John 20: 1 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.
This will be my last message in our Lenten series, “Ashamed No More,” and I can think of no more fitting way to wrap it up than to celebrate the Easter Resurrection victory over shame.
If ever you were bullied in school, found yourself picked on, had the glasses knocked from your face, your books stomped into the mud or your musical instrument thrown around, it was not just about you. Yes, you were the target, but it was also about the bullies. And the audience. To the bullies themselves and to any friends who might applaud such humiliation, its theater that says, “Aren’t we great? Aren’t we right? We win again!” And to the target, and to all who would identify with him or her, its theater that says, “We have more power than you; that makes you power-less; and being power-less makes you worth-less. Know your place, and stay in it.” That makes it the theater of shame.
The same is true for any worker who is the scapegoat of office politics, or the boss’ tension. Like the driver with the bumper sticker that said, “I have a very responsible job. Everytime something goes wrong, the boss says I’m responsible.” Same for the one kid on the basketball team whom the coach always picks on, until he’s finally thrown out, so as to say to the others, “You made it, when he or she did not!” and “This is what I’ll do to anyone else who gives me any lip.” That scapegoated person may spend the rest of his life under a cloud of failure, but really, for no fault of his own, he was made to play an unwilling part in someone else’s theater of shame.
The same goes with those who suffered physical, emotional or sexual abuse in school or the home. The same with political prisoners, torture victims, exiles, and asylum seekers who had to flee their homes under threat by paramilitary goons, drug lords, jihadis, rebels, corruption and terrorism. The same is true for those among us who grew up hearing things like, “My son fought and died for his country, so that you Mennonites would not have to fight and die for your country! How fair is that?” There’s no answering that kind of logic; its more about their pain than about any person. But such treatment has left a lingering and undeserved taste of shame in many of our mouths.
And it was true for Jesus, stipped naked, nailed to a cross, exposed to the elements and to taunting crowds. His death was not only an execution, not just torture, not just even a state-sponsored lynching, though it was all that, and more. It was theater, the theater of shame, meant to shame him, to shame everything he did and for which he stood, even, to shame everyone else who had ever stood with him and shared his beliefs.
St. Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is a man fully alive.” But under the infuence of shame, we live only a partial life, a living death, a waking nightmare. When we look at today’s Gospel account of the resurrection, we see the deadening effects of shame upon all the characters involved, except Jesus. The apostles have evidently gotten the message, “know your place and stay there,” because they are in hiding. The women, I’m happy to say, have heard the message too, but they aren’t as cowed and as cowardly as are the apostles. Its a courageous thing that Mary and the other women have done, going to the tomb of the Crucified One to anoint his body. By doing so, they are publicly declaring their continuing identification with Jesus and with all that he stood for, despite the shame to which the authorities subjected him and his ministry.
But I see the effects of shame lingering even in these courageous women. Such as when Mary finds the tomb empty and assumes the worst: somebody must have taken the body of Jesus somewhere. That doesn’t make sense just by looking at the folded grave cloths. Grave robbers would have taken the body, cloths and all. Or just the cloths, and left the body. Still, she says, “Tell me, Mr. Gardener, where you have taken the body of Jesus.” Yet it is Jesus whom she is addressing! Shame will do that to us: it will bend the back and blind the eyes so that we cannot see our deliverance standing right in front of us. Believe the messages that come to us from the theater of shame, and we will be willing accomplices in our own oppression. Under the influence of shame, we can help turn our worst nightmares into self-fulfilling prophecies.
How then can we break free of the living death of shame? We can’t, not on our own. But Jesus can, and did. In his resurrection victory, has taken all our shame for us on that cross, and shamed all shame, the way shame shamed us. One way that Jesus shamed shame comes clear when you consider that walking out of his tomb alive was a defiant, provocative, perhaps even somewhat humorous act of civil disobedience. Because resurrection from a Roman death sentence was technically a crime, even a capital offense. For the Roman authorities had placed over his tomb a seal that covered the rock at the mouth of the cave. That seal was official Roman imperial property that could only be broken at the pain of death. Of course, Roman law made no distinction as to whether that seal was broken from outside the tomb, or inside. So, Jesus technically should have been put to death for the crime of not staying dead and breaking the seal over his tomb. Again. And again. And again and again and again and…..you get the point.
How ridiculous is that? For as long as Jesus remains alive now, his very life and love, his endless reign, put the shame of the cross to shame.
The other way he conquered shame and its debilitating effects, was in the way that he calls our names, like when he said, “Mary.” Jesus called her by name. He could have upbraided her for forgetting that he had predicted that he would rise again. He could have rebuked her for not paying attention to the folded grave cloths and assuming the worst. But she had had more than enough of such from the authorities and her enemies. In contrast to all the voices that call our name with contempt, ridicule and shame, Mary heard the Master address her personally, patiently, lovingly, tenderly. The Master’s loving voice cut through the fog of shame and grief that blinded and deafened Mary, and it awakened from her living death, the waking nightmare, of shame.
Freed from the shackles of shame Mary became the human being fully alive of which St. Irenaeus speaks, the flaming image of God in human flesh. She went from weeping next to the tomb, to testifying to her truth, boldly and decisively, that “I have seen the Lord!” She went from assuming the worst to speaking the word that Jesus gave her, his word to the apostles.
So, whenever we pray and call upon God, let’s take time as well to listen for that divine voice which is calling our names. If we really believe that the Son of God is ever interceding for us before the Father, through the Holy Spirit, then the tender heart of heaven is resounding with each of our names, spoken with the same life-giving tenderness and care with which Jesus addressed Mary by the mouth of the tomb. Our awakening to faith, and our growth in faith, always happen in response to that voice calling our names, personally. If Mary’s experience is any indication, the voice of Jesus is ever and always calling each one of us by name, with the same intended effect: to awaken us from the partial life, the living death, the waking nightmare, of shame, and to give us life and life more abundant, more courageous, free of the shame that Jesus shamed when he took our shame on the cross, and walked out of his tomb alive.
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