There are several Bible verses that I would call my favourite. Today’s reading includes one of those: Paul wrote, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles,” Paul knew that there was an offensive side to the Christian message to those who didn’t understand – or as he called them –those who are perishing. In this day and age when Christian faith is mocked, ridiculed, rejected, ignored and whatever other verb you want to put in there – there is no reason to dismay because that is exactly what Paul is speaking about.
The words “stumbling block” in the original Greek language can also be translated as, “scandal.” And that is often what the Christian message becomes; a scandal. Unfortunately, in an attempt to try and fit into the ways of the world, that scandal has been minimized. We have made so many excuses or exclusions to the commandments that they are hardly recognisable. Many Christians are unaware just how scandalous God’s action in Jesus Christ are. Just look at the scandal Jesus caused in today’s Gospel reading as he was not prepared to let the temple become just another part of the world.
He goes in and throws over the tables, makes whips and drives people out of the temple. When was the last time we saw the church respond in such a way?
Instead we try to compromise or justify so we don’t offend or turn people away from the church – has this worked? Sadly today we have reduced the Christian faith to the most easily digested form possible! And you know what – the world is still not digesting it. The Ten Commandments in our Old Testament calls believers to make a definite break with the world around them – to have no other Gods, to not take God’s name in vain, to remember to make time regularly with God.
In the Corinthians passage, Paul reminds us that the Christian faith revolves around a cross. In Jesus’ time the cross meant death and defeat and shame. So too today, Christianity is associated with death, defeat and shame. Just as the people in Jesus’ time shook their head in derision at Jesus hanging helpless from the cross, so too people look at the church with derision and shake their heads in disbelief that we are still trying to bring our message into this 21st century.
So far as the people of Jesus’ time were concerned, the cross proved Jesus an impostor. And that is what many are trying to prove today against the church – that we are imposters. To the sophisticated Greeks in Jesus’ time, the idea of a dead carpenter being worshipped as the saviour of the world seemed foolish. A message of an end of the world or judgment day seems foolish to many today. So too today is the message of the church calling people to repent before God’s judgment brings the final curtain call on this world.
What a scandalous thought that a cross might actually produce new life! The scandalous nature of our faith is revealed in the gospel lesson when Jesus refuses to perform a sign. There is only one sign that the church and Christians are asked by God to show the world. To love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour – including loving our enemies. And that’s where the Christian message becomes scandalous and offensive even to Christians. Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and relies on is your god.” In our world today, as there has always been, there are many gods to whom we can give our hearts. We give our hearts to the one who went to the cross for our sins; that’s where we lose the world when the topic of sin is introduced. We don’t mind calling certain people sinners – the murderers, the rapists, the paedophiles, the African gangs, the Muslim terrorists…But hey, I’m a good person; I work hard to provide for my family – I even give to charities – don’t call me a sinner! But the cross was not for a certain group of people that we call out as sinful.
It was for you and me. And that’s where the cross becomes offensive because it works as a mirror to remind me that it was MY sin that Jesus took to the cross. And the scandal is made even worse when what God did for us – loving us when we did not deserve to be loved – God now asks us to do the same to our neighbour – including our enemies.
People are happy to lift up Jesus as an example of good living – helping the poor and lonely – feeding the hungry – but that is not the Gospel message. The Gospel message is the cross – as Paul says – we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. The cross is a message to the world that things in the world are not right despite how progressive we believe our ways are. Murder is murder – stealing is stealing – lying is lying – adultery is adultery – no matter what spin we can put on it. And even if there is a reason to why – the only comfort comes from confessing it to God as a sin and hearing his word of forgiveness. Satan will direct you elsewhere – everyone’s doing it – it’s not as bad as what others are doing – it 2018 – he deserves it. These may explain but they don’t forgive. Yes it may be the 21st Century but that doesn’t mean what we have done to morals is right.
The cross reminds us that we have all strayed from God and are unworthy of eternal life. As difficult as it is to preach the message of the cross, without a cross, there would be no gospel. Remove the cross from Christianity, and we become just another club or charity. It might make us unpopular but sometimes we have to go into the market place and upturn the tables. And the first marketplace that Jesus visited to upturn was the temple – his Father’s house of prayer – a reminder that cleansing begins in our own place – in our homes and in our churches. The Commandments are a mirror that constantly call us back to show us where and how far we have strayed from God. But they don’t leave us in despair but direct us to the cross where Jesus took our sin – all our failings – and nailed them to the cross to receive God’s forgiveness.
God’s love and mercy, and then the cross sends us into the world to preach Christ crucified for the world. And sometimes we have to upturn tables and make whips to drive people back to God. Sometimes a word of rebuke is what the world needs to hear. Just like a parent who has to discipline his or her children. It’s when a parent is afraid that their child will no longer like them that they fear to discipline and try to become their child’s friend where respect is lost. We should not be afraid to be different to the world and its ways. If the world changes, we don’t have to change in order to accepted by the world. If the world thinks we’re foolish for sticking to our beliefs, then that’s okay too. As Paul said: God’s foolishness is wiser than the world’s wisdom.
If the world thinks we are weak believing in God then so be it. I’ve often heard the church referred to as a “crutch”, as if that’s a bad thing. A crutch is needed at times to help a person who needs support – and I’ll be the first to say I need that support, especially when I’m facing suffering or death. As Paul also says – God’s weakness is more powerful than the world’s strength. The worst thing we can do is change our ways so the world will like and accept us. It won’t matter how much we change, Jesus says: You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22) It is really hard being church in the 21st century but I’m not sure it was always easy in previous centuries. Let us remember that Jesus was put to death for his faith as was St Paul, St Peter, St Stephen and many, many, more martyrs including an early church father from the 2nd century named Polycarp. He was given the choice to deny his faith and live or be put to death to which he replied: 86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?.
Let us never compromise what we believe and never be ashamed to proclaim Christ crucified because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us – to us who are being saved it is the power of God.