The Scandal of Christianity
If you saw the headline "The Scandal of Christianity," what do you think the story would be about? Sex, murder, abuse, stealing, or worse? The Bible makes it clear; there is only one real scandal of Christianity, and it's probably not what you think.
The scandal of Christianity isn't the sins of Christians, though the sins of Christians, particularly those of famous ones, do get heavy publicity. When Swaggert was found to frequent prostitutes, Bakker was sentenced for stealing, and Tilton was convicted of fraud, this made all the papers, all the newscasts, all the talk shows. Though we weren't associated with any of these, all of Christianity gets a black eye when prominent clergymen are hit.
The same thing happens when pastors fall. Think of the scandal that happens when they are exposed for sexual misconduct. You can probably name half-a-dozen here in Austin. Right now 2 Missouri Synod pastors are in prison for murdering their wives. How horrible! How scandalous! How unbelievers use such things to justify their unbelief, to defend their scorn for the Church, to gloat over Christians.
But wait a minute. Your sins could just as easily be the scandal of Christianity as those of any TV evangelist or parish pastor. Think about those secret sins of your youth. Couldn't people from your past throw some mud on Christianity because of the things you did? And what about the sins of your heart? Can you believe how foul, how lewd, how base some of your thoughts are? Good thing nobody knows what evil lurks within your heart. If they did, don't you think that would create quite a scandal?
The sins of Christians are truly wicked, gross, dark and serious, but they're not the scandal of Christianity. While such sins may be shocking to the press, to unbelievers, and even to fellow Christians, they're nothing new to God. While no one else knows what lurks within the hearts of men, God does. God knows the thoughts and intents of every heart. God searches the deep places of the heart where men hide their worst wickedness. Before a word comes to our tongues, a thought to our minds, an action to our hands, God knows every detail of it.
The sins of Christians, be they world famous evangelists, parish pastors, or church members, are well known to God. God is the One who said people are sinful from the moment they were conceived in the womb. He is the One who said that the first thought of a child is only evil. God is the One who said we're children of wrath by nature, dead in our transgressions, and enemies of God. God is the One who told us that our mouths are open graves, our lips are poisonous snakes, and our hearts are cesspools of murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lies, and gossip.
My sins, your sins, the sins of Christians everywhere are not the scandal of Christianity. Sin is why God sent His Son into the world in the first place, so He's not shocked to find it here. God was not shocked when King David fell into adultery and murder. God was not scandalized when Judas betrayed His Son or Peter denied Him. He is not shocked that we sin in thought, word, and deed. He sent His Son into the world to soak up real disgusting, repulsive, smelly sins that nothing else could clean up. Christ came into the world to make sinners stained beyond hope white as wool. He didn't come to make good men better but to make men dead in sin live. He didn't come to give us a hand up out of the pit into which we had fallen. No, He came to go down into the sewage pit and take our place. No sin, no failing, no wickedness, no evil that Christ finds in that pit scandalizes Him. People who work in sewers aren't surprised by what they find in them.
The scandal of Christianity is not the sins of Christians; the scandal is the Savior of Christians. What turns people off to Christianity is not the adultery, murder, or lying done by big name clergymen, but the holy, innocent, Jesus Christ. What scandalizes your neighbors, co-workers, and friends is not your foul mouth or sharp tongue, but the meek and mild Jesus.
Jesus has always been the scandal of Christianity. During the French Revolution the mob wasn't' content to just attack churches. Once they had broken the doors down, they rushed to the images of Jesus shouting, "There's the enemy!" Jesus is still the enemy today. On May 3, 1984 in Dallas at a National Day of Prayer breakfast, the name of Jesus was never mentioned by any speaker. When asked about that, a spokesman for the event said, "The name of Jesus has been a stumbling block for the past 2000 years, and it is time that it be eliminated in the interest of world peace."
What turns people off to Christianity is none other than Christ Himself. Although all the world celebrates Christmas and enjoys singing, "Silent Night," the truth of Christmas scandalizes many. The fact that the power of the Most High overshadowed the Virgin Mary, so that she gave birth to the Son of God offends people who can only think of God as being far away in heaven. The don't like to think of God taking on flesh and blood and dwelling among men. They can't imagine how all the fullness of the Godhead can dwell bodily in Jesus as Colossians says. They'll say Jesus is like God, but they choke on the truth of Christianity which is: Jesus is God.
People would accept it better if Jesus wasn't such an ordinary man. The Greeks considered Hercules to be a god but thought of him as having superhuman strength. He was made to look like we think a god in flesh and blood ought to look. Not Jesus. The Bible says this about the looks of Jesus: There was no form or beauty about Him to make anyone desire Him. The classic movies about Jesus are wrong. Angel choirs didn't sing in the background wherever Jesus was. Jesus didn't have a hallow glowing over His head, nor did animals come and snuggle Him.
