Preached 9/23/12 at Head of Christiana PC, and in a slightly different form on 9/16/12 at Ocean View PC.
People are fascinating to me. We are created as an incredibly diverse species, with every single person having something — or maybe several things — that makes them totally unique on this planet, not exactly the same as any other person. But at the same time we also have an astounding amount in common. I am constantly amazed at the ways that two people who on the surface look completely different might share something vital in their history, or the way they see the world, or their hopes for the future. There’s a little record store on West Main Street, right near the campus ministry house, and as I was walking by a few weeks ago I stopped to say hi to the guy taking a smoke break outside. He had a fantastic mohawk, and he was totally punked out, head to toe. We got to talking, and I mentioned that I was in the process of becoming a pastor, and he said, “Oh yeah? I’m a reformed Satanist. I keep this look for my ministry.”
One of the things that marks us as humans and as distinctly social creatures is our capacity for language. We have developed countless thousands of languages throughout our history as a species, each of which (as long as it was a living language) is constantly shifting and changing to communicate new ideas, so that in each one we are capable of expressing an infinite range of thoughts and ideas to one another. Our ability to communicate with other people is what binds us into communities, and it is through these relationships that we learn about our world and about who we are as individuals. These groups and societies and relationships are fundamental to our lives as people, and often they are the source of our greatest joys as well as our greatest hurts. The satirical website The Onion captured this pretty well with an “editorial” called “If Humans Evolved To Be Social Creatures, Then Why Didn’t Anyone Come To My Party?”
We don’t know much about the author of James, but it’s obvious that these words were written by someone who has spent some time in a human community. The tongue, he says, is a wild creature, a restless evil—and how many of our conflicts (with friends or family or communities) are caused by an ill-chosen word? I’m pretty sure we all know this feeling, of speaking without thinking, realizing you’ve hurt someone you care about; or when a friend says something hurtful, and you find yourself wondering, “well, I don’t think they meant it that way, but maybe they did?”; or someone asks a question that touches a nerve, and suddenly it snowballs out of control as everyone in the group hears that question a different way. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!”
Sometimes it feels like this is just a function of being in any community. Our words themselves are almost never sufficient to describe what we mean to say, and then when you throw in our human habit of saying things without thinking them through, or hearing only through the lens of our own concerns, it’s a wonder sometimes that we’re able to communicate at all!
And yet our words can also be wonderful, beautiful things! We can speak words of love, words of support, words of poetry that strike a chord. Our words mean something. We can even speak things into being, as when we make vows to one another. We mark installations, and welcome new members, by speaking words of commitment to one another. The words of these promises are not simply words, because they have changed something fundamental to a relationship.
Peter discovers this in our gospel text today. Wonderful, impetuous Peter, who is somehow always the first one to speak, the first one to brandish his sword, standing beside Jesus, and also the one to waver when things look really bad. We are midway through Mark’s gospel, and Jesus takes a moment to check in with the disciples. Until now they have been traveling around, teaching and healing and working miracles, without a whole lot of background. Mark, as a writer, is not big on exposition. He is brief and to the point, and so this moment is the first time in Mark’s story when we start to hear the full extent of who this Jesus person might be.
And so Peter comes out with guns blazing! Not content with these reports that Jesus is Elijah returned, or John the Baptist, or another one of the prophets, Peter announces with confidence, “You are the Messiah!” You are the one we have been waiting for! You are the one who will save us!
But Jesus, rather than matching this mood with a dramatic flourish of his own, Jesus is stern. He orders them, don’t tell anyone who I am. Which feels weird—why wouldn’t Jesus want to be proclaimed as the Messiah? The trouble is, it sounds like Peter means something very different than what Jesus means.
Their community, the Jewish community, was in the midst of war and occupation by Rome. There were Roman soldiers and horses on every street corner, businesses and livelihoods were taxed into bankruptcy by corrupt officials, and any whispers of dissent might get you dragged before the courts and then executed—crucified—by the side of the road. The fear was real, and the threat of violence was real. So for most people, including Peter, when they speak of waiting for a messiah, waiting for a savior, they are thinking pretty literally. The awaited Messiah is someone who should ride in triumphant on an even bigger horse, broadsword flashing, with all divine might behind them. The entire Roman army should quake in fear at the feet of this messiah. This savior is someone who should save them from oppression and from death.
But instead, in stark contrast to Peter’s triumphant proclamation, Jesus says, plainly, that he must undergo great suffering, and persecution, and death. Peter is understandably shocked! That is not supposed to happen to a messiah! No wonder Peter rebukes him; no wonder so many people did not believe Jesus could be that Messiah. The word “messiah” meant certain things to the people who heard it. Maybe that’s why Jesus tells them all to be quiet about who he is. He knew he wasn’t exactly the messiah that people were expecting.
But Jesus stands firm—when Peter criticizes him, Jesus turns around and makes it very clear: “Get behind me, Satan!” he says. These triumphalist, military expectations; these are not “divine things,” these are human things. These are not the way to God’s salvation. Real salvation, Jesus seems to be saying, can only be achieved by his re-definition of the very concept of a messiah. He will not pursue power in the way the world understands power. To all who are waiting for a savior, he says, “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.”
This gospel, it seems, is something entirely new. Even now that we who call ourselves Christians have been poring over the words of Jesus for two millennia, even now these words still seem new, if we really hear them, because they are in deliberate contrast to the world we are used to. Even now, the messiah we think we are waiting for is not always the messiah we get. We are still a little uncomfortable with this idea that our God had to suffer and die. Isn’t our God supposed to be all-powerful? That doesn’t look like any kind of power we know.
Instead, the power of this messiah lies in the way he walks with suffering, persecuted people; walks with them all the way to the cross, and then with all divine blessing just keeps on walking through death and into the hopeful future. And he says to us, those who would follow must take up their own cross and follow him in that path. Not the path of worldly power, but the path walked by the poorest and most persecuted among us.
Even for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, the path down which we are led is often not the path we would choose. It is not the path we expect. Even today we may enthusiastically proclaim Jesus as Messiah, only to have him turn around and shush us and say, “That’s not really what I mean.” The messiah who stands up in defiance of the leaders of his day, and is executed alongside criminals, is still not always the messiah we expect.
Our words, our proclamations, sometimes tell stories of many different Jesuses and many different Gods. We use the same words, but sometimes in very different ways. I don’t think any of us has it exactly right, but we can still look to the example of Jesus and ask if we are setting our minds on divine things, or on human things. Those words mean something, and those words have the power to shape nations.
The messiah that we know as Jesus of Nazareth, teacher, healer, carpenter, potential threat to Rome, may not be the messiah we expect, or even necessarily the messiah we want, when it comes down to it. This gospel is still not always an easy one to swallow. And it is tough in part because we are asked to live as if the Kingdom of God really is at hand; that is, tangible, within reach, it is real.
In this reality the strangers are welcomed in, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the lost, the searching, all of us, are found. Those things that divide us become beautiful evidence of God’s talent as a creator. All the broken and wounded parts of ourselves are brought together, and soothed with a kiss from our divine Parent. In this kingdom toward which we are striving, we are all at home. If we can truly speak this gospel, then our tongues will direct our whole selves, our whole lives, and our words will set the greatest forest ablaze.
Thanks be to God.