Wednesday, 16 September 2015

wisdom and the power of words

James says the tongue is a fire, a fire that (though small) can set a whole forest on fire. In chaos theory it is proposed that a butterfly can set off an incredibly complicated chain of events that can result in a hurricane. James is saying our words can have this kind of incredible effect. Though small, the tongue can cause great harm, but I would also say it can cause great good as well. Karl Marx spoke words that resulted in the rise of communism that spread across the world. The words of Adolf Hitler resulted in the rise of Nazism and World War 2.  Martin Luther spoke and wrote words (along with others) that resulted in the Protestant Reformation that reshaped Europe and Christianity.  The words of Gandhi inspired a movement in India that resulted in freeing India from British colonial control. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and inspired a non-violent civil rights revolution.  A huge fire can be set with the tongue!  James is wise to warn us about the power of our words. They have potential to do incredible good, but also incredible evil. I’m sure many of us remember hurtful words spoken to us as children or as teenagers. Hopefully we also remember encouraging words spoken over us by someone we looked up to.  
If words are this powerful we should we should be careful to evaluate our speech. Do we use our words to tear people down, or to build people up? Do we gossip and cause division, or do we spread kindness and unity with our words? Is our tongue a servant of truth, or of lies? Do we use our tongue when we should be listening? Do we remain silent when we should say something?  Do our words point people to Christ, or do we just reinforce the status quo?  Because words are so dangerous James reminds us that not many should be teachers and that teachers will be judged with greater strictness. (Those of us who preach should remind ourselves of that persistently.)
Jesus too puts tremendous emphasis on what comes out of our mouth. Jesus last week taught that it was not what goes into our mouth (the food we eat, and how we eat it) that makes us unclean, rather, it is what comes out of our mouth that makes us unclean. James tells us that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect”. Our words are very important indicator of our spiritual state.  
In our Gospel passage Jesus is asking about how people speak about him.  He asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” The answer is mostly positive- People said "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." In general, the people seemed to like Jesus and respect him.  They weren’t saying he was a heretic, for example. Things are not so different today. If you ask people on the street about Jesus they will likely say positive things like “political revolutionary”, “wise teacher”, “healer”, “a good person”, “an enlightened person”, “a prophet”, “a miracle worker”. It’s pretty rare to get people saying negative things about Jesus. (They have lots of negative things to say about Christians, but not so much about Jesus.) While people will say positive things about Jesus, they don’t really give a very full picture.   
Jesus turned to his disciples and asked “who do YOU say that I am?” Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah."  Peter answered the question correctly, but his understanding of who the messiah was to be was limited by his culture. Peter’s definition had no room for a messiah that suffers and dies, so when Jesus begins to explain that he was going to suffer and die Peter pulls him aside and scolds him for talking nonsense. Peter wants Jesus to match his expectations of who he is. By “messiah” Peter means that Jesus is the one God will use to free the people from their enemies- especially the Romans. He is the king who has come with God’s presence, reuniting Israel and their God. He is going to usher in a new golden age. 
Jesus’ definition of “Messiah” includes great suffering, being denied by the highest religious authorities, and being killed. To Peter, this definition of Messiah is completely contradictory to his definition. Ruling God’s people as a kingly superstar and being killed by those he was to rule cannot go together. They are opposing ideas. So, Peter attempts to correct Jesus’ definition. “No, No, No. That’s not how this is supposed to work. If you’re the messiah you are to rule and destroy the Romans not die, that’s not part of the plan!” I suspect it was a temptation to fulfill the expected role of the superstar king minus the suffering. Like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness when Jesus was offered the world by Satan, Peter is now unwittingly playing the part of Satan, who tempts him away from God’s will.  Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes Peter.  Jesus pushes back hard against the temptation. Jesus was out to destroy evil, not the Romans. His eyes were set on a greater enemy. Peter’s vision was too small.  
Of course this is a question Jesus asks us as well, “Who do YOU say that I am?” In a sense it is the most important question for you to answer. My time with you as your priest has only been valuable insofar as it has helped you to answer that question with your lips and by how you live your life. 
Like Peter, it is tempting to define Jesus according to our tastes. There are bits we might like to cut off. Maybe bits that make him seem a little harsh, like when he turns over the tables at the temple, or when he tells people that he is the only way to the Father, when we like to see him as always gentle. Maybe he is a bit too accepting of people on the margins of society and we just aren’t ready to follow him there, so we cut that bit out, or just ignore it. It is tempting to try to reshape Jesus into an image we find more palpable rather than try to reshape our minds and characters according to who he actually is.
How we define Jesus has consequences for us as his followers. Peter did not want to accept a suffering messiah, but perhaps that was because he knew his disciples would suffer too. The ways we want to change Jesus, or critique Jesus with be an indicator or our own fears and dislikes about suffering with him, or following the marginalized into uncomfortable places. We might want to cut out bits that make Jesus seem harsh and not accepting because of the cultural mood that is prevalent in our culture.   
The answer we give to the question “Who do you say that I am?” has implications for who we are as his followers. Not only does Jesus as our Messiah have to die, but we are called to die too. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel so that we can gain our true lives.   The German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffor said “When Christ calls [someone] he bids them come and die”. His cross was to resist the Nazi forces from inside Germany, which eventually led to his execution. 
Now the tempting thing for me to do it to try to soften this definition of “discipleship”. It makes us feel uncomfortable. I know I feel uncomfortable thinking about it. I’m afraid that God might ask me to do something that I’m not willing to do. And, I’d rather not ask people to come and die, but they are not my words, they are Jesus’ words. He calls us to follow him on the way of the cross.
But Bonhoeffer also said that “Jesus asks nothing of us without giving us the strength to perform it. His commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it.” Jesus wants us to give it all because he wants us- he wants you. He wants all of you. In him is freedom. In him is joy. In him is transformation. In him you find your true self. 

Peter was shocked by Jesus’ words- his redefinition of “messiah”. And with that shock came the shock of what it meant to be a disciple of this kind of messiah.  But look at where it leads. Christ suffers and dies, but is then resurrected victorious over all evil and rescuing humankind. So where will this redefinition of “disciple” lead? It will not end in the grave. It will end with our Messiah, our Lord, our Saviour, and our God, who through his cross recreates the world. Amen.

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