TEXTS: Mark 8:27-38 “Who do you say that I am?”
James 3:1-12 On teaching and tongues
Christ Cross Church Crucible [Culture Country]
We live and worship in a crucible time. All time is crucible time but this seems to be a particularly poignant crucible time. Actually we face multiple crucibles that call for our attention and action. A crucible is cross-road, a critical juncture, a severe test, a convergence of forces. A crucible is not bad but it is often a challenging place and certainly a critical place.
Baptism is a good crucible that we celebrate in the church with Janice this morning. Baptism is less about a point of entry than it is about a place of decision and departure.
Last Sunday we celebrated our entry into the crucible of a renewed live and leadership in SMC. Our Lake City neighborhood faces a crucible of community ministry and criticism. Some of us face a crucible of life having to do with health or work or future or other decision. Our work with Indigenous peoples in Suriname and the Doctrine of Discovery know crucible. In culture and country in this election season we may be beyond crucible. Our electoral crucible is deeper than partisan politics and whom to vote for. I have been imagining writing on “The illusion of democracy and the delusion of voting.” There are other crucibles but that is more than enough for us today.
I want to attend to a couple of crucibles we face as a church. In order to do that we first face Jesus and James. We encounter Jesus as did the disciples on a journey with Jesus.
Mark 8: 27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ Jesus asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Human One must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Jesus said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Human One will also be ashamed
when coming in the glory of God with the holy angels.’
This is the gospel truth of Jesus Christ. In this gospel Jesus calls disciples into and confronts disciples with the crucible of discipleship. There are two parts to this gospel journey: naming and living Jesus. In other words, as our worship theme names: being doers not just hearers of the word.
I invite you to an image exercise with Jesus. We are there with Jesus as disciples. Where was Jesus and where was he taking disciples? He was teaching and healing around the Sea of Galilee.
From there Jesus took the disciples and headed toward Caesarea Philippi. Where is that from the Sea of Galilee? North, further into the hinterlands and hills. Where will Jesus take them after this journey north to Caesarea Philippi? We’ll get to that. On the way Jesus does what Jesus often does: asks a question. Jesus begins with an indirect question. What is it? Who do people say that I am? What is their answer? John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. Then Jesus asks a direct question: Who do you say that I am? Peter, often quickest to open his mouth, answers. What is his answer? The Messiah-Christ.
Then Jesus sternly orders them not to tell anyone; the Messianic secret we’ll not get into. This real question opens a teachable moment for Jesus the teacher Messiah-Christ. He tells them that suffering lies ahead, suffering due to rejection by whom? Religious leaders: elders, chief priests, scribes. Where will it lead? He will be killed in order to rise again. Remember Romero!
Peter responds again for the disciples and rebukes Jesus. Jesus looks at the disciples and rebukes Peter. Peter is not just speaking for himself and Jesus is not just speaking to Peter. We are Peter. Then Jesus elaborates a core teaching for a crowd and disciples. What is his core teaching? It begins with “If” – a simple word a significant word. “If you want to be my followers…”
Then what? Then you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. Remember, this is on the way north to Caesarea Philippi and way before Jesus’ crucifixion. This is troubling teaching. What is Jesus talking about? Jesus explains. Whoever looses their life for my sake and the gospel will have life. What good is it if you gain the whole world and forfeit your life.
This is the very heart, the core, the essence of following Jesus and the whole gospel. Following Jesus is a cross-formed life, a cruciform life – a crucible life. Let’s continue the image here in the sanctuary. Jesus is not just teaching them empty words. This is more than a lesson in theology. This is life in action. Where does Jesus go from here? It is a turning point! Jesus turns around and heads toward Jerusalem. [Walk down through the sanctuary.] What is the shape of the journey Jesus is taking disciples? A cross-shaped journey and life with Jesus – who Peter and we confess is Christ.
This is the crucible of confessing Christ and the cross as Church for life. It is the paradox of and warning about the cross – give life to receive life. Being and doing matters….doing the cross…take up my/your cross and follow Christ. Through the cross Jesus defeated the Powers not by joining them or beating them at their game but by refusing to play their power game. It cost Jesus his life in order to gain life. Jesus tells disciples then and forever to give life in this cross-shaped way is to gain true life forever.
