Today we think about the shame we sometimes feel when we suffer or when we are associated with people who suffer. Let’s break up the gospel reading in three pieces: suffering, shame and salvation.
The first part of our text marks a huge change in Jesus’ ministry. So far his followers had regarded him primarily as a rabbi, probably an enlightened one. But just like many wisdom seekers in our time, they assumed that enlightenment comes with some kind of immunity against suffering. Suffering would either not be the messiah’s fate, or it would somehow not affect him. He should just sit there in the eye of the storm. All suffering takes place in the mind, they say, and is caused by desires and attachments. That’s also the popular version of Buddhist teaching we so often encounter today. I am not saying and I am not sure that’s what Buddhism actually teaches.
In any case, Jesus says, no, suffering is a key part of my mission. To want me to run away from it, that is a temptation from the devil! It may sound wonderful and divine to escape and transcend all suffering, but it is actually earthly, not divine. It is the cult of achieving an elusive perfect health and happiness at all cost. The cult of ignoring the unfortunate. We can see it even today. This false idea that we can avoid suffering by just blending in. But the recipe keeps changing and the suffering stays. Jesus spoke openly about the suffering he expected to have to face. And he was absolutely right, because he knew what people were capable of and would do to him. It was not a dramatization, but something he could clearly see coming. And it would cause him to suffer.
You know why? Because you can have desires for yourself, but you can also have desires for others. Jesus was not in it for himself. His mission was to save people. And Jesus knew that by rejecting him, the majority of his fellow-Jews would mainly cause harm to themselves. They could have been reconciled with God and have their mission renewed, but they threw it all away. That was probably the most painful for Jesus – that many would regard his message as nonsense and his sacrifice as meaningless.
Today the concept of the Suffering Servant, one of the titles of Christ, is still a difficult one. We like to follow heroes, people who can make our country great again, or tell us how to avoid suffering. So when it comes to Jesus, we may be attracted to his victory over death and to his other miraculous powers, but perhaps less so to this strange vulnerability and altruism. And this is where shame may come in as well. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the crucifixion and all this talk of suffering was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. And we, too, may find it difficult to explain and to defend these things.
So let’s have a closer look at shame. It is often mentioned in one breath with guilt, but it is quite different. When you are guilty, that’s always bad. When you are ashamed of something bad, that’s actually a good thing. It would be bad if you had no shame at all. But shame can also be misplaced. Some of us may have been made to feel shame by our parents or friends, when we were not actually guilty of anything. We can be ashamed of our body, of being not so good with computers, anything really! It’s often caused by nothing more than the opinion of other people. Christ wants to free us from that burden. Other people should not have such power over us.
Jesus also shows how inconsistent shame can be. The same people who where ashamed of being associated with Jesus, were not ashamed of their adultery and other sins. To be ashamed of Christ is not logical, either, because if anyone was not guilty, it was Christ. Hence his stern response to Peter and his insistence that we take up our cross and follow him. Taking up your cross, perhaps that’s for a large part accepting that people will often not take you seriously. Think of today’s culture of naming, blaming and shaming. It gives people a weak excuse to stop listening to each other. Do we seriously want to be a part of that? I hope not.
So what solution does Christ offer? Could it be that what we tend to resist is at the same time our remedy? At the start of the second lockdown a professor in mental health, Ernst Bohlmeijer, said something very interesting. “Many people think that life always has to be fun and happiness, but that is the quickest way to a depression.” Happiness is not something to concentrate on. It is better to do something that matters to you, so that you can be satisfied afterwards.
So when Jesus speaks of self-denial, this is not about denying your principles and talents, but about that false glittering image, that many of us like to present on our Facebook wall. And taking up our cross is about accepting our inevitable limitations and failures, including those imposed by a history that we cannot change and by our environment. Acceptance does not mean we always have to agree with our circumstances. We can still work for change, but, like Christ, we are bound to encounter opposition and indifference. So be it. It should not define us, positively or negatively. Let’s dare to be different, to follow Christ, learn from Him during this period of Lent, and ultimately share in his glory.