Proper 19B Sermon (2003)

Proper 19 (Sept. 11-17)
Texts: James 3:1-12;
Mark 8:27-38; Isa. 50:4-9a


In our life here at church, which breaking of a commandment gets us in the most trouble? I’m not talking about the world at large. I’m talking about right here at church. Which commandment is the hardest for us to keep, and its breaking causes the most turmoil?

As we look at all the empty pews these days, we might be tempted to say the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” But the commandment I have in mind might also be one of the biggest reason we have empty pews. When I talk to inactive church members, people who have fallen away from attending church, they in so many words tell me stories about people breaking this commandment. They tell me stories about other people at church who have hurt them by something they’ve said. Can you guess yet which commandment I have in mind?

The Eighth Commandment. Yes, the eighth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Now, this commandment might sound kind of innocent. Perhaps you’ve even wondered exactly what it means — to “bear false witness.” But this is where Luther’s Small Catechism comes in handy, to help us understand what it means. Can you remember it with me?

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we don’t tell lies about our neighbor, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. (1) [repeat]

Now, does that make sense? Think of all the times people have been hurt in church by gossip. We are famous for gossip at church, aren’t we? I think its because one of our goals around here is to lead good lives, so we’re constantly comparing our lives to others. When sin gets a hold of that, it tempts us into trying to put ourselves in a favorable light by calling attention to someone else’s shortcomings. But the most apt word for this is simply “gossip.” We betray or slander our fellow members and destroy their reputations. We certainly don’t often do as Luther says, do we? When was the last time you came to someone’s defense, or interpreted everything they do in the best possible light? When was the last time you did the opposite? Do you see what a difficult commandment this is — even, and perhaps especially, around church?

The apostle James, in our second lesson this morning, says, “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, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Wow! A fire that can consume. Is he making too big of a deal out of the power of the human tongue? The apostle James doesn’t think so. Gossip is a serious matter.

How serious? We’ve already talked about its deadliness even among church members. The apostle James says that the sin of our tongues “sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The cycle of nature? Set on fire by hell? What could he mean by this? I think he means this. When our desires begin to mix it up and bring us into conflict with each other, there is a “cycle of nature” that goes all the way back to our human beginnings. This recalls the anthropology that I mentioned last week. Anthropology has to do with our human nature since the beginning of history. Even before we had spoken language and used our tongues, our earlier ancestors could gesture. They could point their fingers in a gesture of accusation and blame. When our tongues became involved, too, we were off and running. Do you see? I think that when we human beings are in conflict with one another, our most ‘natural cycle’ for bringing a relative amount of peace has been to use our tongues to get the gossip going, to get the accusations going, in order to unify one group of folks at the expense of one, or at the expense of a less powerful group, a minority. This is the “cycle of nature” for us that brings us our brand of peace. But it is a peace that comes like a consuming fire over someone else, who most assuredly doesn’t experience it as peace.

This is the very depth of our sin that I believe our Lord came to expose on the cross. He literally was a victim of this commandment, wasn’t he? Others bore false witness against him in court. He was wrongly accused. He descended into the hell of our brand of peace that unifies some at the expense of others.

Let’s take a quick look at Mark’s gospel story. Already at the beginning of chapter three in Mark’s gospel, we read that the leaders of the people began to gossip. They used their fiery tongues to begin conspiring against Jesus (3:6). A short time later it’s some of Jesus’ own family that yields to the gossip in their hometown of Nazareth, and they begin to make excuses for Jesus: that he might be slightly out of his mind (3:21). By chapter 6 his entire home town has rejected him.

In this morning’s Gospel, Peter uses his tongue to make a true confession. But then after Jesus begins to reveal to them the way things work, that he will be handed over to gossip and accusations and be killed, Peter uses his tongue to rebuke Jesus. And Jesus’ response is downright shocking: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Satan, the Lord of hell? Yes, for the most ancient traditions about Satan are that he is the Accuser, the Prosecuting Attorney, so to speak. Satan is the personified power and principal behind this “cycle of nature” that James is talking about in our second lesson. It’s as if there’s a ready supply of accusations waiting to well up from hell and consume those we accuse.

But careful! This is not to blame Satan! That’s precisely what the satanic principal is: namely, to blame others, even if it’s Satan himself. No, notice who Jesus poses against God. Not Satan. No, he calls Peter “Satan,” and tells him that he is on the side of humans. It is us who are ultimately responsible for this principal of accusation that has consumed victims since the beginning of time. Peter, in failing to understand how Jesus has come to expose and defeat that principal, is in danger of succumbing to it. Peter, if he doesn’t listen to Jesus and get on God’s side, will give in to this “cycle of nature” that begins with Satan in hell. And Peter does succumb. At the very moment in which Jesus is facing satanic accusation, at the very moment when Jesus is on trial, what does Peter do? He uses his tongue to deny Jesus three times. There, warming himself around the courtyard fire with Jesus’ accusers, he adds his fiery tongue to theirs. He is on the side of Satan and of human beings and our way of gaining peace by scapegoating someone.

And Jesus lets himself become our scapegoat in order to expose it. He is the Lamb of God who descends into our hell of accusations in order that he might finally unveil the violence in our brand of peace and thus begin to disempower it.

This is where I disagree with St. James a bit. He says that the tongue is untamable. Our Lord was able to resist. Instead of laying blame on someone else and deflecting it towards a common enemy, Jesus shut his mouth and became like a lamb before its shearers. He let himself be accused precisely so that he could break this cycle of nature in which we are otherwise trapped. He came to forgive us so that we could begin, with his help, to tame our tongues.

On Easter evening Peter was huddled with the other disciples, frightened for their lives — frightened that the accusations leveled against Jesus might still come their way. Suddenly, Jesus is in their midst and issues a word of peace to them. Not our brand of peace which seeks to place blame somewhere else. Jesus doesn’t come to Peter and say, “You blew it! You’re fired!” No, he comes to say, “Peace with you!” He comes to forgive him, that Peter might begin to live in that forgiveness and extend it to others. That Peter might live the prayer he taught them to pray, “Forgive us sins as we forgive the sins of others.”

We are huddled together here this morning as latter-day disciples of Jesus. We might be thinking of all the times we have used our tongues to blame and consume others. We might be frightened for the words which have issued from our mouths from hell itself. But Jesus comes here again this morning — right in our midst. And once again it isn’t to fix blame on us. He breaks the cycle of our nature by forgiving us and feeding us, that we might begin to tame our tongues for praise; that we might tame our tongues for building up one another instead of burning down; that we might tame our tongues to come to our neighbor’s defense, to speak well of them, and to interpret everything they do in the best possible light. Amen!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran, Kenosha, WI,
September 14, 2003

1. Martin Luther, A Contemporary Translation of Luther’s Small Catechism: Study Edition, trans. and intro. by Timothy J. Wengert, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994, page 20.

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