Witness at the Cross: Bystanders & Scoffers
February 26, 2023
In our Lenten sermon series, we are examining those found at the cross of Jesus during his crucifixion. This week we look at the bystanders and the scoffers. As we examine them, help us think about who might we resemble or identify with. Maybe the bystanders and scoffers, or maybe others at the cross like the soldiers or the women? By looking at them, how does this understanding helps us reexamine our own faith walks. If we had been at the crucifixion what might we have done?
Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth,[a] the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
THIS SERMON SERIES IS BASED ON A STUDY, WITNESS AT THE CROSS, BY AMY-JILL LEVINE, (NASHVILLE: ABINGDON PRESS, 2021).
Look at the picture. Who do you see? Bystanders, scoffers, women, soldiers… What do you think was going through the minds of each of them as they witnessed Jesus on the cross?
The persons at the cross we want to consider in this message are the scoffers and bystanders.
Our first question: Would it be easy to find ourselves as scoffers? Or bystanders? If we were in Jerusalem when Jesus spent the week in the Temple before his death, would we have believed what he said? Let’s not be too hasty before dismissing the possibilities that we, too, could fall in the ranks of scoffers or bystanders.
We have a real-life example of something remarkable that happened at Asbury University in Kentucky last week. Spontaneously, students have remained in the chapel to pray, worship, feel the spirit, change their lives. When you hear about this student-led renewal, what is your reaction? Scott Hughes, an ordained UM elder, associate general secretary in Discipleship Ministries of the UM church, a former student at Asbury, and the father of a student there at the event, asks these questions?
Is it suspicion? Is it spectacle?
Then, he asks, could it be a genuine movement of God in the lives of these students, like the great awakenings of spiritual movements in the past. While he didn’t use the term “scoffers,” he asks we skeptics to hold open the possibilities. He asks us to reflect.
- As a disciple of Jesus Christ, what are some simple steps you can take to be open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in your life?
- How are young people currently being formed in their faith in your church? How do you think they would react if they found themselves in a revival?
- How might spiritual practices (routine chapel services, prayer, Bible study, etc.) set the table and increase the odds for a revival like this to happen?
- What spiritual practices might you partake in this coming Lent to prepare you for a fresh experience of God’s love shed abroad in your life?
Recall the biblical example of the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem 50 days after Passover the week of Jesus’ death, or the great awakening in New York led by Charles Finney that fed the abolitionist movement. Or the great camp meeting at Cane Ridge, KY in 1801 led by Presbyterians and joined in by Methodists and Baptists where somewhere around 20,000 people were authentically moved in a spiritual renewal that remade the face of American Protestant religion.
Can we hold open the possibilities? Or, would we be bystanders? Scoffers?
According to the Gospel of Mark, the scoffers at the cross were priests and scribes. Equivalent today to ministers and college professors of religion.
These scribes and priests were confident that they recognized blasphemy when they saw it. And they were convinced they saw it in Jesus. He said something they considered a sure sign of blasphemy. Jesus said tear down the Temple in Jerusalem, and I will rebuild it in three days.
We know, of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about the bricks and mortar. He was talking about himself as the living temple of God, something the priests and scribes were unable to comprehend. They took him literally, as saying if their most sacred site that they considered the home of God were destroyed, the Temple, he could single-handedly rebuild it in three days. Really, the reacted? It had been under renovation for 46 years and he can redo it in three days? Who does he think he is? God? Blasphemy! That was the charge they made against Jesus.
They missed the point. Scoffed at him. Claimed Jesus deserved to die.
Underlying Jesus claim as messiah was more: the one who offers salvation, and the skeptics and scoffers were unwilling to accept it.
In John’s gospel, when Pilate wrote the inscription on Jesus’ cross, it said: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. It was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin and Greek. The priests argued with Pilate. Change it; say he claims he is the King of Jews. Pilate didn’t budge. He said, what I have written is what it will be. “In most artistic descriptions of the inscription, the Latin initials are included “I.N.R.I,” which means Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
Matthew’s Gospel expands the list from Mark of those who made up the ranks of scoffers. He included the Elders. What we call today leaders of the congregation. Not just me as minister, but you as the leaders too.
