I think It’s a word and a condition we all know. Who here has ever been in denial? I am the first one to admit that there were times in my life when I was the queen of denial. And what is denial? It’s something we use when we just don’t want to see what’s going on, when we refuse to deal with reality, when we refuse to see what’s going on. I don’t want this to be, so it can’t be. We may be in denial about a serious health condition we have, or about the health condition of someone we love. We may be in denial about our behaviors, which sometimes are self-destructive, and maybe even destroying others. We may be in denial about an addiction. We may be in denial about our financial situation or our job security. We may be in denial about the deterioration of a relationship. Anything else you want to add to this list?
And there isn’t only individual denial, no, as a society we can be in denial as well. For example, here in California, we are still using water as if we weren’t in the midst of the third drought year in a row. For that matter, many are in denial about climate change and its dangers for God’s creation. Folks are still chasing the American dream, and are in denial about the ever growing gap between rich and poor, and the reality that the dream is dreamed by fewer and fewer people. And again, it’s easier to close our eyes to those things we don’t want to see, that we refuse to see, because they would turn our understanding of the world upside down, and gasp, may require a change of behavior, a repentance, a turn-around of some sort. We are quite comfortable where we are, thank you very much.
Now don’t get me wrong: denial, and I am especially talking about individual denial, is not necessarily bad. Sometimes it is good to be in denial, because the truth just hurts so much, right? Sometimes it’s good to be in denial, for example when we are going through some tough situation, some trauma, because this way we protect ourselves and our sanity. But at some point we have to face the facts and deal with reality.
Now just a little interesting observation about denial – as for the present moment, we can say it only about someone else. Oh, my friend Zach is in denial, my aunt Helen is in denial, my colleague is in denial about what’s really going on in their lives. Has anyone here ever said, oh, I know, currently I am in denial? We don’t say that, right? If I say, I am in denial about something, I mean, that’s a paradox. The moment I know I am in denial, I am not in denial anymore, because I am aware of the situation. We may recognize our own denial from hindsight, but when we are in denial, we don’t want to see, we can’t see what’s really going on in our lives. We are blind, in a sense.
Denial is the negation of something, saying no to something. It can’t be, it mustn’t be, tell me it isn’t so. We deny something that is threatening for us, we deny what seems to turn our whole world topsy-turvy, we deny what rips us out of our comfort zone and throws us into unknown territory. And it’s a quite typical human behavior.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Peter is in denial. In today’s gospel story, Peter understands very well what Jesus shares with his disciples: that Jesus has to go to Jerusalem, though this means suffering and death. But, in Peter’s mind, that can’t be, that mustn’t be, tell me it isn’t so! Peter clearly sees that all he holds dear is threatened, that his view of Jesus is threatened, that his world view is threatened and about to tumble down. And maybe Peter can even grasp, somewhere in the depth of his heart and his mind, that his life is at stake as well; not just in the sense that he might die, but that life as he knows it may be destroyed by Jesus’ intention to go to Jerusalem.
It only seems like a very natural and human reaction, needed for self-protection, to slip into a state of denial: God forbid, Jesus, this mustn’t happen! I say no!
I sometimes wonder why Jesus’ reaction is so harsh: Get behind me, Satan! Wouldn’t Jesus, of all people, be in the position to understand Peter’s human nature, to understand our human nature? To understand that we are plain terrified by the prospect of our life as we know it being threatened? Doesn’t Jesus understand that denial can be a life-saver, at least shield us from the worst impact of something traumatic that is happening? We hear that Jesus rebukes Peter, but couldn’t it be a much gentler rebuke? “Peter, I know you want what’s best for me, but you’re doing Satan’s work here, because you’re thinking like a man who doesn’t consider God’s will.” Or something along those lines. Would be much nicer, wouldn’t it?
Well, maybe Jesus’ harsh reaction is only human as well; there it is, the temptation to skip the road to Jerusalem and a certain, cruel death. And of course there is a connection to last week’s gospel, when Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness for 40 days. Mark doesn’t say anything about the nature of this temptation, but the other evangelists are filling that gap: be all-powerful! Take the high road! Don’t obey your heavenly father and go to Jerusalem, to serve humanity and die for humanity – worship me, and it’s all yours, right now. Instant gratification! No suffering, no dying, isn’t it great?!
