The Shame of the Cross

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Just over a month ago a story hit the news that got the attention of thousands of people around the globe. The story involved two pictures of a man. This man, who is a pretty big guy, was at a concert and he was doing what people do at concerts: he was dancing. Some young woman snapped a picture of him doing his best moves while she and her friends laughed at him. When he noticed them laughing, he lowered his head, put his hands in his pockets, and stopped dancing. The woman then took a second picture of the man in his moment of shame. She posted these two pictures online with the caption, “spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week. He stopped when he saw us laughing.”

Evidently, a large man trying to have a good time is funny. Especially because this woman’s post was shared around the internet by other people who thought that it was good for a laugh. The man was shamed because of his physical appearance.

The good news is that not everyone thought that this was funny. A woman named Cassandra Fairbanks also saw this picture and she had a different response. She thought everyone deserved the chance to dance, so she started a group in support of the person who has become known as “dancing man.” They started a search for dancing man, reposting his picture, but this time with the caption, “Anyone know this man or who posted this? There’s a huge group of ladies in LA who would like to do something special.” They wanted to throw him a dance party.

Quickly the excitement grew and the number of followers increased. There were 2,000 people in this online group looking for dancing man, and in 12 hours they had found him in London. Support came in from professionals, people wanting to join in the party that was being thrown for dancing man. Recording artist Pharrell showed interest, as did Moby, who volunteered to DJ the event. Even though I couldn’t name a single song recorded by these artists, I’m told that they are a big deal. But where would you hold such a big dance party for literally thousands of people? Oh, they have that covered as well. The LA Memorial Coliseum offered their venue free of charge. This is the stadium where the University of Southern California’s football team plays.

What started with a couple of mean girls laughing at a big man dancing, shaming him for the way that he looked, ended with celebrities and businesspeople, and models, and thousands of other people showing support for dancing man. They wiped away that shame and invited him to dance.

I am sure that I am not the only person who did this growing up, but I recall vividly an action that I participated in when someone was caught doing something that they shouldn’t be doing. We would extend one index finger on each hand, point one of those fingers at the person who had committed the atrocity, and repeatedly drag the other finger across the top of the finger pointing at the perpetrator. And as we slid one index finger across the other we simultaneously said the words, “shame, shame, shame.”

There are of course many explanations on the internet for why people make this gesture. However, only two of them seem credible. One hypothesis says that the gesture traces its origins back to a European practice that was meant as a threat to young children employed as pickpockets when they got caught. The gesture was not made by sliding one finger over the other, but it was done in a chopping fashion. As in, if you get caught pickpocketing again, you will get your fingers cut off.

The other explanation is a little less traumatizing. This hypothesis says that when someone was caught doing something that they shouldn’t, the person who caught them would say, “shame, shame, shame,” while holding their fingers up in the form of a cross. The idea here is that the cross of Jesus would protect the person who witnessed the shameful act from falling victim to the temptation to do what they just saw happen.

I guess that could work, but…

I think that the cross has a much more significant effect than just blocking the transmission of temptation. And I think that the cross of Jesus takes away more than just our sins. The cross of Jesus takes away our shame.

We know that there is something in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that allows us to be forgiven for our sins. Praise God! But I think that so many of us (all of us!) fall victim to an incomplete view of the cross. We see Jesus’ death as his act of forgiveness; because Jesus died and rose again, we can have right relationship with God. But we continue to live in shame. We know that Jesus forgives us, but we can’t forgive ourselves. Or, as I heard earlier this week, we tend to believe in Jesus, but we fail to believe Jesus. We believe in what Jesus did in his atoning sacrifice. But we don’t believe really believe that we have been made new and therefore we live in shame for what we have done.

When we look at our text for this morning, we find two main characters. And I only say two main characters because I have to say that Jesus is a main character in this because today is Easter and this is the story of the empty tomb! But look at who this text focuses on as the main character. It is Mary Magdalene.

Both the Gospels of Luke and Mark tell us that Mary Magdalene met Jesus at a pretty rough time in her life. She was possessed by seven demons and Jesus healed her. Some traditions even suggest that she was a prostitute. When I think of times that it might be appropriate to put your fingers up in the shape of a cross for your own protection, one of those times would be when you are confronted by a woman possessed by seven demons. And if there is an occupation in our day or in the first century that we tend to shame, it is prostitution.

Mary would be a person of shame. There is no mention of her family or loved ones in the New Testament, perhaps because they had rejected her, turned their backs on her, and shamed her. To use our opening story, Mary Magdalene would have had her picture plastered all over the internet, shaming her. She would not be allowed to dance.

As a follower of Jesus, I have no doubt that Jesus forgave Mary for whatever sins she might have committed during her lifetime. Even if she was not a prostitute as some traditions say, surely she was not without sin. But the thing that is abundantly clear to me in today’s passage is that this central figure, Mary Magdalene, is no longer a person of shame.

Who is the first person to arrive at the tomb? Mary Magdalene. Who is the first one to deliver the news to the disciples that the tomb was empty? Mary Magdalene. Who was the first to see the resurrected Jesus and have a conversation with him? Or to put it even more pointedly, who was the first person that the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to? It was Mary. And who was commissioned with the first message of Jesus’ resurrection? It was Mary. The formerly demon-possessed, perhaps former prostitute, Mary Magdalene.

Jesus could have revealed himself to some powerful religious leader that would have been a credible witness in his community. But instead he chose Mary. In choosing her, Jesus is saying, You are as good as anyone else; you are as loved as anyone else. I forgive you, now forgive yourself.

We talk about forgiveness, but forgiveness focuses on the act committed. What about the person who committed the act? Because we focus on forgiveness for the act, we often focus on the suffering and pain of Jesus. But we neglect the shame that Jesus bore on the cross as well.

Jesus was arrested for sedition as a threat to the Roman Empire. To prove their power Rome would execute political criminals in the most public and most publicly humiliating way known at the time. They would be beaten, stripped naked, and placed on a cross to die a slow and painful death. It would often take days for someone to die on a cross and sometimes their bodies were left on the cross for days after they died in a further act of shaming the criminal. This meant that they were bleeding, sweating, urinating, and defecating on their selves. This often led to the criminal being deserted by everyone, even loved ones. And on the cross, Jesus cried out to God because he felt that even God had abandoned him in his time of shame.

Yes there is pain and forgiveness on the cross. But the Bible tells us that the cross is more than just the method of forgiveness. It does more than focus on the act. It focuses on the person. In the cross of Christ we find Jesus taking our shame upon himself, bearing our shame so that we don’t have to.

The suffering servant passages of Isaiah tell of a man who was led like a sheep to slaughter. He was innocent, but he took the sins of the people upon him. And the text tells us, “Surely, he bore our shame.”

We believe in Jesus, now let’s believe him. Jesus took our sins, and he took our shame. We are now free to dance, and Jesus is throwing a great dance party where even the most awkward dancer like me will be able to move to the glory of God.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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