Preached at MCC North London on Sunday, 13th September 2009.
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 our God and Parent, 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?
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.”
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man 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.
He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He 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 Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
I want to start by looking at the reading from James this week, particularly the opening sentence. James says this; “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Fantastic. I’m sure the other preachers, clergy, PGCE students and NQTs in the room squirmed just as I did when I read that. I really had to think long and hard about it; what is this reading saying to me right now? What should I be thinking about in my relationship with God right now? Who should teach, and what gives us that authority?
In MCC, we believe that everyone is called to minister, and I do believe that wholeheartedly. I’ve preached before about the fact that whenever we do anything outside ourselves that is Christ-centred and others-centred, we are ministering. That could be helping someone cross the street or giving a friend a hand moving house, or you may do it day-to-day in your workplace. But we all do it differently. We are all made in the image of God but none of us can *be* God. We have different aspects to our personalities that reflect God’s glory and when we stand together as a church – ekklesia, assembly – we reflect a full range of talents. But I would like to respectfully correct the writer of James. Scholars think that James was from the Jewish teaching classes, and would have been eligible to become a teacher by virtue of his background and education. So his anthropology is very much that not everyone is called to be a teacher. He was also expressing concern at the sheer range and diversity of teachings and teachers around in the early church, which was a time of controversy and theological uncertainty. So I would just break his comments down a little further and say that not everyone is called to teach as a vocation. I do believe that each of us is empowered and called out to teach at different times in our lives, as group leaders, as parents and siblings and as friends.
But the challenge is to know when to teach, and what to say. To speak on the word of God is a tremendous privilege which we have all been granted, but it is not to be taken lightly. I find that I get asked about my faith a lot, particularly in the LGBT community. And those questions are not flippant, or unimportant. How we express our faith and how we talk about our faith is the very real way in which we introduce Christ to other people and that is not an easy thing to do. If we are disingenuous or ashamed of what we are saying, if we are conscious that it is not very cool at the moment to be Christian or scared that we are addressing someone who has a problem with faith, it’s too easy to stumble, oversimplify, or to try to adapt our faith to suit what they want to hear; we dilute the message to get people to listen to us or to come to our church and that is dangerous. We are judged harshly on how we teach because it shows what we think of God.
And Jesus won’t stand for false teaching, not from anyone. His dialogue with Peter in Mark is a fascinating example of this. Peter has come to recognise that Jesus is more than “another prophet”. Peter has come to the realisation that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed one of God come to deliver the Jewish people – and rather than praising him for his insight, Jesus asks them to tell no one. He recognises that Peter does not yet have the insight to share this news, and that his understanding of Jesus’ nature will not be well-received by the majority whom he is teaching. Rather than allow misinformation to go out, Jesus asks him to keep quiet. In a few verses time we see why. Although Peter has understood that Jesus is the Messiah, he has not understood the full reality of that. Faced with the possibility of Jesus being put to death, Peter is scared. He doesn’t want to hear it so he tries to get Jesus to change his tune, not to talk about it. We don’t know what he said, or what his motivation was, but he was contradicting God. He was trying to say that he knew better. And in four words, Jesus knocks him back, “Get behind me, Satan!”. Peter confesses the messiah on one hand and then speaks false teaching on the other.
When we come to church, we confess Jesus as Messiah, as God and Lord. We sing hymns and praises in His name and we ask for intercession for those we love in His name. We say that to see the face of God we need to love one another, and we confess the times we have sinned against each other. We recognise Jesus in each other. We are like Peter at the moment of revelation, filled with knowledge of the nature of Jesus and the reality of the sacrifice of God in Christ. It is joyful and wonderful, and the last thing on our mind is to be ashamed of Christ, of the words of the Bible or of our faith. But something changes when we walk out of these doors. We almost immediately start to speak differently, we view each other differently. The same tongues we used to praise God’s name and to speak holy truths we use to speak ill of each other, to enter into games of one-upmanship and to gossip. We don’t see Christ in each other any more, we complain about the flaws in other people that we ourselves possess because they are what make us human. We presume to judge other people’s sins when we have not had the grace to recognise and fully confess our own.