And in today’s gospel, Peter echoes this temptation: no, Jesus! Don’t do it! Peter thus becomes Satan, which, by the way, in Hebrew means ‘tempter’. How easy it would be to get around suffering and death! Jesus’ disciples would be more than supportive of that. But Jesus knows that this is not a light matter of negotiation. Maybe Jesus can’t help dealing with this temptation and his own fears by lashing out at Peter with harsh words.
It must be quite a shock for Peter to be called Satan. His intentions are good and honorable; he doesn’t want his master and friend to suffer and die. He can’t see how he is playing Satan’s role here by tempting Jesus to forgo the way to Jerusalem and the cross. And how could he. From his limited human perspective, the best Jesus can do is to continue his ministry as is. He wants to preserve – preserve Jesus’ life, preserve his life, preserve life as he has come to know and cherish it. As I said before, Peter is in some state of denial, he just can’t see the bigger picture.
The only problem is that Peter’s intentions fall way short of God’s intentions. Which makes me slightly uncomfortable, because it makes me wonder: how am I falling short? As communities, even as church communities, what are we trying to preserve, hanging on to it with teeth and claws, and what do we lose at the same time? Are we trying to save the life that we know by any means, and don’t see how God is offering us a new kind of life that we cannot even imagine?
It is interesting how Jesus uses this word. In today’s gospel, he is talking about self-denial. Which means we are to negate ourselves, we are to say no to ourselves, we even may need to shield and protect ourselves from ourselves. I can’t be, I mustn’t be, tell me I am not so.
Which seems to contradict anything we hear and learn in our culture, where it all seems to be about self-improvement, self-realization, self-betterment. We are enticed to gain the world, to get as big a piece of the world as possible, and are told that looking out for ourselves and indulging ourselves ultimately is for the greater good – for the economy, for example. What a great gospel for our egos! Hallelujah!
But, paradoxically, and as Jesus point out over and over, by looking out mainly for ourselves we lose ourselves. By just looking at our own navel, we become inflexible and numb, we wither and become lifeless. By being too full of ourselves, we become empty.
And we could not just say that about our personal lives, but about the life of a society or a congregation as well. Congregations who just look how to preserve themselves tend to shrink and die. And I can’t tell you how excited I am that you, the saints here at St. Paulus, don’t just try to preserve this congregation, but that you are actively listening to God’s voice, and how God calls you to be God’s presence in this amazing, beautiful, crazy city with all its contradictions and ambiguities. In that sense, you are denying yourselves, you are saying no to just preserving yourselves, as you are saying yes to God’s bigger picture.
Denying ourselves means putting our petty concerns aside and trying to see the choices ahead of us as God sees them. When Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, he’s actually trying to get us to have a larger perspective. We look outside ourselves, we act outside ourselves, and this way we give life to others instead of just preserving our own. And so it comes back to benefit us; we save our lives even though that’s not our primary goal.
Self-denial is saying no to a self-absorbed and thus poor human existence. At the same time, self-denial is saying yes to life with all its exciting encounters and opportunities. Self-denial is saying yes to relationship and the other – and it is in relationship to God and the people around us that we truly find ourselves, as in a mirror, lovable, desirable, wanted, needed.
And so self-denial is quite a necessary step to what we, in church talk, call repentance – the turn-around, the opening up, to God and to our neighbor, to community. Paradoxically, we become stronger in community with God and others, as we say no to our often selfish desires, and gain a bigger perspective.
The season of Lent is not a season to scourge ourselves and to beat ourselves up about what sinful creatures we are, and how much we deserve the wrath of God. But this is not the self-denial Jesus is talking about. No, Lent is a season to remember that God loves us, God wants us, and that repentance, the traveling of new roads, may lead us to a fullness of life we can’t even imagine – just because our perspective is limited, and because we may be in denial about the state of our life. Lent ultimately is about transformation and new life, as we see it breaking forth on Easter morn. And who knows what God has in store for us, individually and as a community? I don’t claim to know what it might be – but I trust and believe and hope with all my heart that God is greater and more amazing and more loving than any of us can imagine. And thus new ways of life and new ways of living God offers us are greater and more amazing than any of us can imagine. Amen
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