Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 11 Pentecost
The word of the day for today’s sermon is “scandal.” But don’t get too excited.
When I hear the word “scandal”, I think of big, flashy headlines, or friends whispering and then gasping. I think of a secret big enough to keep the rumor mill running for a few weeks. I don’t know what you’re thinking of, but I bet when I said that the word of the day is “scandal” none of you thought of the Bible.
Yet our word “scandal” comes from a Greek word, skandalon, which is a pretty important word in the New Testament. I’m sure you’re familiar with at least a few of the passages in the Bible that talk about scandal, though you’ve probably never hear the word “scandal” being read from that gold-covered book. The Greek word skandalon’s first meaning — as far as I know — was for a trap. Specifically, it was for the part of a trap that got ya — like the trigger a mouse steps on to make the trap go snap!, or the net covered in leaves you step on, thinking you’re just going for a walk in the woods, that gives way to a giant hole hidden underneath. It could also be the word for something that trips you up, like a stick on the path, or when somebody sticks out their foot when you’re not looking.
So as the word skandalon evolved, it started getting used symbolically. We can think of an addict trying to get clean, hanging out with a friend who says “C’mon. Just one more time. Then you’ll quit.” That “friend” is being a skandalon — something that traps him in old ways,that trips him off the right path and into sin.
In the New Testament, skandalon is usually used symbolically like that, and most of the time you’ve probably heard it translated as “stumbling block.” Jesus uses it when Peter says, “No, Lord, you shouldn’t have to suffer and die! God forbid it!” Jesus yells, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a skandalon — a stumbling block — to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt. 16:23). Peter could have tripped Jesus up as he walked toward the cross.
That word is also used many times to talk about Jesus. You might remember St. Paul writing about how strange the Christian message can sound, saying, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block, a skandalon, to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). What Paul is saying is that Jesus scandalizes many devout Jews: he comes off as a rebel or a tempter or a crazy man, tripping up the faithful with the messages he preached.
So, in the New Testament we see two different outcomes of a skandalon. When people are scandalized, when they face a person or a situation that goes against their ideas of what’s important, what’s right and wrong, something that seems set to trip them off the path they’re walking and into sin…if they give in to that scandal, it might lead them to sin — like if Jesus had listened to Peter and chosen to fight rather than to die. Or it might lead them to revelation, to realizing the new thing that God is doing in the world — like it did for the disciples of Jesus.
This is exactly the kind of scandal we see happening in today’s gospel story. When we read it from where we stand today, as Christians with 2,000 years of church history behind us and the faith of Christ in our hearts, it’s easy to think that the scandal here is that so many of the Jews gathered around Jesus just don’t get what Jesus is saying. The Son of God is standing right in front of them; he’s just made a few loaves of bread and some fish feed thousands of people; and he’s explaining that God has sent him from heaven to earth; and all they can say is, “Don’t we know his parents? How can he say that he came down from heaven?”
But imagine with me for a while that we are those Jews listening to Jesus. We’re not that different, really (if we’re willing to put aside 2,000 years and some language and cultural differences). They and we are people of faith. They and we believe there is one God, and we are trying to hold on to what we know of this God from our stories and traditions. We are trying to be faithful to this God, to do what is right, to choose the right path.
And now we’re hearing this miracle-worker talk about the bread of life that has come down from heaven, and how if we eat this bread, we will never die.
But that’s not what scandalizes us Jews. We don’t say, “What do you mean, ‘eat this bread and you’ll never go hungry’? Even manna didn’t make the Israelites in the wilderness live forever.” And we don’t doubt Jesus’s talk about the “last day” or “eternal life” or the resurrection of the dead. We aren’t doubters; we are people of faith, and we already believe in all those things.
