Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

Words and the Word

September 16, 2018 | By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
James 3:12 & Mark 8:27-38

On my most recent visit to Israel and Palestine, our group visited the scene of our gospel story for today, Caesarea Philippi. It is located in the Northeast, in the Golan Heights, at the source of the Jordan River. It’s surrounded by verdant forest that follows a stream leading to a gorgeous waterfall. Our group hiked through the forest to the waterfall. It is stunning.

On seeing all this natural beauty, the Romans associated it with the forest god Pan, the god of nature. You remember Pan, right? Top half human, bottom half goat. Liked to party and kept acquaintance with nymphs. Had a flute. That Pan. 

The Romans therefore called it Paneas. It was in the territory of Herod Philip, just north of the Galilee where his brother Herod Antipas ruled. Philip decided to make a city there in honor of Caesar, so it was named Caesarea Philippi, Philip’s city of Caesar. He built a temple in honor of Caesar Augustus in front of the cave that housed a spring and pools and made Caesarea Philippi his administrative center. From this place the rule of law went into all of Philip’s territory.

There’s no telling why Jesus was in Caesarea Philippi. It’s not Jesus’ normal territory; his territory was the Galilee. Of course, it bordered the territory so it’s easy enough to imagine Jesus and his disciples going there. And one way or another, it makes for a dramatic location for Jesus to ask, “Whom do you say that I am?” It’s a key center of Roman power. The Roman god Pan is honored there. Jesus wants to know, in this city of human power and of pagan gods, if his disciples understand that Jesus is the alternative to that—that Jesus is the true power, the true divine center of the universe, and that he exists in opposition to Caesar and to Pan and to all other gods. And the good news is that they do understand that. “You are the Messiah!” Peter says. 

But the bad news is they don’t understand that word: Messiah. Jesus tells them that he must suffer and die and then rise from the dead, and Peter is shocked. He actually tries to shut Jesus up. But Jesus shuts him up. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah, and it’s for the same reason that he tells Peter to keep his mouth shut: people won’t understand. They won’t get it. They’ll think Jesus is Lord the same way that Caesar is Lord: that he has supernatural power to defeat the enemy, to conquer the unbelievers, to make an earthly kingdom that issues laws that force people to behave the right way or else they’re in trouble with Jesus. In other words, they’ll think Jesus is exactly like Caesar.

And he’s not. He is not a god who parties and has fun like Pan. He’s not a god who uses power to force people to do what he wants like Caesar. Jesus is a messiah who will suffer and die. He’s not the God of the powerful but of the powerless. He’s not the God of the winners but the losers. And if people don’t understand that about him, if they think the messiah is the war king come to make Israel great again, they’ve got it wrong; and it’s best just not to call him messiah if people have that so wrong. God’s word, misunderstood, is no longer the word of God. It becomes a falsehood, a lie, an untruth that undermines the Gospel rather than promoting it; and it’s better for people not to call Jesus messiah at all than to call him messiah for the wrong reasons. 

That problem continues to plague our world today. We call Jesus Lord, but often we don’t mean it the way Jesus meant it. Sometimes we mean it as Jesus is the conquering king who will beat up all those who don’t believe in the same God. We call Jesus Messiah, but we don’t mean it the way he meant it. We don’t mean it as the suffering messiah, who surrendered all his power and died in dramatic proof that heisn’t like human kings or pagan gods who wield power but represents the God who has all power but gives it upfor the world’s sake. We use the right words, but we use them to dress Jesus up like Caesar or Pan when he’s actually the complete opposite, the divine alternative to them. 

In our epistle reading, James points us to a concrete way that we undermine the true meaning of the Gospel: it’s with our words. Words used carelessly. Words whose meaning we have misconstrued or twisted or simply don’t understand. Words that claim we are honoring God even as we use those same words to victimize others. Words that put the lie to the Gospel.

I think we all know that we live in a time when words matter. In the last ten or fifteen years, the language that we use as a nation has radically changed. In the name of “freedom of speech,” we feel free to say the most awful things, things that oncedecency would have restrained us from saying. Suddenly if you try to speak respectfully and sensitively, you are accused of being “politically correct,” when you’re just trying to consider the feelings of others. Social media has given words a nuclear-powered ability to hurt and destroy. The suicide rate has increased 24% since 1999, and I guarantee you that social media has played a major role in this, with its ability to enable bullies to anonymously bully others, and then for that same bully to be multiplied exponentially as followers pile on, driving a depressed person or a troubled teen to despair.

