Ashamed of Suffering – Lectionary 02/28/2021

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Sermon Text

            Shame has many meanings. A person can feel shame when they’ve done something wrong or a person may be shamed for breaking social conventions. However, shame as a system was much more concrete in the time of Jesus. A person had a sliding scale of two attributes – honor and shame. A complex series of cultural norms overshadowed any conversation a person had. One was expected to speak to people dependent upon their relative honor.

            A person who was poor would have less honor than the rich, an older person more than a younger, men more than women, and so on and so forth. Different categories overlapped so as to add or diminish one another, but the result was a strictly stratified society that punished those who pushed against conventions. To an Honor-Shame society, everything and everyone had a place and to push against that was to be exceptionally disgraceful.

            Jesus, naturally, walks an interesting line in his interactions with those around him. He actively participated in the honor-shame culture around him no other way of interacting with people would have been intelligible to those around him. Yet, Jesus consistently pushed the envelope on who he was supposed to speak to and how. He opposed the honor of community leaders like the Pharisees and Sadducees and gave it to the poor and the hungry instead. Jesus rejected the false piety of his countrymen in exchange for legitimate faith – Judean or otherwise. Jesus spoke to women regardless of their connection men. Jesus was fully immersed in the culture of his day, yet as the eternal son of God he saw beyond it and acted against it when necessary.

            Today’s scripture captures a moment of Jesus simultaneously living into and against the norms of his society. Jesus speaks of his coming suffering at the hands of prominent figures – scribes, high priests, elder – and says that after suffering abuse from them he will be killed. Jesus is telling all who have gathered around him, likely most of the nearby population of Caesarea-Philippi who have seen him perform a miracle, that at the end of his long road of ministry he will be killed as a criminal. Even though he finishes this prediction with his resurrection, the crowd would have been struck most by Jesus’s insistence he was to die in dishonor. What kind of Messiah would do such a thing?

            Peter reads the room and pulls Jesus aside. Though Peter had just declared Jesus as the Messiah prior to this episode, he was aware of the fact that Jesus was stepping into dangerous territory. The people wanted a champion to destroy Rome and a Holy One to restore the Temple. Yet Jesus was putting forward an image of a king who was to be killed by a committee decision. That was not going to fly. Peter chastised Jesus for breaking the mold, for deflating the expectations of the people. What we cannot lose is that even though Peter seems to be pulling Jesus aside privately to discuss this matter, he does so in front of a crowd of people. Peter has issued an honor-challenge to Jesus, and Jesus responds accordingly.

            Jesus reverses Peter’s challenge and commands him to take his place behind Jesus. Peter, who would go on to be a key leader in the Church, was not yet ready to lead and was certainly not in a place to chastise Jesus. Culturally, Jesus would be justified to leave this conflict here and be satisfied with restoring his honor publicly. However, Jesus had bigger fish to fry than keeping up appearances. Jesus looks at the crowd, who is perhaps now clutching pearls at the thought that Peter would say out loud what they were privately thinking. He looked to them and said that his fate, to die on a cross, was to be their fate if they truly wished to follow him.

            It must have been shocking to have heard Jesus’s words. When Jesus is saying that to follow him is to take up one’s own cross, Jesus is telling the crowd that they must be prepared to die. They were being told their lives were to be on the line Not only that, but the image of a cross specifically meant that they would not face dignified deaths, but the most humiliating death imaginable.

            Jews, like early Christians, had a complex relationship with martyrdom – here meaning dying for the faith. In Jewish culture martyrs were usually killed because they refused to bend to the Gentile ways around them. Famously the apocryphal books of second and fourth Maccabees describe the deaths of seven brothers who refused to accept Greek customs of food and worship. Despite elevating stories like this, people were discouraged from seeking martyrdom – in other words from dying unnecessarily. Even in early Christianity, St. Clement describes those who, “rushed on death,” but, “banish themselves without being martyrs, even though they are punished publicly.”[1] People, in other words, who sought fame through their martyrdom rather than truly dying for a cause.