The scandal here is Jesus himself, and what he claims about himself. He says, “I am the bread of life. I have come down from heaven.” In short, this man standing in front of us is claiming to be God. And of course that’s offensive, of course that seems like a trap set to lead good people of the Jewish faith astray. We know that you can’t just see God like you can see another person. We don’t even make images of God or try to draw pictures of God. Even when Moses was granted his request to look upon God’s glory, Moses wasn’t allowed to see God’s face, only God’s back, because, God said, “No one shall see me and live” (Ex. 33:17-23). And after that Moses’s face was shining with the glory of God, shining brightly he had to wear a veil over his blinding face (Ex. 34:29-35). At other times God appeared miraculously: as a burning bush, or a pillar of light, or through the appearance of angels. But we know, looking at this man from Nazareth who had a childhood, who grew up at Joseph’s side, who knew how to work with his hands, who was sweaty and dusty, who hung out with fisherman and cheating tax collectors — we know this man cannot possibly be God.
It wasn’t just the Jews who were already against Jesus who found this offensive. After this “I am the bread of life” speech, a huge group of his disciples gets together and says, “This teaching is offensive. Who can stand to hear it?” and they abandon Jesus, turning around and going back home (Jn. 6:60-71).
And in the early centuries of Christianity, Christians continued to be offended by this idea that Jesus could be a man and God. There were some who said, “He was just an especially holy man.” But many others (the infamous Gnostics, for example) said, “No, we believe Jesus was God. But that whole humanity thing was just an illusion.” A God who was humble enough to walk among us is one thing, but the idea that God would actually become a man, would start out as a helpless baby and experience sickness and stinkiness and emotions and even death — they knew that the God who created the universe would never do something so humiliating.
The Jews, the would-be disciples, some early Christians groups — they all knew that God would never become a human. They knew this because of their faith, because of what they’d learned from their traditions, because of common sense. When they insisted that no, Jesus the man cannot possibly be God, they were trying to be faithful to God, to protect God from these crazy new ideas. These faithful people were faced with a scandal, and they stood their ground.
And now we come back to the big difference between them and us: we believe that because, in the face of the scandal of Jesus Christ, these people clung so tightly to what they knew of God, they missed God’s new revelation in Jesus Christ. They missed the beautiful gospel story of God taking on flesh and human experience, of loving us so much that God became one of us.
My question for you this morning is: Was Jesus God’s last scandal? Was Jesus the last time God shook us up, said “you think you know what I’m about, but you don’t”? Do we have God’s full revelation — or is God still doing new things?
Here’s my answer: After Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit came to the church and continued to do new things, things that went against what faithful people thought they knew. The Holy Spirit told Peter to let the non-Jewish people into the faith (Acts 10); the Holy Spirit told Paul that these gentiles didn’t even have to be circumcised or start to follow the Jewish laws if they wanted to become part of the Christian movement (Gal. 5). That seems obvious to us now, but at the beginning of our church, that was a huge scandal.
And I think that the Holy Spirit has continued to scandalize us. Our history is messy and full of human imperfections, even sin, but I think the Holy Spirit is there in the midst of it all, doing new things, revealing new truths. Maybe it’s because I am a Lutheran, a spiritual descendant of a man who said, “No, Church, you’ve got it all wrong,” and claimed a new way of believing in God and Jesus Christ. Maybe it’s because I’m a female preacher, only allowed to be up here in this pulpit after a long history of scandal, of arguing about whether the Bible or God says it’s wrong for me to be preaching — a scandal that is still going on in many churches. But whatever the reason, I can’t believe that we have it all figured out, or ever will. No matter how deeply we study scripture or how closely we cling to our traditions, we can never be sure that God isn’t going to break in and do new things, show us something totally new.
Yes, there are false prophets, there are traps that might drop us onto the wrong path. But sometimes the Holy Spirit gets to us through things we could never have imagined.
And so I leave you with this challenge: When you come face-to-face with a scandal, when you catch yourself feeling offended, don’t react right away. Take a moment and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Because yes, that scandal might be sin waging yet another battle with God’s faithful people. But that scandal might also be God showing us something new.