Thursday 10th August 2017
Num 20:1-13 Js 4:1-12 Mt 16:13-23
How easy it is for even the greatest of saints to get it all wrong and to be led astray by the misleading deceit of Satan! Why, here in this Gospel passage we’ve just read, it seems inconceivable that one moment Peter is being commended for his perception on which, Jesus affirms that he will build his Church, and then, just a short while later that same Peter is being condemned for his Satanic outlook, in utter contrast to all that Jesus stands for! Just how could this be? How could Jesus suggest that so great a disciple as Peter was doing the work of Satan?
Well Jesus does explain, with words, the significance of which I suspect we often miss. For Jesus tells him “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human ones.” And here is a very common problem for us all. We know we need at all times to use ‘common sense’, but so often, with the things of God we need an uncommon sense, something that makes absolutely no sense at all in a human or Earthly context. Of course it made perfect sense for Peter to ‘rebuke’ the Lord, searching for some way for Jesus to fulfil God’s plan without having to die. Perfect human sense, but utterly at odds with the will of God, whose ways we so often cannot comprehend. For as Paul writes in his letter to the Church in Corinth “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”. And Isaiah wrote “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts says the Lord.” How vital we learn this lesson so, unlike Peter at that time, we may be prepared to look foolish in the eyes of the World in order to better understand the wisdom of God.
Yes, and even Moses wasn’t exempt. For as we read in that first lesson, faced with incredible provocation from the Israelites taking their frustrations out on him, Moses, that very great man of God, rightly laid all their complaints before God, pleading their cause, but then allowed his human anger to boil over as he went beyond God’s wisdom to follow his own human instincts. So God told Moses to speak to the rock and command it to give water. But Moses wrongly castigated the people as rebels and struck the rock twice. Yes the result was the same; water flowed abundantly and people and flocks were able to drink. But the impact was very different. Water merely from speaking to the rock would have emphasised God’s presence and His glory, whereas the action of Moses made it look far more like it was his strength, his action that brought the water, and not God’s. And for this reliance on human wisdom and strength, Moses had to forgo his hope to enter the promised land as leader of the people.
But there was another, perhaps more subtle and damaging error in this story. For not only was Moses following human, rather than divine values, but he also dared, no doubt under extreme provocation, to take on himself a role unique to God, to act as judge and declare the people ‘rebels’. And this is a most important lesson for us all, that especially those in any position of leadership of His people, we must never dare usurp God’s role as sole judge of all. It’s noteworthy that there has, of late been a considerable emphasis in the Lectionary Scriptures on the danger of Christians being judgemental of each other, and this theme, so present in this story of Moses is very much continued in the epistle set for today
Of course, in his letter, James, generally considered to be that James who was described as the brother of Jesus and pillar of the Church in Jerusalem, is particularly concentrating on the practical outworking of faith in Christ. Throughout the letter, James is looking for good works as being evidence of a true faith, and although this may seem to some (Martin Luther for example) as being contrary to the teachings of St Paul, whose emphasis was very much on our being saved by faith alone, yet, I believe that this teaching is perhaps like the other side of the same coin, containing immensely important teaching.
For it’s easy, James would say, to claim faith, but how do we know it’s genuine? A true faith in Christ must necessarily be demonstrated by a Christ-like life. So Jesus himself in Matthew 7:20 taught “By their fruits you shall know them” and St Paul, in his letter to the Church in Galatia wrote that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”, which, I suggest, is entirely compatible with the teachings of James, who simply explains these traits in more practical terms. There is little more nauseating, nor damaging to the Church than the person who, like Uriah Heap, continually boasts of their humility, or glories in their spiritual prowess. So James encourages us to live out our Christian lives in a practical way, being controlled by the Spirit and bearing His fruit.
So he starts this chapter, as he spent much of the previous, in examining the conflicts, the quarrels and disagreements that proliferated within the early Church. It’s frightening in many ways to read that the Church he was addressing was characterised by jealousies, murderous ambitions, lust and character assassination. Yet in some respects it’s encouraging as we recognise that none of the problems faced by today’s Church are new, that we, incredibly human Christians, with all our failures today, are no different from our forebears, who suffered the same desires and failures, for Satan is as devious now as he was then and will always use every endeavour to undermine and destroy any work of God. But can we see how here again that theme flows through of the dangers of relying too heavily on human rather than divine wisdom
We have, James urges, to decide whose side we’re on, for as Jesus had himself asserted in Matthew 6:24, we can’t serve two masters; we have to decide between God and Worldly values. There’s a sense of God’s sorrow as James writes in v 5 that God Jealously longs to see the evidence of His Spirit working in us, leading us to rely more on the uncommon sense of divine wisdom, but that unfortunately it’s our pride that so often gets in the way. So he calls on his readers, and thus ourselves, to resist the Devil and draw near to God; to purify our hearts and humble ourselves before the Lord so he may exalt us. For it is only as we recognise Satan at work in causing distrust, doubt and division within our Christian family, that we can resist him in the name of the Lord and see him defeated. It is only as we are each able to humble ourselves that we will really see the value of our other family members and start building Christ’s body here on Earth.
And in that Spirit James concludes by bringing us back to the dangers of judging others, that commonest, I suggest, of evils within the Church throughout its history. How many divisions; how much hurt; and how much damage to Christ’s body has been done over the years, by his followers speaking evil of and sitting in judgement on each other? The many martyrs, the inquisition, the various examples of sectarian violence, all speak of the many using human rather than divine wisdom; all tell of those all too willing to speak evil and to judge their brothers and sisters. And sadly the trend continues and we doubtless all know of those who are all too ready to criticise, condemn, spread gossip and judge others. So let’s remember the closing words of this passage in James: “There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and destroy. So who then are you, to judge your neighbour?”
How much better then to live lives that are characterised by the fruit of the Spirit in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If only we could strive through the Holy Spirit for this fruit, there’d be no place at all for evil talk, criticism or judgement of others.
Duncan Burr, 10th August 2017 at Aljambra
The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Church of England