Since I suddenly find myself with lots of spare time and few services, I’ve been listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion over and over while I putter around the house.
One line has stuck with me “This night, shall all of you be offended because of me.” The modern translation is “fall away.” I don’t like the modern translation as much. To fall away from the faith makes us think of people abandoning the church entirely. That’s not what Jesus is saying. The disciples certainly commit grave sins on Maundy Thursday. But aside from Judas, they do not fall away from the faith, so much as they are offended at Jesus. The Greek word is “skandalizo”. The English word scandal comes from it. In Greek, it means that someone put a trap in the way, and it tripped you up.
That’s a better way of seeing this – and of seeing how God often works. As I have noted in the last few weeks – he works in ways that make no sense to us. He works through the weak to shame the strong. He works through mercy to show how powerless power is. He works through death to bring life.
The disciples are tripped up by the way God brings salvation. Who isn’t? We can’t even believe on our own without the Spirit bringing us to faith. And often, God works in us in ways that offend us – that trip us up. We don’t fall away from the faith. As a pastor I’ve heard it many times, “God and I are having a tough time of it.” Not that they have abandoned God. But they are angry at how God has treated them. You see some of this reflecting in the complaint Psalms as well. Theologians call it Theodicy – the theology of suffering. Paul addresses this – “Suffering produces endurance, etc.” We generally don’t like suffering. Modern society tells us that suffering is always bad, and so when God sends us some, we tend to respond badly.
The disciples didn’t fall away from the faith. The lesson of those words is not “anyone can fall away so be careful”. (Although that’s an important lesson as well – and is covered in 1 Corinthians 10). The lesson is that even the greatest heroes of the faith can – will – be offended by Jesus and our heavenly Father: how Jesus comes to us to bring us salvation, God’s discipline as a sign of love, the presence of other sinners (or false teachers) in the church, etc. All of this can offend. Just as the disciples were offended that Jesus was taken away to be crucified.
The question is not whether we will be offended, but whether we will repent of our doubts and return to the Lord, or whether we will continue in our offense, letting it lead us astray from our Lord Jesus. Satan is subtle. He’s good at what he does. He even managed to ensnare one of the twelve. And he led Peter to deny Jesus. But Peter repented. He was restored.
And that’s an even more important point. That after being offended, the 11 returned to the Lord and were forgiven.
There’s no better time to return to God than Holy Week. Today’s reading is Luke 22-23. Start with that. See the love and forgiveness of Jesus on the cross. Luke is the only one to include Jesus forgiving the thief. What a tremendous story of redemption and forgiveness.
The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those of us who are being saved, Christ, the power and the wisdom of God.