Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Pastor Anke Deibler 

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a
  • Psalm 116:1-9
  • James 3:1-12
  • Mark 8:27-38

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus and Peter are having a heated argument along the road. They rebuke each other; one calls the other Satan – it is quite a debate. What are they arguing about? About the course Jesus’ ministry should take.

It started when Jesus asked the disciples what kind of scuttlebutt they had heard about Jesus. Who did people think Jesus was? The disciples reported opinions they had heard. Jesus then asks his followers for their own opinions: “What do you think about me? Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.”

This is a bold statement of faith. Peter is the first person in the gospel to confess this faith in Jesus as God’s messiah. In the way Matthew and Luke tell the story, Jesus praises Peter for his confession.

Not so in Mark, the gospel account before us today. Here, Jesus “sternly orders” them not to tell anyone. In fact, the Greek text has the same word here that in the next verses is translated as “rebuked”. Peter confesses his faith and Jesus rebukes him. What is going on?

Well, what is going on is that Jesus and Peter have very different ideas as to what a messiah is and does. The Jews of Jesus’ day were eagerly awaiting the messiah, the promised offspring from the house of King David. That messiah was expected to be strong and victorious in battle, throwing out the Roman occupation and establishing Israel in all her glory, as in the days of King David. When Peter says “Messiah”, he and his fellow disciples have this image of a savior in mind.

Jesus, however, is not that kind of messiah. Jesus came not to fight and win, but to serve and die. He doesn’t want his friends to have the wrong idea, so he tells them not to use the title ‘Messiah’ for him. Then he tells them that he will suffer and die.

That’s when Peter gets upset and rebukes Jesus. He doesn’t want to hear talk of death. That’s not what he wants, not what he expects, not what he signed up for.

Yet Jesus is pretty clear: If you follow Jesus, you need to be prepared to serve, prepared to suffer and die, prepared to carry your own cross, just as Jesus will in just a few weeks in Jerusalem.

Following Jesus is not a glamorous thing. It doesn’t promise us power or victory or wealth or an easy life. Rather, it expects us to be humble and to love our neighbor and to serve all people in the name of Jesus. It expects us to give glory to God in what we say and do. It expects us to be willing to sacrifice our money, our time, our power, our will, maybe even our life for the sake of the gospel, just like Jesus did. We don’t go out seeking suffering or martyrdom, but we know that they might turn out to be part of the package that is discipleship.

One of the areas of life where we are called to be loving and humble is our speech. James writes at length about the trickiness of our tongue: It can bless and curse; it can speak words of comfort and of hate. How we use language, reflects what kind of Messiah we serve. Do we follow the image of a powerful, victorious leader and talk like he would? Or do we follow a humble servant king and speak the way he would?

To illustrate this point, let me tell you the tale of two teachers.

My daughter Julia is our middle child, and as is typical for middle children, she is always in tune with what is going on around her, always wants to make peace, always wants to please people. When she was in second grade, she had a teacher who was very hard on her. This teacher was frustrated by the way Julia paid attention to the other kids in class and as a result took longer for assignments. She was going to fix that.

She placed Julia in the center of the front row, so she could keep an eye on her and could constantly knock on her desk and call her to attention. When that didn’t work, she placed a big clock on Julia’s desk and kept pointing to it. Every other day, the teacher sent notes home for us, complaining about Julia. She asked the principle to have Julia evaluated by a psychologist.

Our poor daughter had tried so hard to please this teacher, but just could not do it. She would come home and tell us in a depressed voice that she had another note from her teacher. She started getting stomach cramps. Her grades suffered. It was painful to watch.

Fortunately, the principle saw through the situation. Later we learned that there were a lot of complaints and two lawsuits against this teacher because of her treatment of kids. My sister-in-law recommended we make Julia’s life better by kissing up to the teacher, so we offered help in the class room, baked cookies, and chaperoned trips. It got better, but it was a long year.

Two years later, Julia had a wonderful fourth grade teacher. This teacher was kind and caring and believed in her students. Under her mentoring and encouragement, Julia thrived. She began to believe in herself again. Her grades improved. In the mornings, she happily bounced off to school. She was once again the joyful child we had known.

Whoever composed the adage “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” had no idea what he or she was talking about. Words do hurt. Words can uplift or destroy.

Neither one of Julia’s teachers used anything but words. No sticks or stones involved, no bones broken. And yet one teacher completely crushed my daughter, while the other one restored and healed her. All through words alone.

The first teacher seemed to follow the model of power and control. She was going to fix Julia, and that was all there was to it. She was trying to mold Julia to her own liking. As a result, her words were harsh, critical, judgmental, and hurtful.

The second teacher desired to bring out the best in the kids. She fostered the gifts that were there and mentored them towards growth. She loved the kids, and they responded to that love by applying themselves and doing their best and thriving. Was it an accident that this teacher was a faithful Christian? I think not.

As a mother, I am so grateful that God provided this second teacher’s encouragement for Julia, for it healed her and set her on a path to becoming a social worker who wants to work with kids.

Words have always had this power to hurt or to heal, to tear down or to build up. That was true in Jesus’ and James’ day as well as today. However, I think our challenge today is the fact that social media has made it so much easier to spew hurtful words to a huge audience. Stories are posted on facebook or twitter, and in seconds hundreds of people read them.

Kids have always been bullied at school. As soon as you were home, though, you used to be safe from bullies. If they wanted to bully you at home they would have to call the house, which used to have a landline, answered by mom, and that would be the end of the threat.

Now everyone has phones, and the bullying never stops. Night and day, images and comments and stories are posted and circulated, and not nearly enough people take the time to fact check anything before passing it on. Rumors, slut-shaming, pranks – everything makes the rounds. Teenagers and co-workers have been driven to suicide over the onslaught of such attacks.

James reminds us today of the power of words. And he reminds us that how we use words, what we say and about whom, also says something about the Lord we serve.

Do we follow the desire for power and glory, and does it lead us to hurt others with words? Do we criticize and cut down other people’s achievements? Do we spread mean gossip to empower ourselves? Do we call our political or office rivals by demeaning names? Do we tear into other folk’s proposals or ideas simply because they weren’t our own and we begrudge them success? Do we slander the good name of those we are jealous of?

Once we put those words out there, we can never take them back. James writes that they are like a spark that ignites a wild fire that cannot be contained and does a huge amount of damage. One example that comes to my mind is the untrue story about Hilary Clinton running a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in New York. So many people believed this lie that someone actually grabbed a gun and opened fire in the restaurant. It had started with just words. Words that were meant to hurt and tear down. Words that took on a life of their own and couldn’t be controlled anymore and ended up doing a lot of damage to totally innocent people.

The readings today call us to follow Jesus on a different path, a path of humility and love, a path of seeking the best for the other person. This path means that we do not gossip or bully or spread rumors. Instead, we praise and encourage; we speak up for the truth; we reject racist and chauvinistic remarks; we defend those being picked on; we give credit where credit is due.

In the Small Catechism, Luther describes our calling this way in his explanation of the eighth commandment: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

Doing this expresses our love for God and our love for our neighbor. Doing this shows that we follow Jesus, the Christ, on the way of the cross.

Doing this also blesses us. Which of the two teachers, do you think, found more fulfillment in her work? Which was greeted with more joy every morning? Which received cards and message from kids long after they had left her class? Which was thus reaffirmed and encouraged in her own calling daily? Yeah. Not hard to guess, is it?

So please, for the love of God, for the sake of your neighbor, for your own joy: pick up your cross, follow Jesus, and watch what you say and post. Amen.

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