Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
The lesson we just heard is at the midpoint of the Gospel of Mark. Up to this point the campaign of Jesus has been a wonderful success, although with mounting opposition. Now suddenly Jesus predicts that the opposition will get him and kill him and his campaign will be seen as a failure. The disciples don’t like this. That’s not why they signed up. They believe he truly is the Son of God, and that it’s his to win, and for him to throw it all away would be a crying shame.
He says, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words . . . , of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes into the glory of his Father with the holy angels,” that is, when he enters the presence of God the Father, upon his ascension into heaven. We are taught in other places that Jesus ascended into the presence of God in order to stand for us, to represent us, to intercede for us. This is why we pray to God in Jesus’ name, because we communicate with God by means of Jesus representing us. If this is true, then what Jesus means here is that while he’s representing us he can be embarrassed by us whom he represents, and even ashamed of us. Well, does he not retain his full humanity and all his human feelings while ascended into heaven?
He does not mean that he condemns us or rejects us. That is not the way of love, nor of the suffering that love accepts. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love never gives up. He will not let us go when we let go. He has committed to us indissolubly. It’s in his love that he feels the shame, it’s from love that he feels it when we act ashamed of him. Especially the church, which so often hides the full truth of his message.
A case in point is our first reading, from Genesis 17, one of the key texts in the Bible, about the covenant with Abraham, from which were deleted verses 8 through 14, the very important verses which institute the sign of the covenant, and that sign would be the sign of circumcision. You might remember that in my sermon for January 1, I spoke of the church’s historic shaming of circumcision, and the condemnation of those who were circumcised, and the church’s hatred of the Jews. We have given Jesus much to be ashamed about.
I suspect the editors of the lectionary would say that it was not from anti-Semitism that they took those verses out, but simply to avoid embarrassing the church with the graphic language of circumcision, and the repetition of the phrase, “the flesh of your foreskin,” which makes you think of a certain body part which we don’t expose in public and certainly not in church. Well, it is not wrong to value decency and decorum. We want this church to be a safe church. But safety is not the same thing as salvation, and sometimes salvation can be unsafe. The shedding of the blood of the innocent little child reminds us that our salvation is not nice and safe, but a matter of life and death. The ancient ritual might strike us as barbaric and cruel, but it need not shame us, unless we’re in denial about the deeper cruelties and more subtle barbarities which we today allow to multiply under the surface of our pretensions of progress and modernity.
Simon Peter wanted Jesus to play it safe, and win his campaign, and save his life. I guess he did not understand that Jesus was already suffering, even then, that Jesus was suffering having Simon Peter as his chief disciple. We say that Jesus suffered on Good Friday, but he also suffered during his whole life, beginning with his birth as homeless and his childhood as a refugee. He had to suffer his disciples, and he suffers us, the church. And if Jesus suffers, that means God suffers. It means God suffers the inhumanity of humanity and the misery of all the world.
This is the cost God pays for God’s commitments. God commits. In the narrative of the Bible, God commits to a series of covenants. Last week we saw the covenant with Noah, and the sign of the rainbow. This week we see the covenant with Abraham, and the sign of circumcision. These covenants include God promising to do some things and not do others. You see how God limits God’s own freedom by making such commitments. We call this cost an opportunity cost. But the cost to God which is much heavier is the suffering which comes with commitment. God will feel the suffering of Abraham and his descendants whenever they suffer injustice or oppression. God will also suffer in Godself when God’s partners fail to keep their commitments. God suffers with the church and God suffers from the church. And God stays in it for love.
The suffering of God on our behalf is what we celebrate in Lent. Of course it’s our own penitence that we think about in Lent. We are mindful of our shortcomings and our sin, and to stimulate our mindfulness we deny ourselves a thing or two and do a little voluntary suffering. But the mystery of Lent is the suffering of God, and the mental pilgrimage of Lent directs us towards Good Friday. Not that Good Friday was so awful. The physical suffering of Jesus was real but it was hardly as awful as the suffering of many other Jews in history and of the countless unremembered victims of torture and abuse and slavery and starvation and oppression and the just plain ordinary sicknesses some people get. The deeper suffering of God is the shame of God on how the world which God created has turned out, the shame of God for putting this world under the stewardship of our stupid species, the shame of God for the relentless disobedience of the children of Israel, and the shame of God for the relentless scandal of the Christian church.
The symbol of shame is the symbol of the cross. The cross which Jesus referred to was not as yet a Christian symbol, it was a Roman symbol of a humiliating execution, designed for slaves and traitors and people without civil rights. Something like lynching. It was shameful for Jesus to be crucified. It was shameful for the God of Israel that the Romans could crucify the Son of God. The shame of Jesus and the shame of God is the climax of our six more weeks of observing Lent.
Or maybe not. Maybe God is not ashamed of us at all. I mean we know that what the world considers shameful, God does not, and what God considers shameful, the world does not. The church is between. We have to sort out what is truly shameful and what is not, and we often get it wrong. On the one hand, our culture tells us there is no shame in sexual exposure or political infidelity or conspicuous consumption or economic greed or public dishonesty for the sake of public gain. On the other hand we shame the people who are not successful or who don’t look good or who can’t compete. The Park Slope culture shames its children all the time. What we are ashamed of God is not. Maybe the suffering of God for us is actually a matter of great joy to God.
Is it true? I don’t know for sure. I’m wondering what God is like. I’m wondering if beneath the outer level of the shame of the Son of Man and the middle layer of the suffering of God there is the deepest level of God’s joy, God’s infinite and indissoluble joy, and that is where we’re aiming in our inner pilgrimage of Lent. And it’s to get to that pure joy that we give up everything else, the chocolate and the meat and the martinis, and we give up the guilt and we give up the shame, and all we’re left with is our naked souls in exposure to the joy of God.
This sermon is only a meditation on what God is like, we learn what God is like by observing Jesus. There are layers of observation in observing Lent, as I was taught by Melody. You observe Lent by observing Jesus, and you observe yourself observing Jesus. You watch yourself watching him. You follow him as he takes up his cross and denies himself. So you deny yourself by putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes before your own. You take up your cross by being willing to suffer the consequences of committing to his priorities, the resistance of the world and even the world’s revenge. You follow him along the self-defeating signs of the rainbow and of circumcision and of the cross. You surrender your pretensions and defenses and your fears. You aim for the doorway of the cross, but that is not the goal. Behind the door is the resurrection and the gift of life. Behind the curtain of shame is the fountain of joy. It’s mystical. You have to give yourself to it. There is surrender here. There is no way around surrender here. You have to surrender to what you cannot fully know and what you certainly can’t control. That feels like death. It goes against your every instinct of self-preservation, and worse, of dignity and decency.
God invites you to surrender to this joy. God invites you to accept this life. Again and again, till death do us part, and there is no shame in accepting this invitation every week again as if it is brand new. There is no other way to accept a joy which is infinite. This is how to receive a love which knows no shame. No matter who you are or what you think about yourself, I can tell you this is true, that God rejoices to love you with everything God is, and that everything God is, is love.
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.