Every December, my seminary has an Advent Lessons and Carols service, and for reasons still unknown, in my senior year my friend Christ Streeter and I were put in charge of Lessons and Carols. We had to work out the liturgy, pick the music, and make perhaps the most sensitive of decisions, picking nine people, from the whole seminary community, to read the lessons. Chris and I knew that we could end up practical pariahs if we chose poorly; any group that felt somehow under-represented would, undoubtedly, make a fuss. We chose wisely, I think, but the wisest choice was a young man, all of eight years old, the son of a classmate of ours. With his slow, heavy Georgia accent, he read the account of creation in Genesis, and in a moment of innocent brilliance, he read “and they were nekkid, and they were not ashamed.” In reading that one line, he at once cracked us up and made us ashamed that we had never read that story quite like that before.
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” O boy.
We’ve talked about shame before, how it can both useful and deadly. Jesus had nothing to be ashamed of, of course, but this whole Gospel reading we just heard is a lesson in shame, and how, in the end, to avoid it.
But first we have a lesson on how to quickly bring shame on yourself, or at least look like a total idiot. Mark tells us that after Jesus spoke about His death, Peter “rebuked Him,” he took the bold step of telling Jesus that he knew better than Him. “Get behind me, Satan,” was how Jesus responded to Peter. The ultimate shaming, you would think, until just the next thing Jesus said.
“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” It may seem strange to think that this sentence contains more shame than “Get behind me, Satan,” but to anyone living in Roman Palestine, they would get the point. Nothing but nothing was more shameful than to be hung on a cross.
“Take up his cross and follow me.” Now, “There are few gospel lines that have been more frequently misunderstood and misapplied. We all know how “cross” in verse 34 has been rendered a metaphor for so many other things. People even ask each other, “What’s your cross to bear?” as though there were many options, as though “cross” is just a trope, an empty symbol, that receives specific content in many and various forms in many different lives. My cross might be an addiction. Your cross might be having to deal with a nagging relative. Yet another person’s cross to bear might be chronic fatigue syndrome or arthritis. But surely this is not what Jesus had in mind. A cross was a cross in Jesus’ time.” 1
The cross meant death, and worse yet, a death sentence handed down by a sometimes brutal and arbitrary overlord. Crucifixion was considered the proper means of execution for slaves, prisoners of war, and revolutionaries. Before most were actually crucified, they were scourged, whipped with chains both front and back, and most eventually evacuated on themselves. The cross meant death while naked for all to see, stripped of not only your clothes but any dignity you might have had left. Even after you were dead, the Romans often just left you there for the birds. The cross meant dishonor in waves, a progressive shaming.
“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” “We take up the cross-bar, which means going under the sentence of death. But then, the one fact everyone admits is that we are already under a death sentence anyway. There is no avoiding it. Following Jesus does not mean that you die as opposed to not dying, it just means that you die with the Jesus who alone has the power to bring you back. The Christian choice is to give up on the furious, but finally futile, ways so many try to preserve their lives through worldly wealth, prestige, and power.”2 The Christian choice is life lived as God intended, a life full up with the power of Christ, a life laid down for the same. And there’s no shame in a life like that.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week