There's a virus about that's infected all of us, and is dangerous as Walkerton e-coli. It's the virus of selfishness. At some point in life, we've all yielded to the urge to look after "me first", to take advantage of a situation for our own selfish benefit at others' expense. Yet while there's not an antidote for that e-coli strain, there IS something that will help counter selfishness: communion with Jesus, thanks to His self-giving for us.
We live in a 'self-serve' society, where maximizing your freedom and fighting for your 'rights' is expected. People tend to stand back from situations rather than get involved, for fear of personal injury or becoming liable. When altruistic acts occur, or people voluntarily take a risk to help another in need, that's unusual. Denyse O'Leary in ChristianWeek tells of a recent newsworthy event in which altruism prevailed over selfish instincts.
"An Air France airbus carrying 309 people overshot a runway at Pearson International Airport on August 2, 2005 during a torrential downpour and burst into flames. The Governor General of Canada issued her heartfelt condolences to the grieving survivors of the estimated 200 dead. In fact, as the rain and smoke subsided, it emerged that no one had died (though 43 people had suffered minor injuries). Why was that?
"As it happens, the plane came to a halt near Highway 401, Ontario's main artery. Canadian-born columnist Mark Steyn recounted in the British newspaper Telegraph that: 'Eyewitness accounts vary: some people are said to have panicked, others to have stayed calm. Passing motorists pulled off the road and hurried toward the burning jet to help any survivors. Of the 8 emergency exits, 2 were deemed unsafe to use, and on a 3rd and 4th the slides didn't work. Nonetheless, in a chaotic situation, hundreds of strangers coordinated sufficiently to evacuate a small space through 4 exits in less than a couple of minutes before the airbus was consumed by flames. Many evacuated passengers were later picked up on the shoulder of the 401 and driven by strangers to Air France's terminal.'"
Such adventurous goodwill is so rare and our society so selfish that even such Good Samaritan actions are suspect. O'Leary notes the current view of "evolutionary psychology" assumes that "concern for others is basically fake.People pretend to be concerned for others in order to gain an advantage so they can survive and leave offspring." But Denyse O'Leary herself maintains, "Surely it makes more sense to conclude that the Toronto strangers who took the risk of helping were not seeking any benefit, either for themselves or their descendants."
In this case, true altruism prevailed over selfish instincts. That's too seldom the case. More often, as Chuck Colson notes, "We're built as proud, defiant individuals.Everything in our society exalts that."
Selfishness vs.Sacrament: 'Stretch Or Starve'
Sadly, selfishness is too often apparent even in the Christian church. Arguments and divisiveness can interfere even with the church's most sacred events, such as communion.
Dr Kenneth Chafin is pastor at a Baptist church in Kentucky. He recalls, "I have but one memory of observing the Lord's Supper at the little rural church that licensed me to preach and the divisions that were created every time we observed it. The church had the policy that only those who were members of that local congregation could participate, so at the close of the worship everyone was dismissed with the instruction that the members should remain to observe the Lord's Supper. Mr Croman, who was a wonderful Christian man but not a member of that congregation, would go outside and wait for his wife who was an official member of the church. This always upset Mr Mullins, who was also a member of the church, so in protest that his friend was being excluded he always went out on the front steps with Mr Croman during the observance. As the members went out from the church house, there were the two men sitting there as living reminders fo the difference of opinion. This always served as a catalyst for another discussion of the church's policies, and the real purpose of the ordinance was lost completely for most of those who participated." How sad!
Divisions in the church due to selfishness and differences of opinion are nothing new. The church at Corinth back in the first century is a classic example. Paul had been church-planting at this busy port in Greece for 2 years. Consequently, most of the congregation were young Christians - Christianity itself had hardly been 'invented'. Their spiritual immaturity became particularly apparent in the way they celebrated communion. in 1Cor 11:20 Paul notes, "When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk." Often in the early church, a "love-feast" or church supper was held in conjunction with the religious observance of the breaking of bread. But at Corinth, it seems the rich and poor were eating in their own cliques without waiting for each other or sharing, so the oneness of the ceremony, and its reverent solemnity, was completely overlooked; instead the have-nots were left hungry, while others partied with the jolliness of an Oktoberfest beer-tent. Jesus was being forgotten in the feasting, along with the poorer folks.
Sometimes at our own supper table we'd encourage people to reach out for things on the table rather than wait for things to be passed. We called this the "SOS" method: "stretch or starve". In the Corinthian case, people were actually being left hungry because of others' selfishness, stinginess, and impatience. Paul called their attention to the fact that this was no longer a meaningful religious meal but a grab-game. So he signalled that they needed some serious help.
