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Those who are ashamed of me

[Note: There is a related sermon from the parallel passage in Matthew on Ordinary Sunday 22 (Pentecost 14) Year A - Thinking human and divine things.]

(Mark 8:38) 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."

There was a report from the Bible Society a few years ago of how they had offered Bibles to Australian troops who were leaving to restore order in East Timor after the killing and destruction at the time of the referendum for independence of that territory in 1999. It was a relatively dangerous task and no doubt the men and women who went willingly to do peace keeping work knew that their lives could be at risk although it turned out that there was very little fighting once their presence was established. In any case, I imagine that the old saying that there are no atheists on the battlefield was not far from the truth. For whatever reason, most of the troops were quite keen to take a copy of the scriptures. What I found particularly interesting was the report that they tended to read them secretly, when they were alone, taking care that their comrades would not see them doing it. Now why was that? Why should soldiers feel that they need to hide the fact that they were reading the Bible? What does it say about our society?

While I expect that none of us would wish to censure the troops for the secrecy of their reading, but rather to applaud their having the courage to venture so far into unconventional exploration of anything specifically Christian, it is quite revealing that most of us would not be at all surprised by such a report about their felt need for secrecy. We have become much more accepting than we care to admit of the fact that the dominant ideology in our culture now is frankly anti-Christian. It was seldom stated openly by public advocates of competing beliefs until quite recently although it has been a fact of life felt by Christian believers throughout the lifetimes of those of us who are living today. It may be more so in Australia which is more secular in its surface culture than most Western countries. The anti-Christian prejudice is, however, a pervasive phenomenon. Few people realize how anti-Christian the dominant culture of West has become. [See endnote 1.]

It will not serve the church or the Christian cause in general, however, to indulge in what the well known art critic Robert Hughes called in the title of a book, The Culture of Complaint. Indeed it is part of that culture that the Christian church is always on the side to be complained against, so we will not be heard even when we ask for the same consideration and protection as ideologically endorsed minorities and interest groups. Anything goes in the mass media and the entertainment industry, as long as it is not Christian! Not that I expected it would do any good, but I must confess that I made an official complaint against a television program, when I saw a comedian on TV at the time of the "Gay and Lesbian" parade in Sydney represent the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney as engaged in sodomy while the suggestion was made that Jesus once took part in a similar parade. In my submission I asked the network to consider whether they would allow aborigines or Muslims or Jews to be vilified in the same manner. Of course, this arose in the context of the Anglican and Catholic Archbishops of Sydney having denounced the public spectacle promoting a homosexual life style and advising their members not to take part in it, although those in other cities might not have taken the same attitude. Politically, one attack might be said to invite another, but the point for us to notice is that from the point of view of the dominant culture certain groups must be protected while others, Christians in general and Catholics in particular, have no corresponding rights. Christians should be aware of the situation we are in, but as I said, we are not in a position to achieve anything by complaining, largely because even asking for equal rights will be seen as a demand for the restoration of privileges. The Melbourne newspaper The Age made the unprotected status of Christians quite explicit a few years ago when they said in an editorial at the time of a controversy about an art exhibition: "As a mainstream belief, Christianity has no such protection".

[I should add in 2006 that there have been some changes in Australia indicating that public figures are prepared to give more open recognition to Christian alternatives while there is a wariness of appearing to be too anti-Christian or anti-religious as some, especially in the Opposition in Federal Parliament, believed that they lost seats at the last elections because of a Christian reaction against their previous attitudes. The debates on muslim terrorism and clutural differences have also raised questions about whether outright secularism is an effection alternative. The old pattern is not likely to continue, but at the same time there have been some more strident criticisms of the churches as a popluar theme in the media.]

Christianity is not seriously believed in anything like the mainstream of our society, but it still serves as the standard to transgress in a society with "deep intolerance of limits and the belief that the overcoming of limits is the sin qua non of progress" [Judith Brett: See endnote 2.] Indeed, when opponents of traditional Christian teaching (whether within the church or elsewhere) wish to gain public endorsement of an alternative they almost invariably appeal to a secular doctrine of progress (many 'modern' Christians indeed do the same) and try to stigmatize anyone who disagrees as an enemy of a society in which belief in 'progress' has acquired a compelling orthodoxy. The modernist orthodoxy is a powerful weapon, threatening isolation, loss of reputation and a personal sense of shame to all who will not conform to its dominant ideology, in which it is orthodox to require rejection of orthodoxy. Christians 'worth their salt', or should I say 'who retain their saltiness', will be ready to challenge any false orthodoxy in the name of truth and justice, but they will also know that the right worship of God (which is what 'orthodox' actually means) will require defense of the Gospel as public truth. Public? Yes, public truth, not only private belief, let alone personal preference. The Gospel is more than what we happen to like, or what suits us.

