We Have Met the Enemy
One of the great tragedies of war is friendly fire casualties. It happens in every war that soldiers are killed by their own side. The military teaches, preaches, trains constantly on knowing your target. In this text before us, we must be sure what the target is. Is Jesus saying, "The problem is you don't deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me. The problem is you're trying to gain the whole world. The problem is that you're ashamed of Me and My words"? Is Jesus targeting our behavior as the enemy? If so, the answer is quite simple. Get out there and change your behavior. Stoke the fires of self-discipline and self-control and be different.
Such a view not only misses Jesus' point entirely, it encourages the very enemy Jesus would vanquish. The 'self.' If you leave here today thinking the enemy is your behavior and, therefore, to defeat it you must turn to the resources of yourselves, I have failed completely. The enemy Jesus would bring us face to face with in this text is me. Whether I love myself or hate myself, whether I accept myself or reject myself, whether I feel good about myself or bad about myself, the problem remains. We have not seen the radical nature of the Christian message when we think the answer to our problems is self-esteem or self-loathing for that matter. The self, me, myself, the I that I begin so many sentences with, that is the problem. We meet the enemy in this text, and it is us.
The self is what causes the rejection of Jesus. The self, like Peter, rejects a suffering Jesus. It thinks itself all noble and brave in doing so. "No Jesus of mine will ever suffer." The self knows more than Jesus. Is more powerful than Jesus. Doesn't want Jesus to sacrifice or suffer for it, but wants instead to sacrifice for Jesus. This self is so sure and certain. It brims with self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-certainty. Such a self needs no Savior. It doesn't need Jesus to do anything. This self is self-contained. This self thinks it would be a shame for Jesus to suffer for him or her.
However, it's not only those whose self is high, mighty and certain who reject Jesus. So do the self-loathers, the self-haters, the self-deprecators. This is Judas. Jesus couldn't be his Savior. His self would not allow that because he was too much of a low life. Look what he had done! He had done exactly what Jesus had warned them not to do in this text. He hadn't denied himself but went with his opinion that expensive perfume ought not to be wasted on Jesus but sold and given to the poor. He had refused the cross of suffering. He hadn't followed Jesus but the institutional church of the day. He had sold his soul not to gain the whole world but a mere 30 pieces of silver. More than that he had sold Jesus' to gain that. Finally, he was ashamed of both Jesus and His words.
Self-loving Peter didn't need a Savior to suffer for him. He loved what he thought a Savior should be and do more than what the Savior Jesus said a Savior was and did. Self-hating Judas couldn't believe a Savior could reach so far down to forgive him. He would have to suffer too much to ever be able to forgive him. Neither Peter nor Judas is better than the other. In both cases, the self is the problem. Whether I love myself or hate myself, myself remains center stage, and there is no possible way for me to solve the problem of the self. I continually bounce from the pillar of self-love to the post of self-hate. I repent of the one only to be proud of the other. The self is really the "damned spot" that Lady Macbeth wanted out. The self is what people are clawing to tear out when they clutch and grab their chest in tearful repentance for some terrible thing they've done. The self is that object for which I can find no place on earth to put my fulcrum in order to move it.
The devil, however, would lead us to believe it is this or that behavior of ours that is the enemy, which we can change with self-discipline, self-control, self-love or self-hate, but the real enemy is the very self that the devil wants us to turn towards. And when we come up against this enemy we are beaten. Trying to defeat the self is like trying to hold your breath till you pass out. Most people can't do that because their self won't let them. Approaching the self to defeat it is like approaching an animal to kill it. Even the most gentle animal like a rabbit goes crazy when it's about to be killed. It scratches, claws, cries, and struggles. So does the self when we approach to kill it. It doesn't give up. It doesn't go away. Just when you think you've defeated it you hear, "I'm still here."
We are helpless against ourselves. Totally helpless. I may be able to modify or even change this or that behavior of mine but I cannot get rid of the I that is at the center of me. This I thinks it knows better than Jesus what Jesus should be and do as Savior, and so will be lost forever. Or this I thinks itself too sinful to ever be redeemed and forgiven by Jesus and so will be lost forever. Yourself, myself is certainly going to damn us. Whether we love ourselves or hate ourselves, whether we esteem ourselves or loath ourselves, our "selfs" are taking us to one place only, and that is hell for eternity.