A Predominant Problem for Young Christians
When you think about it, selfishness is totally opposite to Jesus' nature, His patient caring self-giving kindness. So it's not surprising that much of Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth has to do with countering our self-protecting, self-seeking, self-advancing impulses. Throughout the first 14 chapters there's an underlying theme of overcoming selfishness; mature faith puts the Lord first, because we belong to Him, and so are led by His Spirit to be concerned for others. The 'baby believers' in Corinth were experiencing so much conflict in the church because they hadn't learned to fully love and submit to God and others.
In chapter 1, Paul doesn't waste any time but jumps in with a reference to the divisions and party factions that are in the church; instead of boasting in Paul or Apollos or Peter, he says they ought to boast in the Lord (1:10f,31). In chapter 2(12) he tells them not to rely on human wisdom but what God has freely given us. In chapter 3(4ff,16,23) the apostle points out it's not Paul or Apollos, who are mere servants, but God who makes things grow; the Corinthian believers together are God's temple, they "belong to Christ". In chapter 4(6) he tells them not to take pride in one man over another, but to have the attitude of the apostles as a humble team. Pride and wanting to be in control is a symptom of selfishness. In chapter 5(2) he criticizes them for being proud and defensive about their blatant immorality. In chapter 6(6,12,18) their self-defensiveness has egged them on to go to court with lawsuits against other believers. Paul points out that though they insist "everything is permissible for me", not all is beneficial; their bodies are not their own, their bodies don't belong to them to do just as they please, because they were bought at a price. In chapter 7 self-lessness is applied to the foundational human relationship of marriage: the husband's body doesn't belong to himself, but to his wife. In chapter 9(3,12f,15,19) we're not to exercise our freedom in such a way that it causes a brother to stumble with regard to eating questionable food; it's not a matter of "rights". Paul doesn't take full advantage of his own rights as an apostle, but serves others to save them. We're not to set our hearts on evil things, says chapter 10(6,23f,29), even if they are 'permissible'; rather we're to seek other's good not our own, have regard for others' conscience, not make them stumble about disputable matters. Chapter 11(3,11) applies unselfishness to the question of propriety in worship and gender roles: a man's submission to Christ and responsibility for his wife, while neither are 'independent' from each other. And chapters 12(7) and 14(4,33,40) insist that spiritual gifts are to be used for the common good, beyond just "me" and my own upbuilding; we're to edify the church not just oneself. Selfishness breeds disorder; God isn't a God of disorder but of peace, so everything's to be done in a fitting and orderly way. An what better summary of unselfishness could you get than the 'love chapter', 1Cor 13(4f): "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs." So, in many ways, overcoming selfishness, in various areas of life, is a strong theme right through the first 14 chapters of Paul's letter to this squabbling infant church.
Satan's just too happy to get us focussed on self. That's his secret strategy. The enemy knows if we're thinking about ourself, we won't be concerned as we ought for the Lord or others. The Greatest Commandment is that we love God with our whole being, and love our neighbour as ourself: to do that, we can't be selfish! The serpent sows rebellion, whispering in our ear that if we do what pleases us instead of pleasing God - if we eat the attractive fruit - our eyes will be opened and we'll be 'like God' (Gen 3:5). That's rebellion, putting self in control, rejecting submission to the Lord's command. The enemy does everything he can to interrupt our connection with God, to break the chain, to make us think we're hot stuff and don't need God. But what electronic device can work when there's a short circuit? What army can be effective when communication breaks down or rebellion starts? Rebellion in the ranks destroys the cohesion and neutralizes the body's power. Satan knows how awesome a force for the Kingdom the Church would be if we were all in accord with the Father's will, and worked together as a co-ordinated team, led by the Holy Spirit. All the enemy has to do to prevent that is make us selfish, focussed on pleasing ourselves so we forget God's larger purpose to save lost souls.
The Key to Self-Control: 'Re-member Me'
Although Paul's campaign in this letter seems to build toward chapter 13, eloquent as that 'love chapter' is, it's not the real key to overcoming selfishness in our lives and the church. The real power comes not in a poem but a Person, our Saviour who chooses to re-present Himself to us with the help of a simple ritual meal. So Paul re-tells the tradition of the Lord's Supper back in chapter 11.
