How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! James is right, isn’t he? We see it in our gospel reading, Peter claiming that Jesus is Messiah and then with his next breath rebuking Jesus for talking about Messiah’s mission. And it’s just not the First Century folk that had difficulty with their tongues. Our politicians can hardly keep from saying mean things and unhelpful things and stretching the truth so far it breaks. Even good Christian folk, like you and me, have been known to say mean things and unhelpful things. Sometimes even we stretch the truth to breaking.
Our tongues can say the most wonderful things, tender words, kind words, comforting and comfortable words. And our tongues can also say the meanest, most hurtful, nastiest, untrue things. The good and the bad are part of who we are – remember Jesus said that it isn’t what is brought into us that makes us unclean, but what comes out of us that reveals our uncleanliness. Our tongues catch us up; show us what we are inside. Our tongues stir up trouble as often as they calm things down.
We have here another week of lessons that show us, in practical ways, how we ought to live as followers of Jesus. Our words are important, what we say and how we say it is important because our words, what we say and how we say it will help bring people closer to God or push them farther away. We are the ambassadors of Christ. We are followers of Jesus, disciples, and so we are examples to the world of what Christianity, what God’s love and the redeeming grace of Jesus are all about. Our speech ought to reflect God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for each other.
I fear that respectful conversation is fast disappearing. I am dismayed by the lack of respect in our national conversations about almost every political topic. It is fine to disagree on the issues. It isn’t fine to condemn those who disagree with us or make personal attacks on each other’s character or patriotism. I know that passions run high – I feel very strongly about MY positions, too – but that doesn’t give us leave to be rude to each other. And the same goes for our conversations about life in the church. We MUST be kind when we speak to each other and of each other. One of my seminary professors told us to be careful when writing our theology down or speaking about others. ‘Use sweet words,’ he’d say, ‘you might have to eat them one day.’
Peter claims that Jesus is the Messiah and then almost immediately tells Jesus to stop talking. Why does Peter rebuke Jesus? Because Jesus is explaining what Messiah is going to do. Peter doesn’t want Jesus to say such things because, as we see over and over in the gospels, the disciples expect that Messiah will overthrow the Roman government and set up God’s kingdom on Earth. Peter and the disciples expect that they will reign in Messiah’s kingdom – they expect to come into power with Jesus.
What Jesus proposes, though, is the opposite of what Peter and the others expect. God’s kingdom is an upside-down kingdom, where Messiah gives up his life, where the greatest is the least, where those who want to lead must serve. Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them.
It is precisely at this point where it becomes clear to me how difficult it would be to have a Christian nation – a theocracy with God in charge under a Christian banner. There may be nations, ours included, which are made up primarily OF Christians. Please hear me clearly – Christians have been and should continue to be involved in politics, Christians will continue to be of great service by their leadership in our communities and the world. We can and should debate America’s moral role in the world, what we ought to do with our power and our wealth, how to help in the refugee crisis and what we should do about the refugees and migrants within our own borders.
But Christianity and America are not interchangeable terms – they can’t be. God is not an American, a Republican, a Democrat, a Capitalist or a Socialist and God’s kingdom requires something quite different from the power and the wealth we possess as Christians. The Kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom and it’s more widespread than any one country and requires our complete allegiance.
If we are going to be light and salt in our world, if we’re going to use our tongues to spread the gospel of God’s love, we’ve got to give up our notions of power and entitlement and supremacy. We are called, not to be first, but to be last. We’re called to serve, not to rule; called to share what we have, not remain content because we have ours. By giving up our lives, by giving up our need to lord it over others, by sharing our treasure, we have the freedom to be with others, no matter where they might be, no matter their need, no matter their social standing or background. By following Jesus, in his humility and his gentle strength and his powerful service, we bring hope and God’s love to the world around us.
In God’s upside-down kingdom we receive when we give, we are forgiven when we forgive, we find new life as we die to ourselves.
We are called to use gracious words, to do what we can for this world that is so precious in God’s sight. God has promised that the Spirit will guide us in what we should do and how we should live, if we give ourselves over. God has promised that when we don’t know what to say, the Spirit will speak through us to bring hope and healing. May we allow the Spirit to guard and guide our tongues and to lead us in all things. Amen.