St. Paul got to this point and cried out in anguish, "O wretched man that I am who will deliver me?" David got to this point when tracing back where his horrible sins of adultery and murder came from. He finally discovered it wasn't this or that behavior of his that led to it. It wasn't because he was lazy and didn't go out to war like kings were suppose to in the spring. It wasn't because he stayed in bed all day. It wasn't because he happened to see Bathsheba bathing. It wasn't even because he had lust in his heart for her. No, the problem went back to before he had a good or bad thought or thoughts at all. The problem went back to when his 'self' came into being. "Behold," laments David, "I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me."
The prophet Elijah also got to the point of realizing that his real problem in life wasn't his actions or lack of action and neither was it other people, it was none other than himself. Elijah had no answer to the enemy that was him, so he cried to the Lord, "O take my life (The Greek word is identical to the one in our text, and it could be translated "self."); I am no better than my fathers. Elijah was brought to the point where he could see that he himself was no better than the idolatrous, faithless people he had railed and preached and fumed against.
Are you fed up with your "self?" Is the wretchedness of your self wether you hate or love it so putrid to you that you cry to God to deliver you because you're certain that you are defenseless against this enemy, helpless to defeat it? You're in despair, aren't you? Nothing you have, nothing in you can defeat your self, can it? This my sorrowing, hopeless friend is the delicious despair that Martin Luther spoke of. It's despair because you see no way on earth for your to overcome the self. It's delicious because at long last you don't care what your self is doing or not doing, what it says or doesn't say. You neither love nor hate yourself. You just want to be delivered from it.
When Paul cries out in delicious despair, "O wretched man that I am who shall deliver me," the answer is, "God through Jesus Christ my Lord." When David sees that his enemy is as entrenched as his moment of conception, the answer is for the Lord to wash him, to purify him, to literally create for Him a clean heart. When Elijah prays for the Lord to take his 'self,' the Lord takes him to the Mountain of God. Only God can solve the problem of the self. Only God can meet the enemy who is us and defeat it. Any sort of self-help book or technique is useless because we aren't interested in helping the self but defeating the self. And this God did without any help from us.
Doesn't the Epistle make this very clear? Look at the words St. Paul uses to describe us: "powerless," "ungodly," "still sinners," "God's enemies." Nothing in us, nothing about ourselves made us in anyway redeemable, saveable, or salvageable. God in Christ did it all. By His power Christ kept the 10 Commandments that we were powerless to keep. By His godliness, Christ lived a godly life that was impossible for us in our ungodliness. Now even though we are still sinners, we have the holiness of Christ in the blood He shed which covers us in Baptism and Holy Communion. Even though in our sinfulness we were utter enemies of God, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son.
The self has been dethroned, unseated, defeated. Let me show you how this works. St. Paul in Romans 6 says that in Baptism the self was crucified and buried with Christ. Baptism joins us to Christ so that we go where He goes. Then in Galatians 2 Paul says, "I have been crucified with Christ; and so it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me." Rather than looking inside myself and seeing the "self," or the ego, or even anything about me such as my love of Christ, or my faith in Christ, I look inside and see Christ. What about me? "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me." My self is dead in Christ, crucified with Him, buried with Him.
Now let me ask you. Do you care what a dead man thinks? Whether a dead man loves you or hates you it really doesn't matter. They're dead. Your 'self' is dead. Your Baptism marks the spot he or she is buried. You have been delivered from him/her into the arms of Christ Jesus. O how glorious it is to be free of the self. Gone is this endless checking of my spiritual temperature to see if I'm Christian enough to please myself. Gone is this constant bringing before the judgment seat of myself everything going on in and around my life to see if I myself can find anything good or worthwhile going on there. Gone is limiting my Lord to what me, myself, and I think He is or isn't doing, can or can't do in a given situation.
We have met the enemy and it is us, but thanks be to God that Christ met this enemy long before we did. He met it on the field of battle and vanquished him or her. He nailed him or her to the cross with Him. He used His nail pierced hands to drown him or her in the baptismal font. He shuts the mouth of him or her every time He says, "Thus says the Lord." He suffocates the self by stuffing His Body and Blood into his or her mouth. So we are free with St. Paul to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. We are free to know and to believe only what Christ says about us. It just doesn't matter what our enemy our self says about us, whether good or bad. He's defeated, she's done for, our self is dead in Christ and we really life in Him. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent II (3-16-03), Mark 8:31-38