follow him, it is this part of ourselves he is calling for us to put down. That part of ourselves which Peter draws on as he rebukes Jesus because of what other people might think of them. That part of ourselves which we tell the world matters.
To make this key movement in faith we must as Jesus says, set our minds on divine things, not on human things. We must, as Claire Robson reminded us at the first of our Lent talks this week, not simply know that we are loved by God, but allow ourselves to be loved by God.
This, as Jesus reminds us in our Gospel, will not be an easy journey. It will be a journey that will take us to the foot of the cross. It will be a journey where we are called to admit our own essential unworthiness before God, and one another, and most challengingly ourselves.
But it is only if we take that first step that we, like Herbert’s “Guest”, might be able to come to who we truly are in Christ as, on the far side of the vastness of the cross, we surrender ourselves to God’s grace and the liberating lightness of the resurrection.
Questions for reflection
- What things about yourself do you think you focus on too much because of what others think of you?
- How easy is it to not focus on these things?
- What might you be able to focus on if you were not limited by a focus on the earthly or surface things?