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The Power of Words James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

We live in an increasingly media driven world where the power of images and words, coupled with instant news can dominate our lives in ways we often cannot avoid. At the end of this week two news items have provoked a great deal of controversy and, sadly, violence. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have started legal proceedings against a French magazine for a breach of their privacy. Perhaps it’s not too strong to say that they feel violated. Meanwhile, Western embassies have been attacked and an American diplomat was killed in Muslim majority countries as a reaction against an internet film which ridicules the Prophet Mohammed. Violence has occurred as a result of feeling violated, insulted. I am not going to try and offer political comments on these matters when I know opinion is sharply divided and I’m sure there is plenty in this weekend’s press if you want to delve deeper into these troubling issues. If nothing else, these events illustrate what Peter wrote in his letter that the tongue is so small but like a small fire, it can set a forest ablaze.

Public Opinion
Jesus asked his disciples what public opinion about him was. “Who do people say I am?” he asked them as they left the scene of a miracle where Jesus had healed a blind man. The disciples must have heard many speculations about Jesus as they followed him about and shared the excitement of someone who drew the crowds. His teachings made sense to thousands of ordinary people struggling in their everyday lives. His miracles transformed the lives of people hampered by illness and disability, freeing them in a society where there was no social security and a huge prejudice against sufferers of any kind. People must have asked the disciples, “Who is your master? Where does he get his power from? What is all this about?” Perhaps the disciples only pass on the repeatable theories. They don’t say to Jesus that some are saying he’s mad or demon-possessed or even out to gain political power. They stick to the religious suggestions: perhaps he’s one of the great prophets come back, or even John the Baptist risen from being beheaded with extra power. Jane Williams has suggested that the disciples can’t entertain suggestions that Jesus was mad or bad because that would tar them with the same brush!

But why did Jesus ask his disciples this question in the first place? Why did Mark include it in his gospel, also? Jesus wasn’t anxious about public opinion. He was asking this of his disciples in order to evoke a deeper understanding of who he really was. Mark included this in his gospel because his intention is to gradually reveal who Jesus is. In fact, it is a question Mark asks anyone who attends to the gospel. He describes the impact of the question when Jesus puts it to the disciples. After he has heard one or answers about what others have to say about Jesus, he asks the disciples directly: “But who do you say I am?” in other words: do you think the same as the crowds? What are you beginning to see in me, you who are following me and sharing all these experiences with me? What have you got to say about who you think I am? Perhaps there was an awkward pause. Perhaps the disciples suddenly realise that they are being put on the spot, that they can no longer enjoy the banter or passing on the gossip. It is Peter, as often, who is the first to speak, who has the courage of his convictions, perhaps just beginning to form as he says the words: “You are the Messiah!” No wonder, years later, Peter writes that it’s amazing how much can come from that little organ in our mouths that moves about and creates words: words which have so much impact, words which can get out of control and create either so much damage, like a forest fire, or determine the direction of a ship, sailing on the ocean.

Meaning of Words
You are the Messiah! Did Peter really understand the meaning of the word that sprang to his lips? With hindsight, both he and us, have a much clearer idea what ‘Messiah’ means, but in that instance it was an expression of hope. You are God’s anointed one. Peter had to learn very quickly after that how his assumptions about ‘Messiah’ were misguided. The first shock was that this Messiah didn’t want any publicity. He didn’t want it splashed about in great headlines: “Messiah found!” or “Local miracle maker discovered to be Messiah!” This is an instance of what experts have come to call the “Markan secret” and there are various explanations as to why Jesus repeatedly told people who recognised something profound in him, to keep quiet about it. Messiah didn’t mean spectacle; Messiah didn’t mean crowd-pleaser; Messiah didn’t mean political alternative to the Roman occupation. So Jesus didn’t want to gain a false following. Peter had to learn very quickly that Messiah meant suffering. When he remonstrated to Jesus that this picture didn’t fit with what Messiah meant, Jesus had to tell him in no uncertain words how wrong he was. “Get behind me Satan!” are extremely strong words to use. How could Jesus be so harsh with Peter who only moments before had been so full of inspiration? The answer may lie in the fact that to Jesus, the suggestion that Messiah didn’t mean suffering was diabolical. He had already faced this temptation in the wilderness – to achieve his mission as Messiah the easy way was to take the devil’s way. He had to put that temptation out of the way, and out of his disciples’ minds, too.

Ashamed of me and my words
How we used words can matter a great deal. On pilgrimage in Spain Rob was able to practise his Spanish, which he did with increasing confidence. Sometimes there are pitfalls when learning to use the words of a different language. He told me of a school friend of his, a young lady, who caused some hilarity by misusing a particular word. She wanted to tell her friends that her Spanish wasn’t very good and that she was embarrassed about it. She used the word “embarazar” – which actually means “pregnant!” Her friends were full of sympathy for her that some man had taken advantage of her lack of Spanish and left her expecting a baby! Needless to say, the misunderstanding was soon cleared up! Words can trip you up.

Jesus went on to explain what the word “Messiah” really meant. It did not mean the kinds of things that Peter had in mind. Jesus declared that those who wanted to follow the Messiah had to learn to deny themselves, taking up the cross daily, learn to give up their claim even on life, in order to live up to the word “Messiah” fully. Then Jesus said something relevant to our considerations today: those who are ashamed of me and my words… of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed. So words and our attitude to their choice and meaning are of vital importance.

Good words and bad words
One day on our pilgrimage we stopped for lunch and afterwards Rob explained to me that a young pair of Spanish lads were teaching a German girl in their company new Spanish words: but they were teaching her swear words. James wrote to his Christian friends that they had a bad word problem. There were many who seemed not to think that their words mattered. Whether they were religious words used carelessly or bad words scattered about without shame, the lawlessness of their words was affecting their community. James was anxious for them and so wrote to warn them about their use of words. The human tongue is like an untameable beast. Our words can influence the direction of our whole lives and that of our society, just as a bridle directs a horse, or a rudder a ship. There needs to be wholesomeness in the words we use because it affects the health of our community.

In our increasingly visual age, the place of words may become secondary. So the lessons we learn about words may also apply to images. What worries me about the two current affairs I mentioned at the beginning is the apparent lack of respect one party has for another. Pictures or videos that offend or cause hurt seem to be made and published without taking the feelings of others into account. Respect for privacy or religious faith seems to be trampled on for profit or in order to pour scorn on others. Images or words used in these ways ends up causing violence: privacy is violated; people and property are destroyed in violent protest. As Christians word and image come together in Christ, who is the Word of God and the image of the Father. If we worship him, then our use of words and images will be wholesome.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith