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Careful What You Say!

If there is one thing which connects our three bible readings today, it the use we make of our tongues, how we speak, what we communicate. In Proverbs, (1.20-22) wisdom speaks out in the streets, on the busiest corner she cries out while scoffers delight in scoffing. James (3. 1-12) has reflections on the tongue likening it to a horse’s bridle or a ship’s rudder or a spark which sets a forest ablaze. It is seemingly so small and innocuous yet can have such devastating effects. Jesus (Mark 8.27-30) calls on his disciples to speak up and to say who they believe him to be: ‘who do people say that I am?’ The challenge is for them to come off the fence, to confess with their lips who they think Jesus really is.
Today, opinions are all around us. Everyone seemingly has a voice whether its on the Jeremy Vine show or the Jeremy Kyle show; on Facebook or Twitter. People’s views are sought in interviews, magazine articles and on the sofas of endless chat shows. Effort goes into empowering and encouraging many groups of people who might otherwise remain silent to speak out and be empowered from dementia sufferers and survivors of abuse to young carers. Those on the edge and the margins of society due to race, culture, gender or lack of education and resources are increasingly given a platform to speak out and it is good to hear their voices. It honours the whole of humanity created in God’s image. Even children in school are encouraged to have and to share their opinions. It can seem along way from the times of my own father when apparently ‘little boys were to be seen but not heard!’
But such encouragement to express views and thoughts, while better than the silence of a totalitarian state, is not without its dangers and it is these which the letter of James addresses. The tongue, he suggests is like a fire. (3.6) Casting our minds back to the recent hot summer, we all saw on TV and may be in person the devastating and frightening effects of forest and grass fires whether locally on Llanysilio mountain or in Spain or California. Whether such fires are accidental or deliberate, it only takes a small spark to set them off. Once lit, such fires take days or weeks to control and extinguish. James tells us that the misuse of the tongue, wrongful and hurtful speaking, can have the same effect. He states: Whereas every species of beast, bird, reptile and sea creature can be tamed and has been tamed by humans, no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (3.7-8)
It is not just James who recognises the destructive results of views and opinions. The powers that be try to tame them too. We all know that we need to be ‘politically correct’. I am sure that we have all been guilty of deriding this term which entered the English language at some point during the 1980’s. The intention of political correctness is to avoid language which may be offensive or hurtful to certain minority groups. I am certain that we could all give examples of political correctness getting out of hand but equally, it is surely not right for particular groups of people be the unrelenting butt of jokes or to be demined and marginalised by the use of language. Such action saps at the very idea of an open and caring society and is opposed to the Kingdom of God.
More significant has been the enshrining of ‘hate crime’ into British law. The UK government states: ‘Crimes committed against someone because of their disability, gender-identity, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation are hate crimes and should be reported to the police.’ (www.gov.uk/report-hate-crime) Here again is a recognition in the secular world that what James says is true; that the tongue when misused is a restive evil, full of deadly poison. What people say about their fellow human beings matters. The old adage; ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ does not always hold true. When we speak ill of others and incite people against them, we do not know where it will end, how far the fire will burn.
Yet, the world’s answers to the potential evil of the tongue are only ever blunt instruments. The good practice of political correctness however well-intentioned can often become over egged and open to ridicule and how do we distinguish between hate crime and the legitimate criticism of a race, religion or belief? There is a danger that truth can thus be silenced. Witness the Labour party breaking it’s back over antisemitism.
Having spoken of the terrors of the misuse of the tongue being like that of a wild fire, James offers another metaphor; one to cool us down. ‘Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt or bitter water?’ (3.11) The suggestion is that there is a source behind the tongue itself. If that source is good and true, fresh water will come forth; the tongue will speak well. That source is the heart. Is it in a right relationship with God? The implication is that the better our relationship with God through Jesus, the better will be our speaking. Surely, we should not use the same tongue to both praise our Lord and Father and then curse others made in his image.
Moving to the gospel passage, Jesus wants to know what is being said about him; what opinions are being voiced about his ministry. If he lived in the 21st Century, he would probably hardly needed to have asked. Such was his popularity it would have been all over the media and social media, but in the 1st century, it is left for his disciples to fill him in with the gossip about him and they duly oblige. Jesus then turns the question on them: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8.29) Peter responds with the correct answer: ‘You are the Christ!’
For Peter, this is more than an opinion about Jesus, it is a confession. He says what he truly believes in his heart. He says what the demons has already said that Jesus is Christ, Messiah. Peter is not using his tongue for bad but for good…but his words are explosive, and Jesus immediately warns him to be silent. Why such secrecy? …the much-vaunted Messianic Secret. The following words give some of the answer. To follow Jesus, the true Messiah is no picnic as many at the time supposed it would be; the end to all their troubles. No, this Messiah would have to travel a path of suffering leading to death. Peter is rebuked strongly for still cherishing a human view of the Messiah rather than God’s way of the cross.
It is important that we understand that this prohibition on speaking publicly of Jesus as the Christ was only temporary. According to Mark’s account, when Jesus is asked by the High Priest during the night before the crucifixion; ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ he affirms that he is. Indeed, at the end of our passage today, Jesus says: ‘If anyone is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8.38) Clearly Jesus teaches that we should use our mouths to profess him as Lord and to identify as his followers in a world which so quickly disowns him.
Today, consider how you speak and what you say. How many words do you use which are negative, hurtful pulling others down rather than building them up? Are you tempted to share in gossip and title tattle which can easily escalate into more dissention and hatred like fire in a forest? Or do you use words which support, encourage and give good advice. What about Jesus? Do you use words which speak well of him; that recommend his love to others? Or are you tempted to keep quiet when the subject of belief comes up, reluctant to be thought a religious nut or a bible basher. In all these things, there is a balance to be struck; when to speak and when be silent. (Ecclesiastes 3.7) We need to be open to the Holy Spirit who will give us appropriate words to speak. (Luke 12.12) Whatever, if we are using our mouths to speak well of Jesus, we will not be tempted to use them to stir up pain and grief.
Trinity 16 16.09.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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