So what about the soldiers who felt that they could only read the Bible in secret? Does it have anything to do with defense of the Gospel as public truth? Or do you have a problem with the idea that the Gospel could be presented anywhere as public truth? Is religion not better left to the private, personal, even secret domain? Did not Jesus warn us not to make a display of our religion; rather in both good works and prayer we should act in secret:

And did he not warn against feeding pearls to the pigs?

It is true enough to life to fear that any public admission, let alone display, of piety will run a serious risk of being misunderstood and thus be unlikely to bring anyone to a better knowledge of God. But, of course, one could equally well quote other texts calling for an open and prominent witness to Christ:

These quotes all from the Sermon on the Mount just show how hard it is to settle anything merely by quoting proof texts. Even the devil can do that, as he demonstrated during the temptations of Christ which we remembered last week. You do need to think about it and test your understanding in the light of scripture as a whole with Christ himself as the key. There is truth in all these texts about both secrecy and courageous witness, and the way that truth is best held together is seen in the life of Christ himself.

The gospel reading for today comes after the confession by Peter of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus told them not to tell anyone about him. No, no light held up high, no city on the hill at that stage, they were not to rush into the market place, there and then, and proclaim it for all to hear.

Then follows the marvelously revealing passage in which Peter dares to rebuke Jesus for saying that he must be rejected and put to death, with the result that Jesus calls him Satan for he thinks as men think not as God thinks. It is fairly obvious that they did not understand what kind of king (or Messiah) he was. There was good reason for them to be told to keep quiet about him. They would have been sure to get it wrong, and in any case the time was not right. As for humility, quietness and bold public declaration, he would show how it could all be held together, precisely in how he went through the ordeal of the cross for which he now began to prepare them. He had to show them by his own example, so that they would later remember his invitation to his followers take up their own cross:

See that he is now back with the crowd after being alone with the disciples when they were talking about his being the Messiah. He now speaks openly, but he is obviously still giving a lesson to the disciples who would be keenly aware of what he has said about his impending death. But here now in the public address we have a more general lesson on the way of humble service:

This then is the context of the text with which we began: 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 .... He will honour those who are not ashamed to confess faith in him when it means that they are in danger of sharing the way of the cross with him -- those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it - but not those who are ashamed of him.

There are clear circumstances in which it is impossible to keep quite and still be faithful to Christ: that is when he is under attack: when the holy one of God is called evil, then anyone who is not for him is against him.

That was said when his opponents said that Jesus was using the powers of a devil to cast out demons, evil to overcome evil. At other times a much more liberal attitude can be taken, as when it is possible to co-operate with other people of good will in human service whether or not they are believers, as seen when the disciples complained that someone who was not one of them was using the name of Jesus to cast out demons:

Whoever is not with me is against me, or Whoever is not against us is for us. It is surprising how easily people will recall one of these sayings and forget the other one, depending upon what they wish to prove at the time. Both are part of the teaching of Jesus and both have their proper place in Christian witness: it all depends on how Christ is being seen at the time. Is he being honoured or dishonoured? There is much of both in our society today. There is still a sufficient remnant of Christian belief and practice for the service of humanity to be publically acknowledged as a work of Christ. At the same time there is a pervasive culture of self seeking, with much concern for self esteem, self expression and self realization, etc., not to mention self satisfaction in possessions, popularity and power; it is a culture over which the words of Jesus hang with a weighty challenge: those who want to save their life will lose it. It is a general truth, a public truth that will become clear for all to see in time. Meanwhile, those who would be followers of Jesus must "leave self behind", let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. It is a great challenge and an enormous privilege.

