“God For the Godless”
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Those words come to us from not from a Roman book of law or ancient Sumerian text or local town council. They come out of scripture. They come out of one of my favorite books in the Bible, Deuteronomy.
Cursed by God. Forsaken by God. Beyond God’s grace and love. This was an idea alive 1,000 year before Christ. An idea alive in Jesus’ day. An idea still alive in world 2,000 years later. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s cruse.”
And Jesus tells his disciples, that is where I am going: to hang on a tree and die.
There are four actions in verse 31 that Jesus tells his disciples he must do: four verbs that will forever change the world. The first is “suffer.” The second is “be rejected.” The third is “be killed.” And only after those first three do we get the final verb: “rise again.” Suffer, rejected, killed, rise again. Jesus can’t do that fourth one without the other three.
Suffering, rejection, and death are not three terms we as Christians like to talk about. They don’t make for pleasant table conversations or topics at Coffee Fellowship. But they are at the core of Jesus’ mission. And they are here because of who Jesus chooses to be for and be with.
We in our world divide people and label people. The church and religion do this maybe the most of all. Rich and poor. Sick and healthy. Saint and sinner. Insider and outsider. Blessed and cursed. Holy and forsaken.
By going to the cross, Jesus shows us that he is always for the latter. Jesus is for the poor. He is for the sinner. He is for the outsider. He is for the cursed. He is for the Godless and forsaken. He has chosen not to love and save those we think are worth loving and saving. But he has chosen to love even those most cursed, most hurting, most guilty, most ashamed.
By dying on the cross, Jesus said, and continues to say, “I am with you. I am for you.”
But this was not a message Jesus’ first disciples wanted to hear. Peter immediately takes him aside and rebukes him, because this is not what he expects from the savior and Messiah. Rejection. Suffering. Dying on a tree. That is for those bad people, those people outside of God’s love. That is not for you.
Jesus quickly corrects him. With this act, Jesus is telling Peter and all of us, I came for those who are outside of God’s love. I came for the forsaken. I came for the cursed. Jesus came as God for the Godless.
But it’s not just Peter or the disciples long ago who missed Jesus’ message.
It is us, in our churches today. We still believe that Christ came for the holy, the just, the insider, the healthy, the ones who say the right prayer of faith, the ones who are in churches each Sunday, the ones who read their Bibles daily, know the lyrics to all the hymns, and call themselves Christians. Those are the ones God loves. Those are our kind of people. But not others.
And so we have stayed within our own groups, our own tribes, our own comfort and safety. We have proclaimed God’s salvation, but for those already here. We sing Jesus Loves You, but only for those we believe are worthy of it. We shout Amazing Grace, but only for those who have been already found.
The early church spread not by going to the halls of power, or the houses of the most well respected, or even the Temple and leaders of religion. It spread because it offered a radical new message of God’s love for all people, in all situations of life. It proclaimed that God chose to come into the darkest, most painful parts of our lives and join us there, be present with us there, and offer us real healing.
Early Christians heard the gospel message and would risk their lives by going out into the streets to heal and bandage the lepers and sick who were forgotten by the rest of the world. It welcomed slaves and prisoners. It dared to challenge laws and rules that were unjust, even if it cost them their lives. The early church witnessed to a king not of wealth and prosperity, but of love and redemption, of a king who identified most of all with the poor and oppressed.
If we want to be disciples of Christ, the first place we need to look is at the life of Christ. Jesus spent his life identifying with the broken and lost, sinners, and outcasts, sick, and poor. But are we as the church and as disciples as willing to go with him to those places? Are we as willing to welcome those who look differently, smell differently, talk differently from us? And are as we willing not to wait for them to come in through our doors, but go where they are? Visit those who are sick? Proclaim freedom for those who are incarcerated? Offer friendship and dignity to those who have been despised and looked down upon by the world?
And this following Jesus to the cross is not just going to physical places outside of us, but the places inside us and others that we hide away from. Are we willing to talk about sin and brokenness? Are we willing to confess prejudices and pain? Are we willing to hear stories that are not easy to hear? Are we willing to face death with those who are dying?
The final act Jesus mentions in verse 31 is “rise again.” It means Resurrection. New life. Wholeness and healing. Everything Christ does leads to this action. But we can’t simply jump to it. Or else it is an empty resurrection, a hollow promise, a nice dream that never touches reality. Christ is able to lead us into new life only because he has shared fully in the pain, brokenness, and yes, death, of our present reality. Christ doesn’t offer us this new life as a stranger from on high. He only is able to offer it as a friend, as a brother, as God with us.
We have a great message of resurrection to share with this world. But for it to be known, for it to shine, we first must be willing to go with Christ to the cross – to go to pain, forsakenness, and even death. It is a hard task. It is difficult to face those places. But when we go there, we go not alone. Christ is ahead of us. Already there. Making the cursed blessed, the broken whole, the Godless, God loved. Let’s follow him to the cross. Amen.