            Jesus, in highlighting the cross as a means of death, was highlighting that those who wished to follow him were not doing so for an immediate escape from all their troubles. More than this, those who were interested in glory should not sign up at all. The glory Jesus was offering was for the World to Come, for the resurrected reality of Christ’s kingdom. However, to come to that glory one must take up their cross and live a life based upon sacrifice, dishonor, shame, and ultimately death. Only through sacrifice could they save their life. The vainglorious had no place in this World to Come and those who were rejected and dishonored in this life would be the ones to truly know honor in the next.

            We often equate worldly success with blessing, but to do so is to work directly against Jesus’s teachings throughout the Gospels. A person who is rich is not automatically a holy person. A person with power is not automatically in that position because their righteousness qualified them for it. More often than not, power and money corrupt the soul rather than crown a righteous person. What Jesus puts forward throughout the Gospel, but especially in this passage, is that all definitions we hold onto of honor and success are nothing in light of God’s actions in this world. Peter’s fear that Jesus was disgracing his message by tying it to persecution was refuted with a revelation – the life of a Christian is not supposed to be one where we glorify ourselves, but one where we glorify God in all that we do.

            How do we apply this to our life outside of the context in which Jesus was speaking? We do not live in an honor-shame society, we do not actively face persecution in the United States, and many of us – socially, economically, materially – are comfortable if not well off. We are people who have been given a great many resources, a great many opportunities to succeed as the world deems success, and indeed we are people who often push the more uncomfortable elements of our faith to the side. To take our scripture at its words and respond to it accordingly, we must not do as Peter did, pushing the uncomfortable out of the way to make way for a more palatable faith, we must embrace the hard teachings which our faith holds for us.

            The reality of our human existence is that it is full of painful things. We suffer disease, loneliness, sorrow, age, anger, and an innumerable number of other things which contribute to the broad umbrella of what we call “suffering.” Suffering is not, as some might suggest, a good thing in itself. No one wants to suffer and the elimination of suffering in the World to Come shows us that it is not something we are meant to experience. No, suffering is a temporary companion but a very real and powerful one. Though we spend so much of our life seeking to escape it, Jesus asks us to not be afraid of it when it comes our way and instead to follow Christ’s own example in how to face suffering.

            Jesus, firstly, invites us to consider the fact that sacrifice is the primary means by which we follow him in our life. We must take up our cross – willingly dying to this life and if necessary, literally dying in this life – and go down the path of our Christian observance. This mentality means that we acknowledge the hardship that comes our way, not minimizing it or baptizing it as good, but seeing it as a temporary obstacle in our way. We embrace opportunities to help people that may be inconvenient. We sacrifice our pet pleasures for the good of other people.

            We must accept that sometimes doing what is right will seem gauche to those around us. When we help the unhoused people may accuse us of attracting more of them to us.
When we point out injustices in the world people may say we are being divisive. When we seek to treat, rather than punish, to promote harm reduction rather than punitive action for those suffering from addiction, people may say we promote addiction. Indeed, if we give freely to the poor, we may find people accusing us of rewarding bad life choices. The truth is, no good work has ever been taken on that was not unpopular to the wider culture around it.

            Peter rejected Jesus’s sacrificial ministry. The “holier than thou,” souls of his day opposed his eating with sinners. Those in power and with money opposed his helping the poor. From the moment Jesus stepped out of the Desert of Temptation and onto the path of ministry people opposed his work in the world. We must be willing to do unpopular work as well. We must be unashamed of the Gospel which has called us to unabashed love of our neighbor as ourselves. We must give and work and love and make tough choices and even harder sacrifices for the good of those around us. We must take up our cross and carry it all the way to our grave.

            For, if we are ashamed of suffering. If we are ashamed to address those who hurt around us or to accept that Jesus calls us into solidarity with them, then Jesus is clear he will feign ignorance of us like we did of him. Do not let comfort keep you from eternal bliss, do not let the inconvenience of righteousness keep you from a holy life. Repent, and believe the Gospel, take up your cross and follow Christ. – Amen.

[1] Clement. Stromata IV.4

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