Not only that, bullying behavior has become acceptable. It’s even considered by some to be heroic, to be “telling it like it is.” Increasingly we see people who invoke the name of Jesus in association with their bullying language toward those they dislike—their enemies, or Muslims, or LGBT folks.

When you point out all this bullying language, people will say, “It’s only words. What harm will words do?” Well, according to James, quite a lot. The tongue, he tells us, is “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” 

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” he says. “And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature,[b] and is itself set on fire by hell.”

To James, the tongue has power to set on fire the cycle of nature. In the ancient world, the cycle of nature means the whole natural order. Words have the ability, says James, to turn the natural order upside down, to make good evil and evil good—or to make Jesus, who was bullied and mistreated, into a bully and the patron saint of bullies; to make Jesus, who is on the side of suffering and the downtrodden, into the one who brings about their affliction.

On the other hand, words can be a powerful force for good. Words spoken with respect and sensitivity can heal wounded souls. Words of apology truly meant can lead to reconciliation. Kind words to a stranger having a bad day can make a huge difference in their lives.  

We Christians believe in the power of words; we believe the Word, the true Word of God, can be discovered in words. That’s why in seminary they teach us pastors Hebrew and Greek and how to do Biblical word analysis—because we believe that each word of Scripture matters, that if we can get the words of the Bible right we can get as close as possible to the true Word of God. And that’s why we preachers get into the pulpit on Sunday morning and preach: we Christians believe that the Word of God can be discovered in the words that a trained preacher conveys. One of the innovations that Martin Luther brought to the church during the Reformation was good preaching. Preaching simply wasn’t emphasized in the Medieval church. But Luther made it the centerpiece of worship. The preacher spoke not in Latin, the language of the church, which only intellectuals understood, but in the vernacular, the language that the people spoke, and people would flock to hear the early Lutheran preachers. At last, the Word of God was accessible to the common person in words that he or she could understand! Right there we see the power of words in real time. Many trace the rise of democracy to the Reformation’s emphasis on preaching in the common language. 

But that makes preaching all the more important—and all the more important for us preachers to get it right. James says “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged by a higher standard. For we all make many mistakes…”.  What true of teachers is certainly true of preachers. When I was in seminary, I wrote a sermon that was based on excellent Biblical analysis and that was from my heart. When I turned it in, though, I was in for a surprise, because the teaching assistant who graded it, Nancy Duff, gently but firmly raked me over the coals. She told me that my sermon was too intellectual, and also too depressing. Where, she wondered, was the good news? If there’s no good news, she said, there’s no Gospel—because Gospel means “good news.”  

The truth was she’d hit on an issue for me. I was deeply depressed at that time, and it was carrying over into my preaching. But I was furious. I have never liked having my writing critiqued and personally thought I’d written a wonderful sermon. I was furious with her and let her and everyone I knew know it. I was upset, and I wanted her to be upset. And I succeeded. I upset her and made her life difficult for a couple of weeks. It was not my finest hour.  

Nearly twenty years passed and God invented the Internet. I had known for some time that Nancy was now a preaching professor at Princeton Seminary. One day I looked her up and sent her an email. I reminded her of who I was and told her how deeply I regretted the way I’d behaved and the things I’d said when I was in seminary—but that more to the point, she was right! I told her that in spite of myself, I’d taken her critique to heart. I’d realized that preaching that has no good news, no hope in Jesus Christ, is a false word, unworthy of our Lord. I told her that what she’d told me had caused me not only to change my preaching, but to be alert to how my own issues carry over into my preaching. I hoped, I said, that now I preached Good News—and to the extent I did, I had her to thank, and I was grateful.  

Nancy wrote me back. What a surprise your email was, she said! She remembered the trouble that had come up around that sermon, she told me, and right away I felt shame that my words from 20 years before would stay with her for so long. But she continued, I am so grateful for your email. “It’s so rare for any teacher to hear anyfeedback at all from her students,” she told me, “much less positive feedback,” and to hear from me all these years later had given her a lot of joy. Thank you for your apology and for your affirmation of my teaching, she told me. 

Words have power. Negative words have power to hurt, to hurt deeply, to hurt for a long, long time. But challenging words spoken in truth, like Nancy’s to me all those years ago, may hurt in the short run, but have powerful positive impact in the long run. And positive words—words of affirmation, praise, support, kindness, apology, humility, and forgiveness—they can bring about healing, hope, and new life. Words used poorly, James warns us, “are a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” 

But words used well—judiciously, thoughtfully, respectfully, and lovingly—have power to be the very Word of God active and alive here on earth. 

Leave a Comment