For most of Christianity’s history, if you were to ask people if being a Christian could be considered offensive, they’d probably give you an odd look and say, “No.”
Then came the 1960’s. Suddenly Christians were involved in all kinds of controversial things. Protesting the Vietnam war. Protesting racial segregation and injustice. And doing it BECAUSE they were Christians!
In the midst of all this turmoil, a man asked once: “If Martin Luther King, Jr., is such a great person, why is there so much trouble wherever he goes?”
You could just as easily have asked: “If the prophets were so great, why did people kill them?”
“If Jesus was so great, why did they crucify him?”
These questions don’t discredit Jesus or the prophets or Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), rather they show that people didn’t really understand what these figures were doing and why.
They were confronting evil. They were threatening the status quo. They were making people who were very comfortable with things as they were, very uncomfortable.
MLK was shaking the foundations of institutional racism. He made people look at themselves and see things they didn’t want to see; feel things they didn’t want to feel.
Jesus was doing that, too. He challenged the Temple leadership and the traditional teachings. He made people uncomfortable when he said, “He who eats (feeds on) my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him.” His disciples said, “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?”
Jesus replied, “Does this cause you to stumble? Then what if you would see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
In other words, if you think you’re offended now, just wait! If you think my teachings are difficult, just wait until you see what comes next!
Of course, we know he meant the crucifixion, but the disciples had no clue.
“Does this cause you to stumble?”
In Greek, the word used is skandalizei, which is where we get our word ‘scandal’. The kind of things Jesus was saying were truly scandalous to the Jews. He was talking about consuming his body and blood, which sounded like heresy to the Jews. They had no idea what he was talking about. Even at the Last Supper his followers had no idea what he was saying.
Paul uses this same word later when talking about the cross, it was a scandal, a stumbling block to faith. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” (1 Cor. 1:23)
So, Jesus and his cross were a stumbling block. Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah the Jews were looking for. He wasn’t challenging Rome, he wasn’t a warrior, he wasn’t a David. Jesus told them to turn the other cheek, not prepare for battle.
They wanted a leader that would bring back Israel’s glory days. Instead they got a leader who called for humility and love.
They wanted a crown, instead they got a cross.
They were offended because Jesus wouldn’t be who they wanted him to be – because he was changing things they thought were settled. Like the man who asked the question about MLK, the man who was determined to stand his ground, didn’t want to see things change.
Neither did the Temple leadership in Jesus day. He said to them, “does this scandalize you?” If they were honest about it, they would say, “yes.” This is a hard teaching to accept.
Some of these teachings still are.
When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” he meant love ALL people as yourself – no matter who they are, your old, young, male, female, rich poor, gay, bisexual, transgender, straight, black, brown, native, immigrant – all of these are your neighbor.
But Jesus went even further. In Matthew 5: 43-44, he tells us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who…persecute you.”
Oh, boy. Does this offend you? If we are being honest, yes, it does.
What about people who fly planes into buildings? People who set off bombs in public places? People who use guns to commit mass murder?
Yes, no exceptions.
How are we supposed to follow this? That is a very hard teaching, one that is so hard to hear, let alone actually do. Where is the Good News here?
Here it is:
Jesus calls us to very high standards. He came to call us to follow him, to live like him, to emulate him. To challenge our hearts and minds to live lives of love and service.
And Jesus knows that this is hard to do. In love, he sets us free from sin and death, loves and forgives us even when we fall short of his commands to love others.
And to help us on this journey, to strengthen us for the work, he feeds us with the bread of life, his body and blood.
“He who feeds on me, he will also live because of me.”
Jesus has given us hard teachings to follow. He has called us to a difficult path. A path that scandalizes and offends many people today because it is counter-cultural… because it calls us to love ALL people no matter who they are and to care for them as we would Jesus himself.
But he has not left us alone in this. He is walking with us and nourishing us with himself.
Every day we are receiving sustenance from Christ. We have his blessed presence with us every day.
When Jesus asked the disciples if they would leave because his teachings were hard, Peter replied, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Peter and the disciples followed Jesus even as he offended and confused them, because they knew he truly was the Son of God. They followed him to the cross, the tomb and then after the resurrection, changing the whole world with this scandalous, offensive message of love for all humankind, of inclusion, and forgiveness.
If we truly follow Jesus, he will sometimes offend us. There is no getting around it. We are only human.
But if we continue to go to Him, feed on His word and His body and blood, and continue to follow Him in spite of our being confused scandalized and offended, he will give us the words of eternal life – his body and blood as strength for the journey, and his Holy Spirit to open our eyes, ears and hearts.
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.