"O but didn't Jesus do many miraculous things?" Sure. Even the people of Nazareth couldn't deny that. In fact, they testify to the wisdom, miracles, and power of Jesus, but all the miracles in the world can't convince someone who rejects the person of Jesus. It always comes down to the question Jesus asked His disciples: "What do you think of Jesus?" If you reject who Jesus is, you cannot accept what He does. The people of Nazareth rejected who Jesus was. He was just a carpenter! Isn't this Mary's child? You know that Son she got pregnant with before Joseph and her got married. Don't we know His brothers and sisters James, Joseph, Judas, Simon, and the girls? They're just ordinary people. How could He be any different? He can't be the Messiah. He can't be the Savior. He certainly can't be God!
The rejection by the people of Jesus' hometown took place before Good Friday. Those on other side of Calvary have even more reason to be scandalized. There not only who He is offends people, but what He does. There we see not just a God who is Man, but a God who suffers and dies as a sinful Man. There we see a God who according to the Bible had His appearance disfigured more than any man by the beating and torturing He suffered. God is suppose to be all powerful; at Calvary He hangs powerless on a cross. God is suppose to be a winner; at Calvary He is a loser. God is suppose to be in charge; at Calvary Roman soldiers are in charge. God is suppose to have mercy on whomever He wills; at Calvary He's in need of mercy. What a scandal such a God is!
The scandal of Jesus is with us still today. The scandal that was attached to Him for who He is and what He did is now connected to the way He works in the world: It makes no sense that Jesus uses the ordinary waters of Baptism to bring you into the family of God. If He used gold dust or holy water or even bottled water, that would make sense, but He uses water that some people won't even drink - just plain Austin tap water. By such water, Christ promises to actually forgive sins, rescue from the devil, and give eternal life.
It makes no sense for Jesus to use ordinary bread and wine, not steak or caviar or even good bread or expensive wine, to give us the same Body and Blood that was born of the Virgin Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate. It's scandalous to say what Scripture teaches that we receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation He won on Calvary by partaking of such ordinary food!
It makes no sense for God to forgive sins through ordinary men who are sinners just like us. It makes no sense for God to place men not angels in our midst to forgive our sins, to baptize our babies, and to feed us with His Body and Blood. And get this; He doesn't even choose the strongest of men to do this, but some of the weakest. The prophet Ezekiel was afraid, dismayed, and powerless. Paul said he was weak, persecuted, and sickly. He said He preached in fear and trembling. And look at me. No George Clooney here. Where in the world does the Lord dig up such worthless clay pots?
Why does the Lord use such ordinary, weak things to bring us forgiveness and salvation? Doesn't He see what's going on? When He comes with His glory and power hidden like He did in Jesus or like He does today in Water, Words, Bread and Wine, He turns so many away. But this is the way God wants it. He purposely chose things that scandalize sinners. He purposely puts stumbling blocks before those who would come to Him.
God wants no one to approach Him based on human reason, and no one can because of the scandal of Christianity. It makes no sense for God to become Man and take the place of sinful man on the cross. It makes no sense for God to use ordinary things to save sinners. Nobody then can believe in Jesus because it makes sense. Nobody can believe their sins are forgiven by Baptism, that the Pastor's forgiveness is God's forgiveness, or that Jesus is really present in Bread and Wine because it sounds reasonable. Nobody can accept that a Virgin conceived, that God became Man, that God died on the cross and rose again because it agrees with human reason; it doesn't.
Saving faith isn't something human beings can create. It isn't something you can decide to have. The only way we can have saving faith is if God gives it to us. We can't reason our way into it. We can't be persuaded to have it. We can't drum it up in ourselves. If you believe that God became Man, to bear your sins it's a miracle. If you believe that God is in bread and wine, that baptismal waters bring salvation, that God's forgiveness is in the mouth of a man, it's a miracle.
God has taken away the scandal of the sins of Christians by forgiving them for Jesus' sake, but God hasn't removed the scandal from Christianity. If the scandal is removed so is Christianity. Christianity is the religion of miracles that can only be recognized by faith: God becomes Man; God forgives sins for Jesus' sake; God works heavenly things by earthly Water, Words, Bread and Wine. If God worked like we think He should, our faith wouldn't really be in Him or His works. Our faith would be in our thoughts. Better for God to scandalize our thoughts and thinking, so that we might have the comfort of knowing that any faith we have can only come from Him. It can't be something we talked ourselves into. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost VII (7-30-00) Mark 6:1-6