A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
James 3: 1-12; Mark 8: 27-end
“Hector loved language. He loved words. For each and every one of you, his pupils, he opened a deposit account in the bank of literature and made you all shareholders in that wonderful world of words”.
A Headmaster is eulogizing a late maverick colleague, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Hearing the eulogy out of context one might raise an eyebrow at the choice of image - deposit accounts and shareholders - or entertain a doubt as to the absolute sincerity with which he speaks, but for those who have watched the play from the beginning there is a double irony in his remarks. They have heard Hector, the late colleague, claim “I would hate to turn out boys who, in later life, would claim to have a love of literature, or speak of the lure of language, and their love of words”. They have also heard the Headmaster give colourful vent to his contempt for the Renaissance, for literature, Plato, Michaelangelo, Oscar Wilde and, as he puts it, “all the other shrunken violets you people line up”. Bennett’s finely-tuned ire is directed at an attitude to words which is pious, precious, or pretentious; an attitude which, as it were, knows the price of words but not their value.
He would probably have got on well with the author of the Epistle of James. They share the belief that words matter. Bennett’s concern is that words should not be polished and hung over the mantelpiece like ornamental chinaware in the home of an elderly relative; James’s concern is that words should not be deployed to poison, to curse, or to do damage. He has a particular horror of those who sing God’s praises one moment and vilify their neighbours the next. Hector’s musing and James’s letter are directed at two different ways of misusing or abusing words. But here's another irony. The History Boys was written fifteen years ago. The Epistle of James was written two thousand years ago. True, The History Boys is set in the 1980s, when a text was something found between the covers of a book, and tweeting was strictly for the birds. But I can’t help feeling somewhat nostalgic for the variety of misuse at which Alan Bennett takes aim. We have become so much more familiar with James's world, with words that poison, curse and damage. Earlier this summer the website Tell Mama reported a spike in Islamophobic abuse directed at Muslim women. It followed the former Foreign Secretary’s widely-reported comments about Islamic dress.
Words. When Jesus asks the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer is one with which neither Alan Bennett nor St James could possibly find fault. He is not precious, nor is he inflammatory. “You are the Messiah” he says, and his words prompt a response: Jesus orders the disciples to tell no one who he is. Peter has evidently got it right. Yet only moments later it’s “Get behind me, Satan!”
Jesus’s famous rebuke teaches us something more about words. Sure, they are not to be idolized – Bennett’s complaint. Sure, they are not to be weaponized – James’s complaint. But neither are words simply objective descriptors, tools for definition, representative ciphers that can be uttered without consequence or implication. At least that is not the whole of their purpose.
Words make demands of those to whom they are spoken, and they make demands of those who speak them. “You are the Messiah” says Peter. He is right. Jesus is God’s Anointed One. But read on, and the exchange that follows proves that Peter has little idea of what his words mean for Jesus and even less idea of what his words mean for him.
For the Messiahship that Peter attributes to Jesus will attract not paeans of praise and titles of honour, but hoots of derision and accusations of treachery. Jesus insists on the absolute sovereignty of God, and on the imperatives of mercy, forgiveness and justice that God’s sovereignty requires. As I reflected on Friday, Holy Cross Day, this insistence means that he will provoke the murderous rage of Jerusalem and will be crushed beneath it. “You are the Messiah” says Peter, and he is right. But those words make demands of Jesus that Peter has not begun to contemplate.
The scene shifts. Jesus calls the crowd together, because what he has to say next will apply to all who rashly dare to claim what Peter has rashly dared to claim. “You are the Messiah” is neither the sort of empty tribute that Bennett’s Headmaster pays to Hector, nor the sort of empty compliment that James’s audience pay to God while in the next breath cursing the person next to them. To claim that Jesus is Messiah is to claim a place on the way of the cross; it is to commit ourselves to living as he lived; and to dying as he died. Words.
The sixth chapter of the Rule of St Benedict is entitled On Keeping Silent. “Permission to speak should rarely be given” he writes “even to exemplary disciples, for conversation that is good and holy and edifying”. I am quite sure that “good, holy, and edifying” is a very adequate description of all the conversations that take place over coffee in Salisbury Cathedral. I am not proposing that you should ask my permission to have them. Imagine the headlines: “New Dean of Cathedral forbids godly conversation. Cathedral has 123 foot spire and working mediaeval clock, by the way”. But as Anglican Christians who gather regularly to listen to words read aloud, we are encouraged to weigh thoughtfully the words we use in response. We are encouraged to be conscious of the demands they make both on those who hear them and on we who speak them.
“It is fitting for the master to speak and teach; the disciple’s part is to keep silent and to listen”. That’s St Benedict again. At Caesarea Philippi Peter discovers that the essence of being a disciple is not giving the right answer – it is living the right answer. Our call is to be aware of the claims we make and, perhaps, to be wary of the claims we make. And it is above all to listen and to follow. Amen.