God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit upon your
Church in the burning fire of your love: grant that your people may
be fervent in the fellowship of the gospel that, always abiding in
you, they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE power of speech has been recognised from ancient times, and
rhetoric was an early and distinguished art. These readings are
Isaiah recognised the power of the tongue of the teacher when
used for good, and, significantly, linked this with the hearing of
the teacher whose ear is attuned to listen to, and heart inclined
to obey God. We do not always make that link if we assume that the
priority of a teacher is to speak and impart knowledge rather than
to listen and to live well.
Perhaps mindful of the demands on the teacher and the
consequences of faithful listening, speaking, and acting, James
counsels against aspiration to become a teacher in the Christian
community. He wrote in the context of the rabbi's having an
honoured place in Jewish culture, and his warning echoes Jesus's
accusations of the Pharisees and scribes for failing to live up to
their own teaching.
To be a teacher is to accept demands on our way of living that
may never be seen by others. James provided his own sermon
illustrations, but, if we want contemporary ones, there are the
dangers of emailing or tweeting before we think. Instant reactions
can be regretted; we are called to reflective living.
This is the mid-point of the Gospel. Thus far, questions of
Jesus's identity have recurred, as people have tried to make sense
of him. Now Jesus asks direct questions, culminating, unavoidably,
in: "Who do you say that I am?" The disciples could not
prevaricate: they had seen and heard enough to draw conclusions; to
put their thoughts into words, and articulate what they had seen,
heard, and believed. Were their hearts, like Isaiah's, inclined to
Peter's answer is the hinge on which Mark's Gospel turns. Like a
seesaw, what has been going up now starts to come down. As soon as
Peter uttered the word "Messiah", Jesus began to redefine
Messiahship by putting "suffering and death" in the same sentence
with it, something that Peter proved he could not yet do. Instead,
his response was in character with his passionate, rugged love for
Jesus which wanted to shield him from suffering.
Jesus recognised a resurgence of demonic activity, even at this
great moment of Peter's confession. From the beginning of Mark's
Gospel (1.24-25), demons were quicker than the disciples to
recognise Jesus, and were persistently creedally correct in their
words. That was not enough, however. It is one thing to say that
Jesus is the Holy One of God; it is another to live by that faith.
For the demons, recognising Jesus led them to fear (Mark 4.9-12).
Now Peter's passion led his tongue to run away with him,
potentially diverting Jesus from God's way. Perhaps James had him
in mind when writing as he did in the epistle.
For Isaiah, the outcome of listening to God with his heart, not
just his ear, was empowerment to endure abuse and insult, being
shielded from disgrace by God's protection. That is what Peter
needed. This week, we pray about the burning fire of God's love -
asking to abide in Christ, to be fervent in the fellowship of the
gospel, steadfast in faith, and active in service.
Peter's fervour was there, but his steadfastness of faith, was,
as yet, shaky. He was in danger of not abiding in Christ, and,
unlike Isaiah, not trusting that God would not let him be
Looking forward, although Peter's faith did falter under severe
pressure (Mark 14.66-72), so that, in Isaiah's words, he turned
backwards, that disaster was not the end; he had the courage to
turn around and keep going. Mark records that Jesus knew his
friend's love well enough to send a special message to him after
his resurrection (Mark 16.6), and in Luke and John, Jesus had
private post-resurrection encounters with Peter. Perhaps only then
did Peter realise that following Jesus meant taking up the cross
The outcome was that Peter gained the tongue of a teacher, and
spoke boldly of Jesus's suffering, death, and resurrection (Acts
2.36), and led the Church towards world-changing insights (Acts
11.1-18). Our prayer for that same fervency and steadfastness in
service in our day is essentially to be people who abide in God,
and speak wisely, even under pressure.