Transfiguration February 14, 2021
Selfish to selfless
When someone is told that she is selfish, it is undoubtedly seen as a criticism, a response to a negative action. After all the Bible is clear that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We all remember JFK’s inaugural address in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can for your country.” There is a Chinese proverb that ends, “if you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.” Most of us would nod in agreement that selfishness is not good; being altruistic is much better. The word Altruism has roots in Latin and French and refers to “other people.”
An article in Psychology Today states that despite the negative connotation of “selfish” selfishness is not always bad. Hence the title: Good, Neutral, and Bad Selfishness. The article does its best to convince that taking care of my own well-being first enables me to help others. Taking care of myself is said to be neutral selfish. The author continues that there is actually a good selfishness too. An exchange where two people willingly part with something in order to gain something they value is presented as an example. The author says this is good for it is a win-win situation.
Richard Dawkins, author of the book “The Selfish Gene” may want to respond. Dawkins says that his “purpose” in writing the book “The Selfish Gene” is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism. Here is his interesting conclusion: “Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs”.
On a pure biological level, our natural instincts are about survival. And to survive we have to be selfish at all costs. So, there is no need to encourage people to be more selfish or that being selfish is neutral or even good. Our selfish, instinctive impulses come naturally and easily.
But I believe that human beings are not called to act on a pure biological level. We should not simply act on and give in to our natural instincts. We are after all called to act as people who are created in the image of God. What distinguish human beings from other animals is, or should be that we are not solely driven by instincts of survival. Other people are important.
Let’s look at Peter’s actions in our Gospel reading today:
You see, Peter, John and James went up on a mountain with Jesus to pray. All of a sudden Jesus’ appearance changed and even his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly Moses and Elijah were there too. When Peter saw them, he wanted to build three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter suggested building these dwellings because he wanted all of them to stay there indefinitely. Why? Well the reason was that Peter really enjoyed being in the presence of Jesus and the 2 prophets. It was a good place to be; insulated from the real world. There he and his friends were with Jesus and the 2 greatest prophets in Jewish tradition. Now before we judge Peter, we would most likely have done exactly the same!
Up here there on the mountain there was no one who was sick who needed Jesus’ help, no one was begging, and at last they were by themselves, away from people who always asked questions and criticized. The world up there was intact and Peter wanted to preserve that. “It is good for us to be here.” And staying up there would protect him from the real world. It would be easier to follow Christ up here, to be a disciple here. And look at his company: Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.
What can be better than being in the presence of the Son of God and two of God’s spokespersons? But Mark’s comment is interesting and revealing: “He did not know what he was saying!”
You see Peter had a very interesting way of dealing with the tension that exists between faith in God and the harsh realities of life. In the previous Chapter (Mark 8:27-30) Jesus asked the disciples a profound question: “Who do people say that I am?” Some say, John the Baptist, others Elijah, and some are saying one of the prophets. But then Jesus asked them directly: “But who do you say that I am?” And then Peter spoke the words that became the foundation of Christian faith: “You are the Messiah!” This was indeed a turning point in the history of Christianity. For the very first time someone confessed that Jesus was the one coming from God, the Messiah, the One every Jew was waiting for, the One who would change everything and who would bring peace and justice to this world.
However, in the very next paragraph Jesus explains what these words meant: The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed. Jesus was of course referring to what would happen to him: he would suffer and he would die. But then Peter rebuked him. How dare he talk about suffering?
There is something of a Peter in all of us. We are all uncomfortable with suffering. Let’s face it, we don’t deal well with uncertainty and anxiety, we do not really know how to deal with suffering. Avoiding suffering is deeply ingrained in us, it is a survival mechanism. We all have felt that we need a break from the poor, the bad news, the struggling and the suffering! But this is not what God wants. God does not take us out of this world!
So, I don ‘t need to remind you that as we gather here to hear God’s Word and celebrate communion, that the earth is crying out for deliverance. People are suffering. Yes, let me remind you that our Lenten journey starts on Wednesday. This was the journey that Jesus himself took and it led to Golgotha and the terrible suffering of a righteous man.
As we gather here we let us admit openly and honestly that we all would do what Peter did. We would also prefer to be in a safe, comfortable place in the presence of people we love and care for. We all want to escape from the real world. But let me also remind you that it would be selfish if we were to avoid the real world. Jesus shows us the selfless way in him taking up his cross for us.
So, let’s turn to Corinthians. If withdrawing or staying in our comfort zone is not the most faithful response then how should we respond?
I want you to think with me about 2 Corinthians 4:5-6: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as slaves for Jesus’s sake. For it is God who said: “let light shine out of darkness” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
What this means is that we, as people have faith, have with spiritual eyes seen the glory of the Lord, like Peter did on the mountaintop. This has transformed us so that we in freedom live our lives “to let our light shine in the world.”
As we start our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday we are reminded that the person, the words and the example of Christ all point to one fact: God is present in all God’s glory in Jesus: This means that God is with us, right next to us when we experience pain, anxiety and suffering. God is with us, when we receive bad news from the doctor, when we wrestle with existential questions of life and ultimately with death: God is with us! We are witnesses of the Glory of God in I Christ when Jesus selflessly sacrificed himself for the world. We can hold onto God’s eternal love of us, revealed in Christ, in every situation we may find ourselves in. And if we understand Jesus selfless love of us, we will not selfishly keep it to ourselves. We will share this light with world.
When Peter experienced the presence of the Holy One on top of that mountain, he wanted to make it permanent. He wanted to capture it by building dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He wanted to withdraw himself from the real world of hardship, suffering and struggling. He selfishly wanted to keep it to himself.
Our calling is not, by way of speaking on top of the mountain, removed from the real world. You see the very nature of Christian faith to become involved in this world. To become engaged in a productive and positive way to bring to a suffering world glimpses of God’s care and love for this world. That is what we are called to do.
And even as this ministry is at times challenging, and our natural inclination is to keep it ourselves, we should hold onto God’s mercy, not lose heart and share God’s love! Amen.