My, my. Surely, we would never be like the scoffers? Pronouncing judgment on whether a person is a good enough Christian. Or standing by and watching as someone else did, muttering among ourselves but not coming to the support of the person being judged.
Sometimes it is easier to see shortcomings in others than in ourselves. Take, for example, what is happening in Iran today, in the name of the Muslim religion. The Iranian government, run by the religious leaders, requires women and girls from age 9 to cover their hair. Women are openly defying this law, and it is costing them dearly. For showing their hair, they have been sent to prison, been sentenced to death. The one who sparked the protest was killed by the “moral police.” Four have been executed. Still, the women defy the order.
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind on the senselessness of this, over displaying one’s hair. But covering women’s hair is a proxy for keeping women under domination of the men in what Iran’s leaders see as a literal interpretation of the Koran. It is not something all Islam believes or endorses.
Lest I be too smug that Christianity would never do anything like this, look to 1 Corinthians 11, which said women are to be silent and wear head coverings in church.
Boy, am I in double-trouble! (I’m a woman preacher and don’t cover my hair)
To this day, women visiting the Vatican, must cover their arms, but head-covering has been optional since 1983.
What would Jesus say about the need for head covering today? Would he say that the kingdom of God is withheld from women who refused to cover their hair? Or would he instead look at a person’s heart? Judge a person by their goodness, not by outward appearances or following of rules.
And, what would Jesus say about an 8,000-member church, Grace Community Church, in Sun Valley, California. In 2002, when a long-time member came forward to report abuse from her husband, and refused to go back to him as the church leaders counseled her do, because she feared for her and her children’s safety. The pastor, John MacArthur, publicly said from the pulpit in 2004,
“I want to mention a sad situation, a person who is unwilling to repent. And the church bears responsibility before God to be the instrument of discipline… This is what the Lord wants. He wants discipline… to be put out of the church, to be publicly shamed, to be put away from fellowship, in this case it applies to Eileen Gray.” 
After trying first to get help through the church and instead being shamed, she pressed charges; her husband was convicted and sent to prison. But the church leaders, convinced they knew best, refused to apologize for the harm done to her. This case is in the news today, some 20 years later, because the current pastor finally has offered an apology to her.
Yet, sadly, she recounted, after she was shamed, people she had trusted in the church shunned her. She became an outcast. Some were scoffers, not believing her; others were bystanders, watching but not doing anything to help. This is an extreme example, but not the only time I’ve heard of such judgments, of a church that was rule-bound, not love-bound.
Would I have been like those scoffers or those bystanders at the cross? Dismissing Jesus as a blasphemer? Gawking? Or, might I have been more like some of the others like the Beloved disciple or the women who followed him?
Thank God, scoffers and bystanders are not the whole story of the witnesses at the Cross, or the whole story of people in the church today!
Come next week as we continue looking at others who were at the foot of the cross.
 Scott Hughes, “Suspicion and Spectacle,” posted February 20, 2023 https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/suspicion-and-spectacle
 Mike S, Poteet and Amy-Jill Levine, Witness at the Cross: Leader’s Guide, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2021), 21.
 Farnaz Fassihi, “Their Hair Long and Flowing or in Ponytails, Women in Iran Flaunt their Locks,” The New York Times, February 25, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/25/world/middleeast/iran-women-hijab-hair.html
 Julie Roys, The Roys Report, by June 9-10 (podcast), and Karen Swallow, “Opinion: John MacArthur’s Church Let Her Down. Now She is Standing in the Gap for Women.” February 16, 2023, https://julieroys.com/john-macarthur-church-let-down-eileen-taylor-standing-gap-women/; republished in MinistryWatch, https://ministrywatch.com/?s=Eileen+Gray.
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