Christian Teachings We Rarely Ponder: True vs. False Self

John 7:1-18
January 12, 2014

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.’ After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
 But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, ‘Where is he?’ And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, ‘He is a good man’, others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd.’ Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.
 About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, ‘How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?’ Then Jesus answered them, ‘My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.

            This week Rev. Frierson and I start a new sermon series that’s actually a bit difficult for us. We decided to do a series on Christian teachings that we rarely think about, which is hard because trying to figure out what we don’t think about it tough. There are lot of reasons we rarely ponder them, but the more common is that they are teachings that have gone out of style because the religion has gotten so tied up with the surrounding culture that people don’t think about these teachings. Yet these are teachings that have been around for thousands of years. Most have been forgotten simply because of Christian trends. In other words, Christianity and its surrounding culture get so mixed together that the beliefs of the culture become dominant in Christianity, and perhaps even lead us away from Christian faith. So, people forget these other teachings, especially if they don’t fit with the surrounding culture.

            The problem of forgetting is true of our lesson for today. It is a lesson taught for thousands of years in Christianity, but that’s been forgotten by many of our modern Christians. I want to introduce our lesson by sharing a story with you that I’ve been mulling over for thirty years. I first heard it when I was in my twenties, and it’s led me to struggle a bit with it ever since.

            There was a woman who was in a terrible car accident and had a near death experience. She was lifted up to heaven and stood before the Pearly Gates. St. Peter looked at her and said, “Before you can enter, you need to answer a question: ‘Who Are You?’”

            The woman looked at him and said, “I’m the mayor’s wife.” He replied, “I didn’t ask you who you were married to, I asked you who you are.” She said, “Well,… I’m the mother of four children.” He shook his head and said, “I didn’t ask you who you were the mother of, I asked you who you are.” She looked down for a moment, and then said, “I’m a Christian.” He replied, “I didn’t ask you what religion you were, I asked you who you are.” She said, “I’m the one who went to church every Sunday and gave to the poor.” He replied, “I didn’t ask you where you went to church, or what you did for the poor, I asked you who you are.”

            No matter what she replied, he kept hammering at her with the same response. Finally, he told her it was not her time, and that she needed to return to earth and discover who she was. And that made all the difference in her life. Her life changed in amazing ways.
            As I said, this is a favorite story I’ve been mulling over for thirty years. I remember the first time I told it in a sermon when I was an associate pastor. Afterwards, several people complained to the senior pastor that they didn’t understand my stories. I understand. I’m not sure I understand this story either, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not powerful and not one to ponder. This story gets to the heart of a Christian teaching we rarely ponder. Perhaps it’s because we rarely ponder it that people don’t understand this story.

            This story calls on us to define ourselves by who we most deeply are, not by all the things we do. Unfortunately, our culture is big on activity, accomplishments, and actions. We define ourselves by what we do. But does God?

            At your core, who are you? What’s your true nature? That’s a question that most of us have a really hard time answering, and the reason has to do with our false self. The term “false self” is actually a psychological term coined in the 1960s, but it reflects a deeper spiritual teaching that goes back to the story of Adam and Eve. They had a true purpose that is brought out very early on in their story: they were to walk with God and tend to the garden. Who were they? They were God’s companions and caretakers of Eden But that’s not what they wanted for themselves. They wanted more. They wanted to be what God was by gaining knowledge reserved for God. They lost their sense of purpose and of who they were. The Eden story says something about us. We also don’t generally know who we are.

            Each and every one of us struggles between our true self, which is who God created us to be, and our false self, which is who we try to create ourselves to be. We all have an essential struggle: Am I the person God created me to be, or have I let my pride, my fears, my hurts, my ambitions, my desires rule me and turn me into something else?

            A lot of times we let all that false stuff lead us astray. Let me share another favorite story about another woman who met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. There was a woman who died and met St. Peter. St. Peter reviewed her life and said, “You know, you weren’t a very nice woman? Did you ever care about anyone but yourself?” The woman thought for a bit. She couldn’t remember being nice to anyone.

            St. Peter said, “If you can find one act of love in your life, you can enter heaven.  She thought and thought, and finally said, “I know, I once gave a carrot to a beggar on the street.” St. Peter smiled and said, “Because of the love invested in that one act, you can enter heaven. So he gave her the very carrot she had given to the beggar. Grasping it, the love invested in that one carrot began to lift her up to heaven. A man walking by saw her rise and grabbed her leg, and he also rose. Another man grabbed his leg and rose, too. Soon, fifty people were rising heavenward in a chain, each one grabbing the other’s leg. 