As the anti-Christian elements of Western society become more dominant it will be increasingly important that believers in Christ are able confess their belief in him publically. As the same time the pressure to conform to an unsympathetic culture increases and it is easy to compromise in ways that make believers feel ashamed. Not that our circumstances are in any way unique. Things have been difficult in the past. It was probably more difficult to make a Christian witness in the early years of settlement in Australia than it is today. And in recent years many Christians in non-Western societies have known hostility far greater than any most of us are likely to have experienced. Our situation is becoming more like theirs, but it is still a long way from the suffering of Christians in, say, Sudan, or in some parts of Indonesia. The President-elect of the Uniting Church in Australia, James Haire, reported recently on a trip to Indonesia in which he found that Christian communities who had lived on certain islands for hundreds of years were being wiped out by Muslim gangs. The international media report only "sectarian violence", without telling whole story; nor is it well understood how much of the violence in East Timor was specifically directed against Christians and Catholic leaders in particular. These are events on our doorstep as far as we in Australia are concerned. They are events of a character which the intellectual elite in Australia would prefer not to be recognized. Christian believers in the next generation will be living in a much more hostile environment both nationally and internationally if things keep on developing in the way that they are. The testing times will come when it will be much easier to be ashamed of Christ than it is today -- and we all know that it is easy enough now if we will only admit the reality.

When Jesus spoke about not being ashamed of him Mark tells of it just after he Jesus said that his followers must be prepared to take up their own cross and come with him. That could mean actually being ready to die, and some those who heard it did in fact die the death of martyr. It is privilege to which few of us are called. It was thought in Old Testament times, as in many other cultures, that when a person suffered it was a sign that God was not pleased with that person. So the shame of the cross became a stumbling block to belief in the Messiah. As Peter said, prompted by the Devil, "God forbid that this should ever happen to you". No person truly blessed by God could be expected to suffer so. Christians had to learn to share the shame of rejection and the pain of disgrace of they were to follow Christ. That is hard, when we are so tested, perhaps for our identification with him, still a despised loser in the eyes of many. It can happen directly in a society which loves successful figures, or perhaps it may come to us when we share the shame of one of his "little ones". To take the part of the poor, the sinful, the despised and rejected, in any society is not easy. It means sharing the shame. It is part of sharing the shame of the cross rather than being ashamed of the Crucified One.

Finally, did hear you the bit about the angels? I don't want to discuss who or what these angels may be, except to note that they accompany "the Son of Man" when he comes.

Jesus had spoken of himself previously as "the Son of Man" who must suffer,

That is the context of the challenge about being ashamed of him, but now when he speaks of others being ashamed of him he describes himself as the Son of Man with quite a different meaning,

The suffering servant Son of Man is now the victorious Son of Mam coming in glory. Some at least of the Jews, and early Christians later, would have seen the reference in this image to the strange figure of the Son of Man in the prophecy of Daniel:

So the call not to be ashamed of him, in spite of his shame for humanity, is a call coming to us from one who will in future meet us in triumph. There we may share his glory, if we have not been ashamed of him in these difficult time. May we all be blessed with the courage to make such a witness, sharing the shame of the cross, so that we may also share the resurrection with him. To him be the glory, for ever. Amen.

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1. Colin Gunton, gives a clear statement of this in the provocative introduction to his Bampton Lectures at Oxford in 1992 (Published as The One, the Three and the Many, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p1.):

As the reference back to William Morris indicates, we are not dealing here with a recent development for Morris died more than a century ago. Most scholars would date the attitude at least to the enlightenment, evident from around 300 years ago.

Nor would Gunton encourage a strategy of condemnation; he says that modernity was in part a reaction against certain distortions of the Gospel when it was integrated with pagan European culture in the compromises of Christendom, and so "the Gospel will not therefore be served by mere denunciation of modern rejection ..."

2. "Piss Christ is a sacrilegious work in that it desecrates a symbol that many people consider deeply sacred. It is interesting to wonder whether the debate about its exhibition would be couched differently if the religious emblem in urine were a Star of David, a text from the Koran or an Aboriginal artefact. It might be that, in a pluralistic culture mindful of the sensitivities of minorities, such a perceived insult to a particular religious or ethnic group would not be countenanced. As a mainstream belief, Christianity has no such protection." [The Age Editorial 10 October 1997]

Judith Brett writing in the The Age on 24 October 1997 referred to "....Western civilization's deep intolerance of limits and the belief that the overcoming of limits is the sin qua non of progress. Sometimes this is understood as pushing back the frontiers, at other times as transgression, but the underlying assumption that limits are there to be broken is the same."

"Serrano's exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria was closed after fierce protests from people offended by his depictions of a crucifix in urine. Serrano is part of the last gasp of the Western avant-garde's fascination with the transgression of the codes of respectable bourgeois decency, a transgression made increasingly meaningless by the excesses of the contemporary mass media in the representation of sex and violence."

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