We had seen them going from one door to another and not getting any response. They weren’t well-dressed or enthusiastic enough to be canvasing for political reasons. They moved slowly. It was hot. They had long pants and serious faces. Then they turned and headed up our driveway. I leaned on my shovel. Already, inexplicably annoyed. The mulching would have to wait. We greeted each other solemnly, as though we each knew that eternity was at stake, life and death and God. Then came the hook, heavy, somber: one of them said, “We want to talk to you about something important, about the death of a loved one. Have you ever . . . .”
“I can see where this is going,” I interjected. “Look, I’m a pastor, I’ve thought about these things before. Your time is probably better spent with other people.” I was more than annoyed now. What right did they have to use the death of someone I loved as a sales pitch for their brand of God talk?
But they were not easily put off by a peeved clergymen. “So you agree the Bible is important,” one of them said. The line slid out, like refried beans from a tin. “Oh come on,” I replied, “you aren’t even listening to me. I didn’t say anything about the Bible. If you want to have a real conversation about these things that’s fine. We can do that. But don’t feed us these canned lines. I’m not interested in getting a sales pitch. Talk to me like a person.”
My response to these folks was a total failure: a failure of manners and a failure of hospitality and it was even a theological failure. Later, as I mulled over my abysmal performance, I realized that I admired these evangelists a bit. Talking about God with people we barely know is not easy, not for most of us at least. It isn’t easy because we don’t want to stand out, or maybe because we don’t want to be lumped in with people to who appeal to God or Scripture for strange political reasons. It isn’t easy because when we talk about God we are implicitly talking about how we should live our lives. In a secular society this can be pretty challenging. We’re told that faith is a private matter and given the impression that it isn’t even a valid topic for conversation.
Of course most of us have probably noticed that some Christians talk about God quite easily: they’re comfortable saying God led them to move, or change jobs or meet someone new. It’s as though God whispers in their ear throughout the day. This is particularly handy when you’re young and you need to give a reason for asking someone out . . . or breaking up with them. “God told me to,” is pretty hard to argue with. Other Christians are more reluctant to speak of God so much. They believe in God, but you wouldn’t know it from how they describe their lives. If you worked with them you probably wouldn’t have a clue. If they broke up with you they’d have to be more creative. I imagine most of us are somewhere in between.
How should we speak of God? With nerves frayed, with hooks and sales tactics . . . or maybe not at all? One way to think about the importance of gathering for worship is to think of it as a school where we learn how to speak of God—in sermons sure, but also in prayer and songs and stories. So let’s put this question to two biblical passages: Mark 8:27-34 and James 3:2-9. How should we speak of God? These passages won’t give us a full description but we’ll find a starting place. After my encounter with the door-to-door evangelists, I know I need some advice. I admired their bravery but not the tactics.
One of the passages we heard earlier was from the book of James. We’ll be in and out of that book for the next few Sundays, so let me say a few things about the book as a whole. Let’s start with this: the book of James barely made the New Testament team. When early Christian leaders began making lists of these books, when Reformation figures revisited the list, James came close to being cut. Why is that? The book has traditionally we ascribed to the ‘James’ who lead the ancient church in Jerusalem; so it had one important qualification. The thing some theologians didn’t find in James’ text, however, was much good news of God’s grace. The book is mostly a list of things to do. According to one commentator (Dan McCartney) James includes 54 imperative verbs. Imperative verbs are the ones that tell us to do things: “give generously,” “ask in faith,” “No one should say, ‘I am being tempted by God,’” “be quick to listen, slow to speak,” and on it goes. James doesn’t have much to say about God or God’s saving work in Jesus. The book has other challenges too—like organization. What’s the thesis? For those of you going back to school right now, don’t try to write a research paper modeled after the book of James. You need a thesis.
Here is probably how we should think of James. It’s less about making one specific point than it is about cultivating a way of life. It’s less about propositions—things we hold to be true—than it is about things we should do. The book has an opening like a letter, but it sounds more like the book of Proverbs. If you have a Bible edited by Catholics you could notice how similar James is to Sirach. The book of James is a part of what we call the ‘wisdom tradition.’ Most of the wisdom literature is in the Old Testament: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. So James is a very Jewish book, and it may well have been written before Judaism and Christianity went their separate ways. It is more concerned with a way of living, with the path we are to walk, what some Jewish rabbis would call ‘halakha’; it’s more concerned with that than with theories about God, what the same rabbis would refer to as ‘aggadah.’ So James urges us to be careful of our speech, of our attachment to money, of our use of time and of our sense of ourselves.
The passage that was read for us (3:2-9) tells us about The Way as it applies to how we are to speak. Indeed, the first thing James draws our attention to is just how significant speech is. James compares our words to a spark that starts a fire, a rudder that steers a boat or a bit that guides a powerful horse. These were familiar images in the ancient Mediterranean world. They still make sense to us. And, you know what, we’re discovering the same point in new ways in a digital world where things can be said anonymously online, and where teens, in particular, can be ruthlessly hounded. Some of us know this from experience. Others of us hear about the results of evil speech through statistics about anxiety and suicide. Actually, we all know about this from experience to some extent or another. Who of us hasn’t been the victim of gossip or mean-spirited rumors? That happens in churches like anywhere else. James would have us do better—surely the tongue is a fire.
But the passage from James pushes us further. It isn’t just that what we say can help or harm others. It’s also true that what we say reveals the character of our inner life. Just beyond the end of the passage we read, James asks if “a spring can pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” or if a “fig tree [can] yield olives, or a grapevine [yield] figs?” Of course not, we can’t speak ruthlessly and expect others to believe that we are really renewed by God’s love.
