Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
The “cringe factor” has taken over modern comedy. Instead of wordplay, mistaken identity, slapstick, or observational humor, today’s writers seem to have settled on public humiliation as the best way to get a laugh. I enjoyed this style of humor on “The Office,” when a buffoonish authority figure would reliably ensure his own embarrassment. So I thought I would enjoy Louis C.K.’s sitcom, “Louie,” but I could barely get through the first episode. Watching an earnest, well-meaning man bring shame and suffering upon himself wasn’t funny, just painful and depressing. Maybe it gets better, but I’ve seen enough.
So we come to today’s Gospel and Peter, loyal, impulsive, and brash, creates a deeply cringe-worthy moment. Up until now in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been keeping his nature and his destiny a secret. This passage contains the turning point. Jesus teaches his disciples that he is the Son of Man, and that his destiny is to suffer, to be rejected by the religious hierarchy, to be killed, and to rise again, and Mark points out, “He said all this quite openly.” But Peter would have none of it. Not what he signed on for, or at least, not what he wanted to hear. Peter’s charismatic friend had been healing and teaching wonderful things about God, he was gathering support, things were good, and following Jesus was relatively easy. We can sympathize with Peter — would you follow someone who intends to throw away everything that drew you in? And our sympathy makes us cringe harder when he sets himself up to be rebuked.
And what a rebuke! Knowing that Jesus could cut to the heart when he was telling people off makes the pain of anticipation more acute, but we still aren’t fully prepared to hear Jesus call his loyal follower “Satan.” Adversary. Tempter. And the fact that the name fits makes it worse yet. Jesus was fully human; he didn’t enjoy pain any more than we do. He never would have considered a different path, but still, Peter’s suggestion counts as an act of temptation. And really, is there such a difference between the devil’s attempts at thwarting the will of God, and Peter’s attempt at changing Jesus’s plan? Isn’t the hubris of telling God that we know better fundamentally the same?
“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… .”
As any good writer of cringe-based comedy will tell you, it could always be worse: Jesus could have been indifferent to Peter. Think about it: you can’t be ashamed of something or someone you don’t care about. When parents correct their children, it’s hard work intended for the children’s benefit; that’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. When somebody else’s kid starts acting out, we can simply turn away.
Shame and pain are alike. We fear both. They both feel terrible. And while anything can be abused, shame and pain make it astonishingly easy for one person to commit the grievous sin of causing another human being to suffer — damaging a creature made in the image of God. So why would a loving God give us such a capacity for harm, and make us so vulnerable to pain and shame? How are they supposed to work? Both exist for the same purposes: to alert us when we have been damaged, and to make us change what we’re doing — right away.
This also raises the question of what God’s experience is. Perhaps Jesus is the only person of the Trinity to suffer, to experience shame and pain. We can’t know for sure in this life, and we might not know even in heaven. But I suspect that, in some way, our susceptibility is an image of something within God, for God’s compassion is so great and God’s love for us endures even when we stray far from God’s ways. We do know, at least, that when we are wounded, God shares in our pain; the joy of heaven is tempered with the acute knowledge of the suffering of God’s beloved children, and God longs to heal us, bind us up, make us whole.
So as hard as it is to hear Jesus rebuke Peter, and to hear him say that he will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him and of his words, we should take heart. The point is not to condemn us or humiliate us; that’s not who Jesus is or what he does. Jesus’s will for us, the outcome he longs for, is for us to repent, be reconciled, and amend our lives: to grow into the fullness of life, love, and grace. That is why he feels how he feels and why he did what he did: because he loves us so much. Jesus was condemned when he took up the cross, he felt all the shame and pain the world could rain upon him, and he did it all to spare us from those things, not to inflict them on us. He went to his death to bring life to us all, everlasting life that is worth more than all the world. By his wounds, we are healed.
Every life well-lived will include a few things that inspire a cringe, but Jesus is never one of them. No one and nothing else is as worthy of our trust.