What a Shame
| Mark 8:27-38
|Sun, September 17, 2006
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Today is the turning point. Today Jesus veers off on an unpredictable uncharted course. Today we are at the crux of the matter. To miss this sharp turn in direction is to miss out on the great wonder and terror of the Christian faith. In the gospel curriculum with Rabbi Jesus this is a class that simply must be taken. It begins innocently enough. Jesus asks the class: “Who do people say that I am?” They reply with some big names. He is the second coming of John the Baptist, returned from the dead after decapitation. He is the long awaited Elijah, who once departed the earth in a chariot of fire. He is one of the prophets, one of the God messengers, one of the dangerous, daring truth tellers of old. Jesus does not mark the answers correct or give them a failing grade. He listens, then he asks another question: “But who do you say that I am.” It is the aria that brings down the curtain on the first act of Mark’s grand gospel opera. It is a question for the disciples, yes, but also for the reader and for the congregation. It is the question that is asked of every church: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, sitting in the front row, raises his hand: “You are the Messiah.” Peter is the first to say it out loud, the first to name him royalty. Peter calls Jesus “king”. He names him “head of state”. Peter says that the revolution has begun. He believes that Jesus will overthrow the puppet government of Herod and chase the occupying Roman troops home to their famous highways and aqueducts and coliseum. After all, Peter has been following from the beginning. He has witnessed the wonderworking power - the miracle healings, the exorcism of demons, the calming of nature, the confrontation with authority, the creation of the twelve member government in waiting who will lead the twelve tribal provinces of Israel. Peter puts one and one and one together and blurts out the answer: “You are the Christ.”
It is all very expected. Calling Jesus “Christ” is so commonplace that our children must assume that Jesus was born to a couple named Mr. & Mrs. Joseph & Mary Christ. If the story ended here we would not be surprised in the least by Peter’s answer. But the story is just beginning to unfold, it has not yet veered off in a sideways direction. That new direction comes suddenly when Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” His identity must remain top secret. No one is to know that he is the long promised descendant of King David - Messiah Jesus, King of Israel. No one is to know because they do not know the half of it yet. They only know the wonderworking power. They do not know the lonesome journey that lies ahead. In the entire first act of “Mark - The Opera” there has been not one mention of suffering and rejection, of death and resurrection. But the moment that Peter guesses Jesus’ identity it is all out in the open. Jesus says it all “quite openly”. His life must lead to “great suffering”, “rejection by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes”. In other words, he will be considered a nobody by the power elite and the cultured intelligentsia. This is not going to be a repeat of King David, the victorious general, model king. This is no simple sequel. This is a very different story. It is the story of Messiah Jesus - a man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief.
What a shame. We gather to be filled with joy and wonder, beauty and comfort. Instead Jesus takes his disciples in a dark and troubling direction. Peter knows better. Peter speaks up for the church. He knows that this kind of talk can be depressing, that it ruins a perfectly good Sunday, that it is not the way to grow a successful religious enterprise. The text is plain. Peter takes Jesus aside and silences him. Peter “rebukes” Jesus. This is the very word that is used when Jesus “rebukes” the demons (Mk. 1:25, 3:12) and when he “rebukes” the powerful wind in the storm (Mk. 4:39). Peter means to shut Jesus up. He is the first in a long line of church leaders and preachers, congregations and denominations to tell Jesus to keep quiet. Jesus is regularly rebuked by his church. Whenever the gospel is sold as sugary sweet candy or packaged as a product that is as easily digested as a pudding you hear Peter’s rebuke of Jesus. And it too often seems as though Peter’s determined marketing of the church successfully silences Jesus, the suffering servant. What a shame.
Yet Jesus will not be silenced. “Turning and looking at his disciples” - looking at his church, looking at us - “he rebuked Peter”. Jesus has rebuked the demons and he has rebuked the raging storm. Now Jesus rebukes the church when it insists on silencing him. He calls Peter a servant of Satan. He says that Peter is mouthing the common sense of the market. He tells Peter that he is not listening to the logic of God. Then Jesus calls together a big crowd of onlookers, disciples and all. He knows it is a teachable moment in the classroom: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” It is the first time that the word “cross” has been mentioned in the gospel. It runs like an electric shock through the text. Take up your noose, he says. Take up your humiliation. Two millennia of using the cross as a holy sign has reduced the high voltage of Jesus’ call to a bare tingle. The cross of the 1st Century is the brutal punishment reserved by the Empire for slaves, criminals and unruly rebels who need to be suppressed. Taking up a cross means carrying the implement of one’s death to the public place of execution - a crossroads or a theater or some high ground where the display of the naked body is intended to be the ultimate deterrent. The text does not record the look on the faces of Peter or the twelve. It does not tell us how the crowd responds - with silence, with shouts, with questions?
The text leaves no room for misunderstanding. Once he is identified as the Messiah, Jesus turns a sharp corner from miraculous wonders to sacrificial suffering. And he does not intend to go this way alone. He calls a company to follow, to pick up its cross as he picks up his. He says that what looks to be the salvation of life is actually the place where life is lost. He says that what seems to be losing life for him and for the gospel’s sake is actually saving it. He says that the world’s ledgers are upside down - that the profit of gaining the world is not worth the massive forfeit of losing your soul. Jesus’ words are hard. We want to forget them, to fix them, to ignore them, to replace them. But his words cannot be forgotten, fixed, ignored or replaced. They haunt the church’s memory. They resound in the hearts and souls and minds of the baptized. Those whose foreheads have been marked by the sign of a cross find that the upside-down logic of the gospel is tattooed to our identity. Following Jesus costs. It results in death. It delivers life.
Jesus longs for companions who will walk the cruciform way with him. He is calling out a family of cross-bearers, a company of the crucified. He is not afraid to state it plainly: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.” Shaming is awful. Being ashamed is a terrible experience. We wish Jesus would not speak of shame or use shame. We want him to be nicer, to be more understanding, to be less intense. But Jesus has the courage to tell the truth. He will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him. Being with him will mean accepting the shame of being known as one of the crucified, one of the ridiculed, one of the humiliated, one of the nobodies. After such a long period when the church has sought to be respected, given status and held in high regard this ancient memory shames us. The church’s knee-jerk reaction is to seek acceptance. Jesus says that staying close to him leads to rejection.
What a shame that the good news of God comes to us like this. It is too hard. Besides, we already have much to be ashamed of. We have claimed to follow Jesus, tried to follow Jesus, wanted to follow Jesus and have even done so with daring steps here and there, now and then. From time to time we have picked up the cross of suffering, humiliation and death in order to be with the suffering, humiliated and dying. But we have also walked by on the other side more than we care to admit. Like Peter and the twelve we have denied, denied, denied when asked if we are with the One who is to be crucified and hung out to dry. If the truth be told, the church has regularly fled from the cross and called that flight faithfulness. Surely Jesus is ashamed - ashamed of the casual way we wear his name, ashamed of the church when it seeks to profit from association with him rather than to die with him.
Yet shame does not have the final word. First, Peter is ashamed to admit his affiliation with the Crucified One. Then, when the cock crows, Peter is ashamed of his cowardly denial and betrayal. Surely this marks the end. Surely Jesus judges him unworthy and rejects him as no good. Then the women find the tomb empty and are given a message: “Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee” (Mk 16:7). Tell Peter. Especially Peter. Ashamed Peter. After the shame, Jesus meets Peter. Meets you. Meets me. Meets his church. There - here - on the other side of the cross, he calls again. And again. Until we learn to trust him, to deny our fears, to pick up our own cross and to follow him, to follow him once and for all. Then Jesus is ashamed no more. And neither are we.