Saturday, August 27, 2011

A, Pentecost 11 Proper 17 – Matthew 16:24 “The Scandal of the Cross"

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24 ESV)

These words would have been total shock in the ears of the disciples. Why?

One has to put aside post-resurrection or salvation thinking to begin understanding what went through the hearts of people living in the Roman empire two thousand years ago. And especially in the hearts and minds of the Jews who lived under oppression from Roman occupation.

A cross was a blood barbaric affair. Being hung out to die was not just a Roman torture practice. In the minds of all Israelites would have been stories of Assyrian atrocities when people were displaced from the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled, whom some were impaled on poles, stood up and left to slowly die, further terrorising their captives with fear and horror. And now this same order of oppression terrorised the Jews, right in the heart of Judah, at Jerusalem.

This overwhelming fear of such a death, with massive amounts of pain and suffering, was not just physically horrific. This type of death was without honour. One was exposed, stripped of dignity, naked, humiliated, ridiculed by some who passed by, while others were forced to look upon the shame and embarrassment of the dying person on the cross. This humiliation was not just of the person hanging there, but for the family, and even the nation and their Jewish practise.

The sight of a bloody Jew crucified in contempt would have made their hearts churn as they passed by. It was a sign the people had lost their inheritance and their land was being defiled. The words of the law from Deuteronomy would have been at the fore of their thoughts.

"And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance." (Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV)

The sight of a cross to a Jew, was a sign of guilt. Even if they were wrongly crucified by the Romans, they were still hung on a tree, and therefore cursed and guilty before God. Being hung on a cross meant you were unclean, outside the temple courts, outside the city, out with the refuse where the unclean lived. Prohibited from entering into the loving kindness of God, the cross was the place where one experienced total wrath, from both God and man.

It's now we might start to comprehend what could have been going through the hearts of the disciples when Jesus talks of taking up one's cross. To take up one's cross means the practice of lifting one's guilt up for all to see. To admitting to one's guilt even before being found guilty. To expose the scandal of one's existence by continuality putting the hidden reality of the heart out to be dealt with every day.

This is the scandal of the cross. This is the stumbling block Jesus was putting in front of his Jewish disciples, and this is the foolishness put in front of us gentiles. But we're told the weakness and foolishness of the cross is greater than us. The cross, the ultimate bloody barbaric guilty-man's death machine surpasses any person's wisdom.

When Jesus began to announce God's scandal, Peter took exception, and led Jesus aside to give him a piece of his mind. He did this since Jesus had just announced to him he was to be the rock on which the church was to be built. But rather than Peter's wisdom being received, Jesus quickly uncovers the scandal within Peter, who was being deceived by the devil.

Jesus said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man." (Matthew 16:23 ESV)

Literally when Jesus says to Peter, "you are a hindrance to me", he says, "you are a scandal to me", "you're bent, you're as crooked as a dog's hind leg". Perhaps we might say, "he was hell-bent on looking after himself" since Satan was leading him to look away from God's purpose.

But before we get on our high horses against Peter, we must look at what we've done to the cross. Haven't we sanitised the cross somewhat today? We hang it around our necks as a nice ornament. We stick it up in our church buildings, and on signs in the street, and with the familiarity we forget this scandal is our scandal, this is our guilt, our shame, and our cross. Perhaps our removal of the Corpus Christi (the wretched broken body of Jesus) from our crosses is our way of taking Jesus aside, just as Peter did causing him to receive condemnation from Christ.

Perhaps it's the work of Satan deceiving us from reality so we might overlook our guilt and the scandalous reality of ourselves and therefore forget the treacherous and horrific reality Jesus went through to bear the burden of your scandalous life; the inner hidden horrors of every human heart.

So the scandal of Jesus' word here in Matthew 16 and the brutal Good Friday cross meets the scandal of your life. We're called to see the stark reality of God the Son beaten, broken, humiliated, bearing the complete wrath of God, outside with the dogs where there is no access to any loving kindness. But it's your reality Jesus was bearing. He was on your cross, he was hell-bent, because you and I are bent. The scandal of the cross is the announcement and advertisement of your scandal. Being exposed for who you are is the horror of every human as we all face decay and death.

And it's right here where the scandal is increased even more. Where Peter takes Jesus aside to reprimand, where Jews might do just about anything to avoid the horrors and separation of crucifixion, where we try our hardest to sanitise our realities and the reason we all must die, Jesus says, "take up your cross and follow me".

Deny yourself and take up your scandal and follow Jesus. What Jesus calls you to do is virtually turn yourself inside out! To not put yourself first, but the very motives and hidden urges that cause you to put yourself first, he calls you to hoist up for all to see and then follow him.

The true you, out there for all to see. Nakedness not in the physical sense but to peel off the flesh exposing the mental and spiritual nakedness of your soul. Who of us has the faith to do this?

Thankfully our scandal is born by Jesus. Our cross became his cross. Satan was ultimately put behind Christ at the cross, and as we're led by Christ towards our cross, our earthly death, Jesus' faithfulness towards you is moving the Holy Spirit in you to confess and bear the horrors of your sinful nature so your scandal is won over in victory by Christ's resurrection over your scandalous nature and my scandalous nature too!

As God lovingly leads you to admit and confess your scandal. The scandal of Jesus on your cross is believed more and more for your victory. Your daily bearing of this cross is one which you can faithfully bestow more and more on Christ, trusting the Holy Spirit to move you in repentance, faith, hope, and love. The Holy Spirit gives you the right practice, he places Christ in you and you in Christ.

Therefore, those who believe they are sinners and allow Christ to be their scandal will receive eternal life when Jesus comes to eternally remove the scandal which causes us so much horror in this life. This is why the peace of God surpasses all human understanding, and it can keep your hearts and minds (in peace) in Christ Jesus, Amen.