Many of us learned to do this when we come to church. We “dress up” as our best selves –including clothes and smiles – before we exit our cars in the parking lot.
But imagine with me the good news of life without a mask.
Where you didn’t have to pretend, or wear a mask, or put one ounce of energy into faking that everything is ok when its not. Imagine that its possible for you to be yourself, to be authentic and not get frightened that someone would see you as you really are. Imagine the spiritual, emotional, and relational health of a life shaped by grace and not appearances.
Can you imagine it with me?
Because you have been saved by grace. Grace. Not goodness, appearances, production, or by showing up. Grace. Period. Nothing you do or say will improve that.
Charles Ashworth is stark example of someone who has sought wholeness and humanity by covering up his true self and wearing a mask. This character in Susan Howatch’s novel Glittering Images shows us how unhealthy it is to be inauthentic. The implications are staggering and far-reaching.
His inability to accept his faults and the grief that haunts him means he does everything in his power to mask his true self. Emotionally, this causes him exceptional anxiety and disconnects him from himself. And it forces him into a life of self-validation and hiding.
Spiritually it leads him to doubt and resignation, spiritual bankruptcy and an addiction to religiosity void of connection to divinity.
Relationally it leaves him fearful, deceptive, and completely incapable of commitment.
Donald Hans and Wayne Fehr capture Ashworth’s energy perfectly, “All else should follow from the deep knowledge that one is loved. Without that knowledge, all else is likely to be efforts at self-validation, efforts to ward off shame and condemnation – in short, a lifestyle of drivenness.”
It’s easy to see an extreme example like Charles Ashworth and distance ourselves from him. We all, however, to some level of health, have a little Charles Ashworth in us. In one setting of life or another, we all feel the need to cover up, to pretend, to soothe ourselves through denial. This is just what it means to be human. We live, we love, we find ourselves feeling ashamed, hurt, or fearful. But hear this my friends, there is no condemnation for this. It’s just who we are.
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Sinner and saint alike, there is no condemnation.
We’ve seen what an unhealthy life looks like. What would a life defined by grace not appearances look and feel like?
Our two biblical texts today fill out the image of the fully human, fully alive life lived as an embrace of not rejection of our identity. First, in Romans we meet Jesus the Truly Human one, about whom Paul says his gospel reveals the just intent of God for humanity.
In the midst of outside pressures from Reputation, Relatives, and Religion Jesus remains faithful to live how he has learned that God lives in our world. He never succumbs to appearances or proving his worth through acceptable behavior. He is, always, whom he was created to be.
In our Old Testament text from Job 29:11-17 we encounter the Hebrew Bible’s image of the ideal person. This image is, like that of Jesus, the image of humanity committed passionately to furthering God’s restoring justice for all people. Instead of putting on masks, we wear right-relationships and restorative justice for the sake of those suffering from broken economics or bodies, those marginalized as orphans and widows, those without hope or home.
Now let’s be honest for a moment. Many of us wear our masks to church, we check our true selves at the front door, precisely because we know what the image of faithfulness and health is! And we believe we don’t or can’t live up to it. The church is pretty good about identifying how a good Chrisitan should be and behave. We’re less good at helping folks see how to become that. So we hide, because we know deep down that we are not that ideal.
For many, that’s how church becomes an excellent – perhaps the best- place to hide. Who of us wants to confess that we’re not the agreed upon ideal?
All of us, I assume, are actually neither Jesus nor Charles Ashworth. But some mix of the two. We are somewhere on the spectrum of authenticity between full health and unhealthy. And perhaps if you are like me we’re act differently in different settings, no? Authentic at home, but we wear a mask at church. Or healthy with our closest friends but completely shut off from our spouse. Authentic and honest at work, but afraid to admit our true selves to our parents.
No matter where each of us is on this spectrum, the invitation and the hope is that we would grow. Together. That we would commit as a family of faith to love one another unconditionally, to create a space without shame where grace can flourish, and to consistently let each other be less than perfect.
Wearing a glittering mask blocks us from pursuing justice and making peace. How would we ever have the courage to stick our neck out in protest, disagree with the commonly accepted myth of redemptive violence, or challenge racism or xenophobia if the bulk of our emotional energy is being channeled into making a good appearance?
Masks drain our courage and ability to be who and how God has called us to be.
But you can live a more authentic life. You can embrace your created goodness. You can enter the saving story of God which transforms your driven-ness and appearance addiction, and at the same time transforms the world in which we live.
Imagine it with me! Your life, lived in the good news that you are saved by grace and not appearances.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ AMEN.
This is the first in a series called Glittering Images: Living Authentically with God and Others. You can read more about this worship series here. We have also created and printed a 4-part Bible Study that supplements the sermon series that we offer as gifts.