Church of England Diocese of Bath & Wells Portbury

Sunday 12/09/21

Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Mark 8:27-38 James 3:1-12

The bridge of a ship is a special place; it’s the place for the control panels and equipment for steering the vessel and it can be a very impressive sight, especially if you’re a bit of an outsider to shipping and are invited to come up and see for the first time. One such occasion for me, happened when the Captain of a large cargoship, bigger than one of our church buildings, offered to show me around and I can tell you that it was an experience to be so high up and watch how the ship is controlled. It may surprise you to hear that the actual control, even for a large carrier, is no bigger than my finger. A small ‘joystick’ if you like, in the hands of the navigator, is all it takes. And yet it’s the pushing of that small stick that moves the ship; amazing!

The apostle James uses the image of a rudder from sailing ships in his days as a metaphor for the work of the human tongue: though only small compared to the rest of the body, the tongue is a master when it comes to boasting and saying things that should not be said. Of course, the tongue can also work to say good and helpful things, but it takes control to make it do so. And that’s what James means when he critiques those who disregard the need to control their speech.

Now I can put my foot in it as well as the next person, so I should not be complacent or smug when I hear others make a remark off-piste. And we see that in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, it’s very easy to make a mistake! What’s going on here? Jesus announces how he is to undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed and rise again on the third day, and Peter rebukes him for it. Jesus’ response is immediate and firm: ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ Too harsh? Maybe not. It’s interesting anyway, as Peter had, just before, declared that Jesus was the Messiah. So how then did he come to rebuke Jesus for telling his disciples what the road ahead looked like. And I suppose that was the problem: Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ, who was expected and longed for to come and make all things new. However, the picture that Jesus was painting of himself didn’t tally with the image of this person that Peter and others had in mind. It wasn’t until much later that they came to understand that Jesus had been right all the time and the penny finally dropped: that the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, wouldn’t be a military figure, who was going to chase away the political oppressor of the day, and make the country ‘great again’, but rather a figure of a kingly might and authority, who would conquer the power of sin and death. Jesus had given a taster of this in his ministry of feeding the crowds and healing the sick and raising the dead. He was announcing the Kingdom of God. But it was so different from people’s own human expectations of what this would look like, that they couldn’t take it in, and Peter was an example of that. The problem that Jesus had to contend with was not that he couldn’t or wouldn’t be big enough or strong enough for the people, but that the people made him too small in their own minds. And Jesus couldn’t allow for Peter to defer him from the journey of salvation. There was too much at stake! A few words spoken in haste by Peter couldn’t be allowed to change God’s plan. Jesus’ rebuke of him shows the contrast between the purpose of God’s will for human beings and their own purpose for themselves. At the end of the day it’s about this question: who or what rules you? In whose hand is the control of your life? Is it your own ‘tongue’ that decides how you go? How does it live up to its calling to speak well? Or does it speak in line with God’s grace ? In other words: who’s at the helm of your ship? Amen.

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