            The woman, too enraptured by the power of the carrot, didn’t even notice the heavenward procession being lifted by her carrot until she looked down. When she noticed them, she was horrified. “Off! Off, all of you! Let go of me! This is my carrot, not yours. You can’t come with me!” With that, she let go of the carrot to pry them off of her leg, and all tumbled back to earth. A twig of love in her heart had lifted her to heaven, but the root of selfishness—pride—plunged her back to earth.

            The woman had love buried deep in her, but she wasn’t willing to let it live through her. Ultimately the problem all of us share, and that pulls us away from who we most deeply are, is pride. And pride is the worst of all sins because it hides and pretends to be something else. Pride is our false self that keeps us from truly becoming who God created us to be.

            Each of us is created in God’s image, but the question really is what we do with that image. The Eastern Orthodox faith has a wonderful concept that I think we Protestants could adopt. They say that we were created in God’s image, but our lifelong task is growing into God’s likeness. It’s not enough to have an image. We need to reflect God throughout our lives because that is deeply part of who we are. Pride causes us to diminish God’s likeness in us by leading us to create false faces that cover up our lack of confidence in who we truly are. We all do this. We build layer and layer of falseness to cover up pains, fears, struggles, and more.

            We are like Russian nesting dolls. You know these dolls. They are large dolls that pull apart to reveal an exact, but smaller replica inside. That replica pulls apart to reveal a smaller replica. And that pulls apart to reveal a smaller replica, which pulls apart to reveal a tiny doll inside. Our true self is like that miniature doll inside that is covered over with larger, but hollow, false dolls. We don’t tend to let people know who we are at our deepest levels, so we present false faces. The Christian ideal is to let that deepest person become who we truly are on both the inside and outside.

            This doesn’t mean that if you are crabby on the inside, it’s okay to be crabby on the outside. Crabbiness is not part of our true self. Think about why you get crabby. You’re tired. Your family is talking to you too early in the morning. People aren’t doing what you want. The central factor in all that is Me, Me, Me, Me, Me. It’s pride. Crabbiness comes out of our false self. It’s a manifestation of a need to be in more control. If you are constantly crabby, you’ve let pride grow too strong.

            Pride is the falseness that hides the truth, and it is what causes us to be critical of others, self-protective around others, scared of others, overly compliant with others, dishonest with others. You name a problem in this world, and I’ll show you pride at its center: politics, greed, envy, addictions, insensitivity, war, ignorance, neglect, vanity, selfishness, and sooooo much more.

            Let me close out the sermon by sharing with you a few other stories that capture the conflict between our true and false selves.

            Max had been married to Millie for over 55 years. On Millie’s birthday, she sent him to her best friend’s house to personally deliver a piece of birthday cake. Max, who walked with a cane, walked over a half mile to deliver the cake. He rang the doorbell and the friend answered. Max said, “Millie wanted so much to share her birthday cake with you to celebrate her 86th birthday.” The friend was touched, and replied, “This is so nice of you. Thank you. Please let Millie know how happy I am to see her live such a long life—all the way to 86!” Max thanked her and walked home.

            About two hours later an exhausted Max rang the friend’s doorbell again. When she opened to the door, Max said, “I’m really sorry to bother you again. Millie sent me back to tell you that really she’s only 85.” Pride. Control. Letting out too much of the false self.

            A conductor was furiously running the orchestra through its final paces for their major performance on Saturday evening. He conducted with passion and intensity. Meanwhile, in the background a man on the set construction crew hammered away at a piece of scenery. Eventually the conductor couldn’t stand the distraction. He bellowed for the orchestra to stop, and then put his hands on his hips while glaring at the man. The man stopped his hammering, looked up, and said, “Oh,… don’t worry. Your music isn’t bothering me. Please continue.” Pride.

            Finally, there was a scientist who realized that he could cheat death if he used his cloning talents to make exact copies of himself. He knew that if the Angel of Death couldn’t tell which on was he, he could live forever. So he made twelve exact replicas of himself. They were perfect. Not one flaw.

            The Angel of Death came to collect him one day, and came across the scientist and his twelve replicas. The angel was stumped. He wasn’t allowed to collect anyone whose time wasn’t due. The angel looked at all thirteen of them and walked away dejected. Suddenly the angel spun around and gathered the thirteen together. He praised the scientist for his work, saying, “You are amazing, whichever one you are. You have done what only God could do. I bow before you and your brilliance. Of course, you know there is only one flaw.”

            With that the scientist jumped out and said, “No there isn’t! Where? Where? I demand to know!” That’s your flaw: your pride in yourself.”

            Ultimately the image God created us in is an image of God’s love that God calls us to live out in a unique way only we can live. The question is, will we let that person become you in real life.