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Readings: 14 September 2012 - 15th Sunday after Trinity

07 September 2012

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Proper 19:
Isaiah 50.4-9a
James 3.1-12
Mark 8.27-end

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 about speech.

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 God?

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 disgraced.

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 without shame.

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.

Forthcoming Events

13-14 September 2021
Festival of Preaching
Speakers include Barbara Brown Taylor, Alister McGrath, and Sam Wells.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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