Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Trinity: The use of the tongue, and St Peter’s misdirected outburst: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 12 September 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (James 3: 1 -12; Mark 8: 27 – 38)

The use of the tongue, and St Peter’s misdirected outburst

What I like about St James’s Epistle is that he doesn’t mince his words.  This morning’s instalment fires straight in with a warning: “not many of you should become teachers” – which, for those of us who have been teachers, is rather unnerving.  His point is a valid one: everyone makes mistakes and errors of judgement, but they are more obvious and conspicuous in teachers, who need therefore to take greater care.  The same is true of priests, who should be – amongst other things – moral exemplars.  That is both exacting and humbling.

All this leads St James to caution us all about what we say and how we say it.  The tongue, he claims, is as it were a fire and can spread its poison just as quickly as any wildfire.  So fire protection measures are vital in our speaking and our writing.  Otherwise they can be incendiary.  Here I have to admit what I find tiresome about this particular passage: it gives us only half the picture.  It is as if he has been spending too much time in a darkened room reading posts on Twitter and Facebook from the most malicious sort of troll.  Fortunately most of us do not inhabit that world, although it has certainly had an adverse and roughening effect on public discourse.  In it, the tongue indeed is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” as James avers.  But what of the positive side?  How much encouragement, support, tenderness and loving concern is provided by the tongue!  What sound advice, what fine passing down of knowledge and ideas occurs through the spoken or written word!  Elsewhere James is much more optimistic, as we heard in our Epistle reading a fortnight ago: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,” he assures us; and his advice: “Let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”. (James 1: 17, 19)

Of course, not all harsh or cruel remarks are deliberate, and slips of the tongue are generally innocent (despite what Freud would have us believe).  Indeed many are charming, fanciful and humorous.  I think of my grandmother, who, in a tea shop in the 1950s, asked the rather surprised waitress for a teasted toecake.  Dr Spooner would have been proud of her.  A good deal more recently, during a live radio broadcast of choral evensong, I found myself announcing the hymn “The race that long in darkness pined” as “the pine that long in darkness raced” – which would have conjured up Tolkienian images of moving, talking trees, had I not performed a self-arrest, almost in time.  Predictive text on pre-smart phones used to offer many opportunities for fun.  If you tried to write GOD you would get I.M.F. – which might perhaps afford a rare glimpse of co-operation between the deity and the International Monetary Fund.  Our granddaughter Jemima’s name came up initially as Lenin.

Between such innocent confusion on the one hand, and wilful and malicious misuse of the tongue on the other, there falls a middle category, where one unwittingly causes distress by lack of insight or by over-stepping the mark.  And this is where our Christian judgement comes into play.  If we feel an acerbic or unkindly witty remark coming on, it may be a good idea to pause and ask how it would accord with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, before proceeding – or not.  It is not just teachers who should be aware of the impact of their remarks.

St Peter’s outburst in our Gospel story today falls into this middle category.  As we know, he was not the most diplomatic or tactful of speakers, and on this occasion he shows that he has entirely misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ messiahship.  Having first declared, with remarkable insight, that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Messiah, he then ruins it by objecting to what Jesus says is to happen to this Messiah – rejection, suffering and death.  Peter had quite other ideas about a strong and triumphant Christ, ideas that would have to wait until the resurrection for their fulfilment.  He reveals that – at this point in his life – he has little idea of the true nature of God.

Here too is a lesson for us.  It is remarkably easy to imagine God in our own image: perhaps a judgemental God who will wreak vengeance on those who do us wrong; or, by contrast, a flabbily ‘nice’ God, who, in the end, does not stand up for anything much; a magisterial, ever-watchful – and therefore frightening – God; or one whose sole focus is on our own particular cause.  In jocular vein, it could be said in the C. of E. that until about 40 years ago God read the Daily Telegraph; since then He has favoured The Guardian.  But behind the easy and obvious joke there lurks the paradox of the divine: God is indeed involved in our every day life and concerns, and with us, intimately, as individuals.  The life on earth of Jesus affirms that.  But He is also transcendent, the source of all the eternal values, our strength and firm foundation, our constant and abiding hope, if we will but put our trust in Him.

Let the Psalmist have the last word:

“They that put their trust in the Lord shall be even as the Mount Sion: which may not be removed, but standeth fast for ever.

The hills stand about Jerusalem: even so standeth the Lord round about his people, from this time forth for evermore”. (Psalm 125: 1 – 2)