March 13, 2005

The Love of Christ Compels Us To Die to Self
Acts 21:1-14

In the movie Spider-man 2, so popular a few years ago, Peter Parker struggles mightily with what we might refer to as his “call.” Parker, a rather unassuming and, from all accounts, lazy young man, is actually Spider-man, although no one else knows it. Eventually, Parker grows weary of his calling—swinging anonymously from building to building in his cute little blue and red suit, relieving the city of its seemingly countless villains—because it prevents him from enjoying the ordinary pleasantries of life. He can’t hold a steady job. His friends tire of his apparent irresponsibility. Even the woman he loves loses all patience and becomes engaged to another man. Parker, as the movie vividly portrays, is left with a choice. Does he live his life for himself, or does he remain faithful to his “call,” even at great cost? Parker, after initially throwing his Spider-man costume into a dumpster, finally opts for his call and determines to make whatever personal sacrifices are necessary to be Spider-man. One wonders, as we journey through this wilderness leading up to Easter, if we who follow Jesus are equally willing to make a similar commitment to being the people that God calls us to be.

I’ve been reading over the last week or two in George Barna’s book, Growing True Disciples. Barna, as some of you know, is president of a marketing firm that conducts research for church and parachurch ministries. Recently, he completed yet another survey of the Christian community here in America, and he provides—as he typically does—some rather enlightening information. According to Barna, 4 out of 5 people who claimed to be “born again” believers, for example, said that a top priority for them in the future was to have a deep, personal commitment to the Christian faith. But when those same believers were asked to identify the single most important thing that they hoped to accomplish in life, only 20%—1 out of 5 people—listed anything related to spiritual outcomes! Only 1 out of 5 people in the U.S. who claim to believe in Jesus Christ, in other words, take their faith seriously enough to adjust their priorities in life accordingly. As you might suspect, such items as career advancement and financial security drew high marks on the “what you would like to accomplish list,” but being a good parent and raising happy kids was the goal most frequently selected. 29% of the respondents listed that first, 9% more than those who selected doing God’s will and related spiritual pursuits. There is, quite clearly, a major disconnect here. While good parenting and raising “happy” kids are important—although I’d rather raise godly and compassionate kids—nothing in life is even remotely as important for those of us who believe in Jesus as living our lives for him. Nothing.

Paul certainly believed this. Had George Barna interviewed him as part of his recent research study, Paul would have placed following God’s will clear at the top of his list. Everything else would have been a distant second. Just look for a moment at the example Paul sets for us here in Acts 21:1-14. As his travels bring him ever closer to Jerusalem, Paul faces one potentially discouraging obstacle after another. At each stop along the way, Paul stays with the Christians who live there, even though he has not met many of them before. In Tyre, an important coastal city just north of modern-day Israel, Paul spends a week with the believers. During his visit—he waits for the boat to recargo—he is emphatically told by his hosts not to go to Jerusalem. “The Holy Spirit has shown us the dangers that await you,” they plead (v. 4). “Don’t go!” Much the same thing happens just a short time later when Paul has a stopover in Ptolemais. There, a prophet named Agabus, prophesying on behalf of the Spirit, acts out what he concludes is Paul’s fate if he continues on to Jerusalem. Agabus grabs Paul’s belt and binds his own hands and feet. “This is what will happen to you, Paul,” Agabus concludes.

Yet Paul refuses to yield. Is he stubborn? Perhaps. But he is also committed, committed to serving God, regardless of the personal cost. “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart?” he asks his fellow disciples in Ptolemais. Paul, you must remember, had previously been led by the Spirit to return to Jerusalem. He tells us as much in Acts 19:21 and 20:22. That that same Spirit now enables the Christians in Tyre and Ptolemais to imagine the fate that awaits him might be for them a summons to pray more fervently, but it is not for Paul a reason to abandon his trip. “… I am ready,” he announces, “not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