Olives from a fig tree, figs from a grapevine? Of course not. We can’t spend all our time talking about pointless stuff and think that we’re really serious people. We can’t expect our children, our nieces or nephews, our grandkids to think faith is important if we rarely talk about it. James points out the oddity of thinking we can claim to love God while speaking destructively about people made in God’s image. And this is a point that every community, if it intends to be a community of Jesus’ disciples, must come to terms with: we cannot say we love God and speak destructively about people made in God’s image. We can’t. This principle is a gracious gift: our speech about people is something of a gage showing our love for God.
So, how do we speak of God? Well, James tells us that what we say about other people shows how we really feel about God. Whether we say anything about God or not—how we treat those who bear God’s image is the pudding’s test. This means my failure to express appropriate hospitality to the visitors on my driveway invalidated anything I would have otherwise said about my love for God. Speaking of God without love for other people is pointless, a bit like the crusader who cries “Jesus is Lord” with sword readied to kill.
Let’s turn now to our reading from the gospel of Mark, to find a bit more advice. In that passage Jesus asks his disciples, his students a question: “Who do people say that I am?” The answers are wide-ranging: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. You see, there was a rumor that some of these guys were going to return someday. The Terminator movies weren’t the first to work with that theme.
Jesus presses the matter, takes it from third person to second: “But who do you say that I am?” I love that question, so direct, so blunt—impossible to dodge. If Jesus was looking for a job today, I’d suggest he at least think of interviewing public figures. Jesus could get a straight answer from a certain hotel-builder turned U.S. presidential candidate—one that shall remain unnamed (but I’d like to see the cartoon). Anyway, Jesus asks this question of his students. Now it isn’t a question of public relations, but a question of personal encounter: “Who do you say that I am?” “You . . .” you who have been with me for months. You who have seen signs and wonders. You who have heard me teach. You who have shared with me the stuff of life—food, travel, conversation. “Who do you say that I am?”
Notice the word “say.” The question isn’t what do you think, or what’s your spiritual hunch. It’s “Who do you say that I am?” There’s a certain set of theologians who are fond of this strand of Scripture, people like Søren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They remind us that this is the type of question that confronts each of us, again and again. It isn’t a question about our family or our culture or our upbringing. It isn’t a question we can hedge on or stammer our way through. It applies in a secular culture just as it does in Christendom. It’s a question that requires a personal response right in this moment—“Who do you say that I am?”
I imagine most of those in the circle around Jesus begin looking at their feet. Maybe they try to find a way to bend the question back outward, back to what others think. Maybe one of them was ready to start listing the prophets Jesus brought to mind for other people. But then there’s Peter, bold Peter—“You are the Messiah,” he says. It’s short and direct, like the question itself. When did that occur to him? Right then? Months ago? What did he think it meant?
Moments later Jesus would describe a bit of what that meant. It would mean suffering. And he would say too that if anyone wanted to be one of his students they would have to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is a hard thing to say in the context of people we care about, but it seems that being ‘Christian’—a student of Jesus—will ruin your life. There’s no care bears and sunshine, no wealth or social respect. Instead, following Jesus means giving up the very things we think make our life. We give them up . . . and then we really find life. Because God loves our lives more than we do. If you’ve seen good parents or exceptional friends or real lovers, you’ve seen an analogy. God loves our lives more than we do.
But before Jesus says those things he responds directly to Peter’s answer. He shushes him; he orders his disciples “not to tell anyone about him.” This silencing is what we refer to as the Messianic secret; it courses through Mark’s gospel.
But think about this: silence can be an act of communication, can’t it? Have you ever returned home to find a parent or a spouse waiting for you at the kitchen table? How much you are in trouble is directly indicated by how long they wait to speak. In music too, silence is important. Rests are part of the language. Or think of the pause that happens after a really good play. The audience sits, absorbing . . . and then responds in frenzied applause. Or there is the respectful silence we keep at some memorials. I can still recall the anguished silence at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Silence isn’t always the absence of communication, sometimes it speaks. Probably all of our spiritual lives have been marked by periods of God’s silence, which we realize later is not a lack of communication or a lack of action.
But what does this silence say? What does it say in Mark’s gospel and what does it say to us? There are various ways we could read this, but I think the most helpful is to see the messianic secret is a product of Jesus’ confidence in his identity and calling. He had no need to control the narrative.
In public life controlling the narrative can be crucial. If you can spin the story or be the first to add context to breaking news, you can avoid lots of negative publicity. But the need to control the narrative comes from a worry about the truth. Jesus had no such worry. His ministry and his impending death and resurrection would speak for themselves. I think Jesus’ request for silence regarding his messiahship is also an acknowledgment of God’s timing. Jesus had more work to do, a wild publicity campaign would jeopardize that.
So here’s something we can learn from this part of Mark’s gospel: when we speak about God, we can do so calmly and without the worry that we need to control the conversation or win. There is no need to defend God with pomp and bluster. We speak knowing that God’s timing is not always clear to us. How we speak of God matters, of course it does. Some of us probably need to grow in our ability to do this. After all, if we can tell others about the best place to buy groceries or the best geography courses to take, we can share what we’ve found to be life-giving about our faith. It doesn’t have to be anymore scripted or tense than that.
The missionaries slid off our drive, back on to the street. My wife tried to make amends for my poor manners as they left. I hope I’ll do better next time. I hope I’ll meet them as people bearing the creator’s image, and not just as annoyances. As we move into another week of being followers of Jesus in a diverse and busy city may we all grow in our ability to speak appropriately of a God who is powerful and loving, of a God who is so powerful and loving not to depend on our winning or losing an argument. May we also grow in knowing when to communicate through silence. May the Word of God, Jesus Christ, be ever present.