Sunday 12 September 2021
Readings: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-end
Heavenly Father, may these my spoken words open to us something of your written word and so lead us to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
My maternal grandfather was a gunner in the Royal Navy during the second world war and, although he hardly ever spoke about it, he did tell me that he was on a number of ships that were sunk, mostly in the North Atlantic convoys.
Does anyone remember the wartime phrase ‘Loose lips sink ships’?
It is worth unpicking that succinct phrase for a moment. A couple of words, said without thinking in earshot of the wrong person – perhaps something simple like “My Tommy is sailing out of Chatham on Sunday” could lead to a U-boat waiting in the channel, firing a torpedo and unleashing horror and death.
A word, a simple breath of air passing over the tongue and the lips, but spoken out of place, could sink a warship.
In today’s first reading St James reflects on the power of our words, both for good and for ill. He too talks about ships and says that no matter how big the ship and no matter how it harnesses the great power of the wind to drive it along, it’s direction is controlled by a comparatively tiny rudder.
If a rudder wags around in any old direction, without a helmsman keeping control, then the ship will not go the right way.
James compares the rudder of this ship to the human tongue which, although comparatively small, can set the direction of a person.
I am sure we have all met people whose speech is full of love, encouragement and grace. They build us up and are a pleasure to be around.
And I am sure we have all met people who are, shall we say, less so.
But, perhaps worse, are those whose words give a bad witness to their faith. Those whose lips and tongues praise God in church on Sunday morning but who then say awful things about others – St James talks about them too:
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.”
I am reminded of 1 John 4:20
Whoever claims to love God but hates brother or sister is a liar.
And, of course, Matthew 7:16
By their fruit you will recognise them.
If we say to the world that we are Christians, who love God and who love neighbour, then we should be aware that those around us will be watching to see how we act – does what we say we believe on a Sunday line up with our actions during the week and do the words of our lips when talking about someone demonstrate a life transformed by love, or something else?
If you met someone who was a Muslim but who drank alcohol or someone who was a Hindu and ate beef you might think them a terrible hypocrite whose actions lowered the standing of their faith in your eyes.
We bear the same responsibility to live our lives in the world as people who are transformed by the experience of meeting God, through Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
And, just to be clear, I am not seeking to pontificate from a place of perfection. St James makes the point loud and clear that those who lead and teach in the church will be judged strictly and I know, sisters and brothers, that I often fail to live up to God’s call on my life. So, as I pray for you to become the people you were called and made to be, then I ask for you to pray for me in the same way, and as I pronounce God’s absolution for sins following the confession then please know that this is as much for me as for all those in church.
Jordan Peterson, the rather controversial academic and speaker, has an interesting relationship with Christianity and he recently gave an interview to the Church Times. His main criticism of contemporary Christianity is that the faith we profess does not sufficiently change our lives, words and actions. He said:
“There’s no limit to what would happen if you acted like God existed…..the way you live isn’t sufficient testament to the truth.”
Is the way we live and conduct ourselves in the world a sufficient testament to the truth? When others look at us, and hear how we talk to and about others, do they see lives transformed by the reality of God?
In church we often think about the great saints. The only difference between the saints from church history and ourselves is not the possession of super-human powers. People are not born saints in the way that Clarke Kent was born Superman. The saints that we celebrate and remember are fellow-Christians, living in the same fallen and difficult world that we do, but who have lived their lives fully in the light of God’s presence. Aligning their thoughts, words and actions so closely with God that it would become unthinkable for them to praise him and proclaim Jesus as Lord one moment and to curse and lie the next.
To answer Jordan Petersen’s charge, the lives lived by the saints are always sufficient testimony to the truth. And we are all called to be saints.
But even some of the greatest of saints had to start somewhere, and some of their mis-steps are recorded in the bible. This should give us confidence both in the transparency of the biblical account and the humanity of the saints.
In today’s Gospel reading Simon Peter, who would later become the rock on which Jesus built his church, allowed the words of his mouth to be both fresh water, and then brackish water.
Jesus had asked his disciples who people thought he was, and we heard a variety of answers, and then he asked his disciples the same question:
“But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ”.
Peter spoke the truth, although he may not have fully understood what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ. Then Jesus taught them a little more:
“He [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
This is where it goes wrong for Peter and he took Jesus aside to rebuke him.
This is a very strong word and is often used in the bible in the context of exorcisms in which unclean spirits are rebuked. In turn Jesus rebuked Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan!” which reinforces the exorcism tone.
Imagine proclaiming Jesus as the Christ in one breath and then rebuking him almost with the next?
But isn’t that what we do every time we leave church and then fail to speak lovingly both to one another and of one another?
If our words and actions and lives joined up sufficiently so that we were testaments to the truth, which is Jesus the Christ, then not only would we be the saints here on earth but a world in need of authenticity would be beating down our doors to have what we have.
This is not meant to condemn us, but to encourage us. St Peter got it badly wrong in today’s gospel, as he did on many other occasions, but we know that Jesus kept forgiving him as he keeps forgiving us.
Loose lips may sink ships but the tongue with which we sing our praises to God should also testify to a life transformed by him, the tongue which receives Jesus in the sacrament should be Christ-like when talking to others and the tongue which prays for God’s forgiveness and blessing should be full of forgiveness and blessing to friends, family and neighbours.