And let’s be honest about the word sin, and the idea of sin. We are blessed, sitting here, because many of us have only been able to come to this place through years of prayer, reflection and theological study. We have examined the Bible and the claims of others critically as they concern human sexuality and come to the glorious revelation that a sexual identity – and the act of living it out, whatever it may be – is not sinful. It’s a “messiah” moment. A moment of pure, wonderful realisation. But do we, like Peter, sometimes take that revelation too far? Just as Peter thought that his understanding of Jesus’ nature meant that Christ wouldn’t have to die, do we sometimes think that because we are not judged and condemned on our sexual orientation that we don’t need to think about sin? But it is still present in our lives, it is a fact of our humanity and free will. Sin separates us from the love of God; it is anything that we do to ourselves or to other people that is for our own glory or our own fulfilment at the expense of expressing the love of Jesus. We sin against ourselves and God when we undervalue our lives, talents and deny God’s call. We sin against others – who are all made in the image of God – when we ignore them, speak badly of them or deliberately provoke conflict with other people. Even the times when we don’t do it consciously, when we, like Peter, think we are doing the right thing.
We come together every week before Communion to confess our sins to God, but do we ever truly think about the impact of what has happened in our lives in the week? Do we even acknowledge most of the sins we commit on a daily basis? When we laugh at someone to fit in, or tell a joke that alienates people, or refuse the chance to share the love of Jesus with someone else we have sinned against God. When we hear a call on our lives and we ignore it, for whatever reason, we have sinned against God. And when we sin against God by devaluing other people or by underselling our faith in Jesus we are harming our relationship with God and we are putting a stumbling block in the way of someone else’s faith. We are separating not only ourselves, but also another person whose faith and salvation should be as dear to us as our own, from the love of God and that is inexcusable. When we speak the words of God and confess our faith with our mouths but our actions reveal that our hearts and minds reject God’s law, we misrepresent Christ into the world. We become as Satan to them, that is, as the one who denies the words and works of God.
We were made in the glory of God but we do all tend towards what Paul calls the sinful nature. We can acknowledge this, but we need not – indeed, we should not – embrace it. Instead we need to take time and use our God-given spirit of discernment to understand from where our actions are coming. Are they of the world, are they from a desire to conform and to fit in? If they are, they are not from God. Christians can’t live our lives fitting in. We are not called to fit in; we are called to stand out. It’s a glorious calling but it isn’t easy. It is not a new thing, or a modern thing, for Christians to be rejected by our peers. We have always been seen as ignorant, or misguided, Richard Dawkins is hardly the first! These days it is popular to assume that Christians are incapable of rational thought, that we cannot be intelligent or show empathy to others. It takes great strength to stand up for God and for the gospel, and to recognise when we sin. It takes soul-searching and a deep dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. Then we can go out and shout the gospel of Jesus, and share the love, peace and grace of Christ. Then we can go out and live the gospel, and show the way of Christ. Then we can bring Christ to the world that doesn’t know him. Just as a badly-placed word can start a fire of unbelief and rejection, the right word can quench the fire and bring salvation to a world that needs the tangible love of Christ.
You are blessed people, go and shout forth the blessing into the world. Do not be ashamed of the gospel, but speak the truth of Jesus and praise Him to all the world. When you are called to speak, or to teach, do so in a spirit of discernment, not for your glory but for the glory of God. Confess your sins faithfully, and ask for the forgiveness that God wants to hand down. If there is something you are holding on to, that you feel is so bad you don’t think God will forgive you, let it go. Bring it to God tonight and start afresh. If you confess and accept the forgiveness freely given, you are free to go into the world and be not ashamed, be ashamed neither of yourself nor of the gospel of Christ; go into the streets and praise Him!