by Craig A. Satterlee
Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics; Dean, ACTS D.Min. in Preaching Program
“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 read an email last week, which said that LSTC is filled with many pastors (some of whom are ordained). While I wonder why an institution whose mission is to prepare pastors and other rostered leaders regularly downplays the circumscribed but essential role of the ordained, I appreciate the sentiment. As baptized members of the Body of Christ, we all minister – pastor, if you will – in Christ’s Name.
We also all teach the Christian faith. So, in this spirit, I’d say that LSTC is filled with many teachers (some of whom are members of the faculty). In fact, we are all language teachers. We use our tongues to teach the faith. We use our tongues to bless and praise God. We use our tongues to help others name and claim the promises of baptism. We use our tongues to loosen other tongues to speak of Jesus, to teach others the vocabulary of faith, and to empower others to testify to God’s presence and activity in their lives and in the world. And we use our tongues to boast of great exploits, to slander, gossip, and disrespect. We use our tongues to present pat answers, leaving little room for questions. We use our tongues to make the difficult sound easy or the mysterious sound plain. By the way they speak of things, our tongues create worlds of meaning, which we can mistake for the real world, the whole world, and even the world that God intends.
Isn’t that what Peter does when he calls Jesus the Messiah? Peter is speaking of a political liberator who will free the people from tyranny. His tongue got so busy that he forgot to listen to Jesus talk about rejection, torture, suffering, humiliation, public execution and death. And Peter’s tongue didn’t want to talk with anyone who didn’t agree with him, including Jesus. Perhaps that’s why Jesus “sternly warned them not to tell anyone about him.”
Peter and the disciples had the right title – Messiah – but the wrong meaning. In Peter we see how our tongues lead our actions.
And as teachers our tongues do more; our tongues shape our community’s actions in the same way that a rudder guides a ship. If the Word of God doesn’t become incarnate in the flesh of the congregation, our tongues – the words we speak in worship, for example – cast a wicked spell. It’s as if we post a sign advertising fresh water and have thirsty people bring their cups and take a drink, only to end up with a mouth full of salt.
James is right. The tongue is both powerful and volatile. Like a small fire that sets a great forest ablaze, it’s a small thing that makes big things happen. It’s a wild thing that can do great good and bring great harm. The tongue reveals who we are – saint and sinner. Left unbridled, the tongue can be an untamable beast, a cosmic force set afire with apocalyptic potential. And in our information age, the tongue reaches farther and faster than ever before.
So James’s warning is aimed squarely at all of us. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
We all make many mistakes with our tongues, whether we intend to or not. James makes that plain. But teachers who are to be followed, imitated, even emulated, must be most careful. And so it’s in those small moments, when someone else is vesting us with authority, that we are most closely judged.
Sometimes judgment comes from our selves. Sometimes judgment comes from our students. Sometimes judgment comes from the community and the world. Sometimes, judgment comes from God. Wherever it comes from, judgment is not some future event – when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. Judgment is underway right now. And so the temptation is to give up on being teachers. The temptation is to close our mouths and refuse to speak. Since we know too well that we cannot tame our tongues, the temptation is simply to silence them. Except for one thing.
In the words of Isaiah, “The Lord GOD has given us the tongue of a teacher, that we may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” And that word is Jesus. Jesus, whom we call Word made flesh. Jesus, who came to preach good news. Jesus, who underwent great suffering, was rejected and killed, and after three days rose again to teach us that God’s Word to us is always love. God’s Word to us is always forgiveness. God’s Word to us is always life. The Lord God gives us the tongue of a teacher, so that we can sustain the weary with the Word that sustains us. That word is Jesus. With this word in our mouths, our tongues will not be still. Our voices will not be silent. And so, to learn to speak with the tongue of a teacher, we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Like Isaiah, morning by morning we are attentive as the Lord God wakens our ear to listen as those who are taught. We are not rebellious; we do not turn backward.
When we follow Jesus to the cross, when we open our ears to what Jesus has to say, we will hear Jesus speak of forgiveness.
“Whenever you stand praying,’ Jesus says, “forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
Perhaps more familiar, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” Jesus says.
And “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
We echo Jesus’ words in rooms like this one.
“Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we pray.
“As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins,” one says for us all.
I believe that these are among the most important words that the ordained speak. Yet, we live in a time in the church’s life and in the life of our country and the world when these words are insufficient; we live in a time when these words are not enough. In congregations and faith communities, in Congress and in town hall meetings, and even at the VMA Awards, hurtful, harmful, even hateful things are being said. Mistakes are being made. Relationships are breaking.
More than a pastor’s absolution, what’s needed are words from another member of Christ’s body who’s been wronged, from a brother or sister in Christ who’s been hurt.
“I forgive you.” “I forgive you.” To deny ourselves is to say these words before we are ready. To take up our cross is to say these words when they may not be deserved. To follow Jesus is to relate to others in ways that declare these words are true.
“I forgive you.” When we say these words, we tame our tongue. We train our tongue. We speak with Christ’s power. We do great good. And we claim our calling as teachers.