Note the arrangement and the context here. Often we lift verses 23-28 out of their setting and use them as our "words of institution" without referring to the paragraphs around them. The immediate issue is the irreverent, hurried, and uncaring manner in which the supposedly religious meal is taking place. There is disparity in the supply - some are gorging, others are left hungry, some are becoming intoxicated. Paul concludes in 11:33, "So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment." Patience and consideration are needed, which spring from unselfishness.
Now here's the 'filler' which is sandwiched in this setting. Jesus, about to be betrayed, breaks the bread and gives it to His followers saying, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me." My body - FOR you: total self-giving, taking our place in complete solidarity, offering His purity instead of our sinfulness, shielding us from the wrath of judgment our sin deserved. Also, He describes the cup as "the new covenant in My blood." A new agreement, a new deal, more solemn than a mere contract: an irrevocable promise that those who repent and believe may approach the Father, totally reconciled thanks to Jesus' costly intervention at the cross. Both His body and blood are given for us and symbolized in the bread and cup so that we remember Him, focus on Him, think about His great love that motivated Him to give all for our sakes. When we really are impacted by the magnitude of what He's done for us - His sheer grace in coming to die for us sinners - we will find our lives changed so we have patience and can wait for each other. Our hearts will be made sympathetic by His Holy Spirit so we care for the 'have-nots' and share with those in need. When we see Jesus in communion, suffering in solidarity for us, we will recognize the Lord's body: in two ways - in the bread and cup, but also the body of the church, believers gathered in His name. Appreciation for His sacrifice empowers us to make sacrifices for the ones He loves, to go the extra mile, to be kind, to put ourselves in their shoes for a change. Remembering Jesus helps us re-member (put back together) a divided body. His body represented in the loaf helps us realize how we are all bun-dled together, like a batch of buns baked in a single pan: you can't pull them apart without tearing them, it's hard to tell where one bun stops and the next one starts. In Him, we're all "in it together".
Do we really realize the pain, the suffering, the sacrifice, the agony, the riches of heaven abandoned, the priceless life of the only-begotten Son of God risked eternally so one sinner could be saved? Such high stakes in my stead will prompt me to examine myself - test, prove, scrutinize as one biting a piece of silver to make sure it's genuine metal. I will judge myself closely, not only in regard to sin against the Lord, but with respect to my relationship with other believers - if there are any I've wronged or need to make amends to. Who am I to devalue or disregard one for whom Christ died?
I will examine myself; and I will control myself, bridle my selfishness, curb my appetites, harness my energies into serving those who need God's touch. Whether that means waiting for each other, eating at home, not getting drunk - the grace I experience at the Lord's table will alter my every relationship with other people, enabling me to love and give and empathize better. I won't be so quick to argue or find fault or correct, but build up as His investment in me has boosted me to the heavenly places in Christ.
Snow Walker: Saved Inuit-style
There's a recent movie out based on a short story by Canadian author Farley Mowat. It features a proud arrogant bush pilot who flies out of Yellowknife. He's out for his own gain. An Eskimo family asks him to transport their daughter who's suffering from some form of tuberculosis to the hospital in Yellowknife. At first he refuses, but they eventually succeed by bribing him with some expensive ivory tusks.
Well, the engine quits when they're in the air and they crash in a desolate area of the far north, far from help, radio broken. The pilot abandons the girl with a few tins of food and sets off to find a village. A few days later he's struggling across the tundra, out of ammunition, tormented by clouds of mosquitoes, clothes torn, collapsing out of sheer exhaustion. In a surprise about-turn, the inuit girl has tracked him all the way and ends up saving him, protecting him, feeding him, nursing him back to recovery. She teaches him how to fish using native techniques; to trap small animals, even hunt caribou, and make waterproof clothes.
With the onset of winter they head for the coast to find a hunting camp, but en route she begins to cough up blood. Its bright red splatters against the pure white snow. It becomes obvious she's not going to make it. At the last, they are face to face, nose to nose, tears flowing from the pilot's eyes as he realizes she has given her life to save him, re-make him, give him a fresh start. She's taught him not only how to survive, but also to serve, to think of others, to not just be thinking of himself. It's her life for his. As he tenderly holds her dying face in his hands, it's a serious, reverent, deeply loving moment.
That's how communion is for one Jesus died to save. We were the brash, arrogant, uncaring pilot, abandoning the weak, most deserving to die. The Lord's costly self-giving has brought measureless benefit to us, totally undeserved. Remembering Him, recognizing His body, empowers us to live for Him with our whole being and convey His love to others, for we are His - we belong to Him. The divisions, the differences, the flimsy human excuses and pretences, are all washed away in the flow from His hands and side. Let's pray.