Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
The two signs of God that I’m going to talk about today are the signs of circumcision and the cross. These two signs are paradigmatic of the two Biblical religions: circumcision is the costly sign of Judaism, and the cross is the universal sign of Christianity. Notice that both signs refer to violence against a non-consenting victim, whether it’s the cutting of an infant or the torturing execution of a slave! Violent signs are at the heart of both religions, and should that not be troubling?
This week I could not tolerate the news. I was already down from having the flu, but listening to how our lawmakers and our president propose to answer the violent death of children with even more violence instead of reversing it, and all of them calling themselves Christians, I found myself weeping at the breakfast table. Grief and anger. So what about this violence in the signs of God?
A cross is something to kill people on. You know it was not the earliest symbol of Christianity. Jesus never told us to make it our sign, not even in our gospel today. He chose for us the signs of water and break and wine. The early Christians for their emblem used a fish, which was non-violent.
The cross became the main Christian symbol only after the Roman emperor Constantine made it the emblem of his army—organized violence in the name of Christ. And through all the centuries after, millions of people have been killed or injured under one sign of the cross or another, especially among the circumcised. It’s small comfort that the cross was not the emblem of the Reformed churches. We did not use crosses in worship. In our sanctuary the only cross is up in one stained-glass window. I think I can say that the cross is a symbol of the shame of Christianity.
So is the Lord Jesus ashamed of us, ashamed of us who have shamed his message and what he stood for, and died for? Isn’t that what he predicted in our gospel? Does that mean that in heaven now he does not intercede for us? Or is that rather part of his suffering, that he suffers us?
As he suffered the rejection of his people and the denial of his disciples, but never rejected them, so now he suffers the misuse of his name and the complicity of the church, but he does not reject us. He bears his shame for us in the enduring wounds upon his resurrected hands and feet and side. But his resurrection is stronger than death and his love his stronger than his shame, indeed, his love is so strong as to embrace and keep loving even that which shames him. Let that inspire us as well.
Shame is not all bad. A normal person is supposed to know when to be ashamed. The absence of any sense of shame within our president is particularly distressing, and yet that absence of shame makes him particularly invulnerable and distressingly successful. Yet he uses shame when he mocks the disabled and he calls people losers. Sexual abusers count on using shame to protect their secrecy. Shame is always a signal of something wrong but it’s not a trustworthy sign. Children grow up with shame they don’t deserve. We grow up ashamed of our bodies. Already in the Garden of Eden the first symptom of the fall was the sudden shame of Eve and Adam at their nakedness. No other animal on the planet is ashamed of its organs of reproduction so as to keep them undercover.
This is why it is almost laughable that the middle seven verses of our reading from Genesis have been cut out by the editors of our lectionary. Those are the seven verses where God tells Abram that in order for him to partner in this new covenant that God is making with him, Abram has to go and circumcise “the flesh of his foreskin,” and the flesh of the foreskin of every male within his house. Those words get repeated several times for emphasis.
I guess the lectionary editors did not want you to think about that part of the male anatomy in church. Is the deletion of the verses from prudery or a little bit of anti-Semitism? Whatever, the deletion of those verses from our lesson just sharpens the point, that God made covenant with Abraham by means of a sign cut into that part of his body that has always been a focal point of shame. How troubling of God. And I would say that the deletion of those verses is an implied rebuke against the troubling side of God.
So too in the gospel, Simon Peter rebuked Jesus when he spoke of his approaching death. Up to this point in the story, according to St. Mark, the campaign has been a wonderful success, although with gathering opposition. Now for the first time Jesus predicts that the opposition will get him and kill him. If that happens the public will regard him not as the Messiah but a loser.
Yet Simon Peter believes 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. And the disciples were so ashamed of his crucifixion they didn’t want to see it. The women were there at the cross, but only one of the men. The others fled and kept undercover.
Now when Jesus first predicts it, he does not say he will be crucified, but that he will be killed at the hands of the Judean authorities. And since the Judean authorities were not permitted to crucify by either the Torah or Roman law, the disciples will have been thinking of a death by stoning. It’s only after Peter’s rebuke and Jesus rebuking him back that Jesus gathers the crowd and for the first time mentions a cross. To follow him you must take up your cross. You lose your life to save it.
You losers. If you’re carrying a cross that means you are a loser. The crowd along the roadside is mocking you and shaming you. Can you face that as a follower of Jesus? Notice that Jesus never says you have to die upon your cross. He did that once for all. That particular suffering he does not ask of you. But he does hold out to you the suffering of shaming by the likes of people who have no shame, or your shaming by ordinary people who are more afraid than free, or your shaming by people who are simply ignorant, or your shaming by people who are themselves ashamed.
It was the shame of Peter that made Peter want to shame Jesus. Jesus had to suffer Peter, and to endure his own disciples was part of Jesus’ suffering. The suffering of God on our behalf is what we celebrate in Lent. Of course we think about our own penitence, and our Lenten deprivations are self-imposed sufferings to keep us mindful of our shortcomings. But the deeper 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, or of the countless unremembered victims of torture and abuse and slavery and oppression, or of the 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 politics of Christians, and the shame of God for the relentless scandal of the Christian church.
Simon Peter shows us that just because you call Jesus “the Christ” does not mean you represent his message, and you might well even be his opposition. The lovers of Jesus can be the worst of his deniers, and his followers can be the worst of his betrayers. To the loudest of the Christian voices in America today I do believe the Lord Jesus says, Get thee behind me Satan.
Let me finish with the positive. In the Epistle, St. Paul talks about the faith of Abraham. The context of his faith was the shame of childlessness with Sarah. That was way worse back then than it would be today. So for Abraham his faith was the opposite of shame.
For some of you faith is the opposite of doubt, for others it’s the opposite of certainty, and for some of you your faith must be your antidote to shame. Whatever kind of shame you feel about yourself. The shame that others load on you. The shame that has a grip on you. That shame you counteract by your faith in God.
The opposite of your shame is faith, your faith in what God says of you, your faith in what God offers you, your faith in God’s esteem for you. Your faith in the truth despite the shaming of the shameless. Your faith that life is worth living when you having something to die for. Your faith that love is more powerful than shame, and even reverses it. What God considers shameful, the world does not, and what the world considers shameful, God does not. What we’re ashamed of God is not. The suffering of God for us is actually a matter of great joy to God. God loves in you even what you despise about yourself. So great is God’s love for you that loving you is nothing but pleasure and joy for God.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.