September 16, 2012
I. From Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie, the fascination of mystery stories is solving a puzzle that depends on picking up on obscure details to identify the unexpected culprit. In the Bible, mysteries are profound truths about God that are hidden in the ordinary events of life and revealed by God to those who are able to accept them. The Epistle of James presents a different kind of mystery. Who wrote it? When? To whom? I rather enjoy this sort of puzzle. Just about when I think I’ve got it solved, I discover one detail that makes that answer unlikely if not impossible. Several people named James were followers of Jesus. Was one of them the James that wrote this letter? It seems to expand on several themes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with a very Jewish perspective on God’s righteousness. Yet, it also draws on some language from some Greek philosophers. It makes no reference to other parts of the New Testament and may have been written earlier. But James is not a hodge-podge of Jewish, Christian and Greek ideas. Far better scholars than I have wrestled with it without solving the mystery.
A. If I can tolerate a little ambiguity, I think I can make sense out of this mystery, even if I can’t solve it. James was written in a time of transition when most Christians were Jewish and the Gospel was just starting to spread into Greek culture. They were trying to figure out how these influences fit together and where they were incompatible. The stories and teachings of Jesus were being passed around by word of mouth, but little if anything had been written yet. So it makes sense to me that James was concerned that people not only hear what they were told but lived by it. Since most of this was verbal and not written, James was concerned with what is spoken, thus the emphasis on the tongue.
B. James begins this section with a warning to those who thought they could be teachers. With little if any written material, what teachers said had a lot of power for good or ill. James was obviously concerned about the negative influences and goes beyond the lessons of the teachers to include everything we say to and about each other. What James wrote about the impossibility of both fresh and salt water coming from the same spring or different fruits from a tree or grapevine reminds me of what Jesus said in Luke 6:45. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
C. When our son Erik was 7 and we were living in the Daybreak community in Ontario, I was talking with Father Henri Nouwen about being frustrated with losing patience with Erik. Talking about that verse, Henri said, “If you want to know what is happening in your heart, listen to what you say when you speak before you think. You can never guard your mouth 100% of the time. What you have to do is change what you put into your heart.”
D. Life’s transitions can put a lot of stress on the path from heart to mouth. When the future seems uncertain, we crave security. The anxieties in our hearts easily overflow into critical, even angry words that may not be limited to those who seem threatening. Our words can even sting those we are clinging to. As you explore your vision for the future of 1st Christian Church, Midwest City, you can expect some tensions along the way. James wrote that not many should become teachers. But especially in times of transition, reliable spiritual leaders, teachers if you will, are essential, and what they say is formative.
II. James wrote that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect.” (v. 2) In this political season we see how quickly opposite sides are to jump on the slighted slip of the tongue and try to make an issue of the gaff. I know my verbal regrets would fill many volumes. Sometimes the blunder comes right on the heels of what at least I thought was a brilliant insight. That certainly happened to Peter in Mark 8:27-33. To get the full impact of this incident, you need to know that the “you” in Jesus’ conversations with Peter are plural. All of the disciples are included, not just Peter. He spoke as the leader, reflecting all of James’ concerns for teachers and their words.
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?”28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31Then 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”
A. Both here and where this is reported in Matthew 16, Peter seems to have gone from speaking his great confession identifying Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, almost immediately to his foot-in-mouth gaff for which Jesus rebuked him as Satan’s mouthpiece.
B. Peter intended to rebuke to Jesus privately, but he was speaking on behalf of all of the disciples. Yes, Jesus addressed Peter as Satan, and included all the disciples by implication of the plural pronoun for “you” when he turned to look directly at them. But Jesus did not contrast divine things with demonic things. Rather he characterized Peter’s words as setting their mind on human things. James 3:14-15 is parallel, asserting that selfish ambition is earthly and devilish. The temptation is not to something ghastly but to something that seems normal, even healthy. I suspect that most of our temptations are not to heinous crimes but to subtle words protecting and promoting our self-interest.
C. I think we can all understand how strongly we respond with self-preservation and self-protection. I think we can all understand how Jesus’ disciples might regard him as perhaps even suicidal and want to rescue him. They were totally unprepared to consider that the long awaited Messiah would suffer, be rejected and killed.
III. Yet this is exactly how Jesus defined his messianic mission. The divine things on which Jesus had set his mind are to suffer, be rejected, be killed and after three days to rise again. I suspect Peter and the other disciples neither heard nor comprehended what Jesus said about rising again after three days. That was just too far out of their reality, yet it was the key to understand not only what Jesus had said about suffering, rejection and being killed, but rising from the dead was the climax of his messianic mission. Suffering, rejection, being killed and rising again were the path to the redemption of broken humanity. On the way to Jesus’ messianic mission, self-interest and personal preference give way to God’s redemptive greater good.
A. Up until now Jesus’ messianic mission has been a mystery hidden in his teaching and his compassion and even his miracles. Now, when Jesus was on his way to the cross, he began to reveal this mystery to his disciples. Mark records that Jesus adds details to this teaching two more times (9:31; 10:32-34). The mystery is that Jesus produces redemption by giving up his own interests, his own life for the good of others. Philippians 2:4 makes adopting this mind of Christ the prescription for Jesus’ disciples. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.”
B. This incident is the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. From here forward, Jesus is on his way to the cross. On his way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks his disciples about his identity. Caesarea Philippi was established to celebrate the Roman Emperor’s claim to be divine. The place was chosen because in Greek legend a cave there was the birthplace of the god Pan. In the days of the Northern Kingdom it had been a center for Baal worship. So Jesus choose it as the place to reveal the mystery that he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The rest of Mark’s Gospel happens “on the way,” and ever since following Jesus has been about being “on the way,” not about arriving. Jesus’ disciples are always in transition.
IV. The transition time between pastors reminds us that we are always on a journey; we are always in transition. Much of the time we go from day to day almost unaware of the movement. Milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries; births and graduations; new jobs, new homes, new cars all remind us we are “on the way,” not at our final destination.
A. In the coming weeks and months you will do a lot of thinking and talking about the vision for the future of 1st Christian Church, Midwest City. That is likely to mingle hope and fear. From your hearts, you mouths will speak. You will see things differently from each other. You will have contrasting ideas and worries. What you say to each other will be important. Maybe more important will be how you say it. James 3:9 reminds us that the people who disagree with us and the people who irritate us are made in the likeness of God. The way we speak to them reveals what is hidden in our hearts in relationship to God.
B. In a variety of ways you will be asking yourselves and each other what you want 1st Christian Church, Midwest City to look like in ten years. The temptation is to think in terms of our own interests and our personal preferences. “I hope we have lots of people who are generous givers and will love the same hymns I love and not want anything that makes me uncomfortable. And I hope I don’t have to work too hard to accomplish this.”
C. On the way to Jesus messianic mission, self-interest and personal preference give way to God’s redemptive greater good. As your interim pastor, I am not the one to shape your vision. That is for you as a congregation before God. But I can tell you that my dream and prayer for you is that you will be a community in which many, many people are transformed in the name of Jesus. Sure some of them will make you uncomfortable. Some will frustrate you. Some will bring unanticipated changes. But as the power of Jesus flows among you, God will send you plenty of people, made in the likeness of God, who will be redeemed as you are on your way following Jesus’ messianic mission.