(JHY, “On Not Being In Charge,” edited by J. Patout Burns, War and Its Discontents, 85)
Now we can face James whose purpose is to make us “doers of the word and not hearers only.”
James 3: 1-12
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.
Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and [God], and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 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, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
This too is the Word of God.
James uses powerful words and poignant images. We will attend to two word-images in James’ word for us: teachers and tongues. James poses a crucible that has to do with teaching and tongues. This is not to be confused with teaching in tongues. It is a paradox of teaching and tongues as well as a warning against teachers and tongues. What does James say about teachers and tongues?
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. And the tongue is a fire.
The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
James is teaching us something in style and substance. If we take James at his word what are we to make of teaching and tongues? Teaching and tongues are a problem so let’s do away with them. But is that what James is teaching us? Indeed James here speaks in first person, “We who teach.” James is clearly strongly warning of the danger and dilemma of teaching and tongues.
Nevertheless, both are necessary and useful. But beware, be alert, be mindful. Teachers have a great capacity to mislead, to teach falsely. Tongues have a great propensity to speak harshly, to voice evil.
Sages across the ages speak about silence being better than speech. The mark of wisdom – Sophia — is control of speech. There is power and peril in speech and with those who speak. Speech forms our world view. Under God speech is relational and covenantal. Tongues, as James reminds us, speak blessing or curse. So be aware and beware what we speak.“Human speech and action must be normed by the action and speech of God, who has chosen to become involved with humans” (Luke Timothy Johnson commentary on James in NIB, 202-207). “The tongue [reveals] betrays the world that is in one’s heart; it is a microcosm of the inner self.” (NRSV Spiritual Direction Bible on James 3:1-12, p. 2210)
James adds an image to both teaching and tongues that call for attention: mistakes and fire. When warning about teaching, James adds: For all of us make many mistakes. Is James saying, “Don’t risk making mistakes?” Hardly. James is telling us that mistakes happen in life and we have to go on with life. We’re not perfect and life isn’t perfect.
I want to challenge the concept of “mistakes” as an often misused word. How many times have we heard a public person admit to “making a mistake?” Is that what is really going on? Rarely!
From a place of power, admitting making a “mistake” may mean ‘I’m sorry I got caught.’ The next time you hear “mistake” confessed ask, “Is it illegal, immoral, inhumane, or sin?”
Here at SMC as anticipate and live into a renewed congregational life we acknowledge we will “make mistakes” and call for patience and grace when we do. Yes, we will make mistakes.
I have been pondering why speaking of “mistakes” doesn’t sound hopeful or seem helpful. Aware of my uneasiness I had not tried putting it into words until listening to James. Making a “mistake” has little to do with what we do in the church. The more we focus on a “mistake” the more conflicted and de-energizing it will likely become. Let me pose a reframing as we live into our renewed SMC life and leadership. Two OL words offer us more imagination and insight for what is happening among us than being warned or wary about “making mistakes.” Our ongoing life as a church is less about “making mistakes” than it is about opportunities for learning and organic living. As a church we live into our new form of life and leadership together as a discerning community where everything becomes an opportunity for learning in this organic living body of Christ.
James also speaks of “fire” when talking about tongues. What can we say about fire? Is fire good or bad? Is it “blessing” or “curse” to use James’ words? Look here is fire on the altar. This candle is lit. What does this fire signify? The light of Christ. What if I took this candle and used it to light the church on fire? It is the same flame – fire that can be blessing or curse, sacred or sacrilegious, symbol or sword. When we reframe mistakes and are mindful of fire we can face whatever God sets before us. We can also face the crucible of Christ and the cross in the church. Let me illustrate. Some Lake City neighbors are unhappy with us as a church particularly community ministry. The more we talk about “mistakes” the easier it is to let our tongues be fire escalating conflict. This too is an opportunity for learning in being the organic living body of Christ. May it be so!