“I am ready to die,” Paul declares. What a pronouncement. Luke, after all, has repeatedly depicted for us a compelled and empowered group of believers who preach boldly, heal the sick, raise the dead, and care for each others’ needs. Luke has as well described for us a compelled and empowered church that continues to spread throughout various regions of the world with alarming effectiveness. “People everywhere are coming to Christ. Back-packs full of weighty religious laws and obligations are now empty because of God’s grace,” he assures us. But, Luke carefully points out, there is a price to be paid. Being compelled by the love of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit does not mean that all pain, difficulty and hardship passes away. All through Acts, this compelled and empowered church is praying, discerning, withstanding persecution, and standing firm. All through Acts, the church is dying to itself and living for Christ. Did you notice just how the Christians in Ptolemais responded once it became clear that Paul refused to alter his itinerary? “The Lord’s will be done,” they cried. Jesus, you will recall, said precisely the same thing as he knelt in Gethsemane.

The love of Christ compels us to die to self. It is an old, warn out thought, isn’t it? It is probably one of those clichés, like others in the Bible, that, to quote Lamar Williamson, we have “heard it so often that we do not really hear it any more.” So what does it mean, really? What is at the heart of dying to self? Honestly, I don’t know for sure just what it means for each of you. I feel as though we are standing on holy ground just thinking about it. I’m reminded of an experience that my spiritual director shared with me recently. He had been visiting with an elderly woman at a retirement home, and as he was about to leave, she asked how she might pray for him. After he listed various specific requests, including one for humility, the old woman took his hand and prayed. “You prayed for everything I mentioned,” he responded after the woman said “Amen,” but you left out my request for humility. “I know,” she said. “That’s something you have to do for yourself.” What does it mean for you to die to self? I’m sorry, but that’s something you, with God’s help, will have to figure out for yourself.

I might, however, offer a few general observations. As I have reflected on this “dying to self” idea again during this Lenten season, I’ve realized, first of all, that dying to self is not equivalent to that morbid tendency that we often struggle with in which we either heap one religious burden after another upon ourselves, or else remove one enjoyable activity after another from our lives. Such self-denial, though helpful when done with proper motives, can actually become either a form of pride—“look what I do or what I’ve given up”—or a path that leads inevitably to guilt, discouragement, exhaustion, and depression—“You just can never do enough.” That form of denial, not modeled by Paul or any other amazed disciples in the book of Acts, amounts to living under law rather than grace.

Dying to self, instead, focuses on the issues of power and control. If, as the Bible repeatedly informs us, we are created to serve and enjoy God—in him alone do we live and breathe and have our being—then dying to self involves our crucifying within us any tendencies or longings that position us on the throne of our lives and therefore prevent God from reigning there. Dying to self, then, is the radical alternative to self-centeredness. Henri Nouwen reflects on this very idea in his book, A Cry for Mercy, and you need not read too carefully to notice once again just who is trying to take control of his life:
There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess. O Lord, I am self-centered, concerned about myself, my career, my future, my name and fame. Often I even feel as though I use you for my own advantage…. I know that often I have spoken about you, written about you, and acted in your name for my own glory and for my own success.
Dying to self involves a massive shift in orientation, a shift away from my wants, my needs, my hopes, and my dreams, and onto God’s will and God’s glory. Dying to self, however you work it out in the context of your own life, amounts to a radical shift in pronouns—from “me” to “him.” From “mine” to “his.”

And finally, genuinely dying to self more often than not finds expression, not so much in the monumental but typically uncommon experiences of life, but in the way that you and I live out our lives day by day. Dying to self might involve leaving your job and becoming a missionary in a far-away land. Dying to self might involve, as it did for Paul, suffering persecution and even losing your life. It might. But dying to self will always involve my daily walk—and yours. My choices. My priorities. My dreams. My manner of relating to other people. My seemingly incessant desires—for comfort, praise, attention. My need to always be right and to win. Dying to self, as Jesus has so vividly shown us, involves my putting to death those tendencies or longings that position me on the throne of my life and therefore prevent God from reigning there.

Will Willimon tells the story of a young child who watched intently as the congregation of which he was a part moved into their communion service:
The bread was broken and laid upon the altar and the blood-red wine was poured out in a cup. The priest spread out his hands in blessing. [This] child, seeing the gesture, cried out, ‘Look, Mommy, he’s trying to look like Jesus on the cross.
That, Willimon suggests, is not a bad thing to say about a Christian.