August 26, 2018, Talk Is Not Cheap – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000095
We’ve all heard the expression, “Talk is cheap” and it makes a lot of sense, right? We are surrounded by words day in and day out, blah blah blah, and really they don’t usually seem to mean very much. Turn on the TV at any time of the day or night and you’re bombarded with words – mostly trying to sell you something. Answer the phone and half of the time it’s a computer-generated voice, not even a real person talking. You can log in to your computer and check your emails, or your facebook, or your twitter – but if you don’t have time for those, you probably have a smart phone in your pocket that makes all those words available to you wherever you are. And so we begin to believe that even just one meaningful action is worth a thousand – even a million – words.
And yet….when Jesus asked the Twelve if they were going to abandon him along with so many of his disciples, Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You are the one who has the words of eternal life.” Now, of all people, Peter and the other chosen apostles had seen Jesus in action. They saw him heal the sick and lame and blind. They saw him multiply loaves and fishes to feed the multitudes. They saw him cast out demons. They saw him walk on water. They saw him raise the dead. But when Peter considered the possibility of walking away from Jesus – even though we know that Peter was a man of action if anyone ever was – it was Jesus’ words that he could not turn away from. No one else had the words of eternal life, Peter knew that. And he knew that Jesus did.
Clearly there is all the difference in the world between what Peter was talking about – the words of Christ that were worth living and dying for – and the everlasting twaddle that is so much a part of our modern experience. It is so different that I think it’s hard for us to grasp exactly what Peter was talking about. So I want to take that phrase of Peter’s “You have the words of eternal life” and just dig into it a little – think about what it means, and also, what it doesn’t mean. And what it means to us.
Right from the start, it’s important to translate the word “eternal” accurately, because when we hear the word eternal we tend to just think of time stretching on endlessly. Eternal life might remind us of a Twilight Zone episode, where a creepy old rich guy discovers a way to keep himself alive forever. And we know that always ends badly. But the Greek word here isn’t really talking about time; it’s talking about a quality of life. It means enduring life, it means fullness of life. So when Peter speaks of “the words of eternal life” he doesn’t mean words that are just some kind of formula for cheating death so much as words that are the source of an abundance of life.
And Peter knew that Jesus alone spoke those kind of words. There was literally no one else they could turn to who spoke like Jesus. But more than that – he knew that there was no turning away from those words once he had heard Jesus and put his faith in him. He knew that turning his back on Jesus would be turning his back on life itself. Tragically, even Judas discovered that himself when he chose to turn his back on Jesus, and we know that he wasn’t able to live with his choice.
Jesus and his words are so inseparable that John, when he began his gospel about Jesus, called Jesus “the Word”. “In the beginning was the Word.” John wrote. “And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through him.” In the beginning of all things, when God created, he created with words. “Let there be light,” God said, “and there was light.” God’s Words had power to bring something into being out of nothing. And that creative Word that existed from before all time – that is Jesus.
For us, plain old human beings, so often our words and our actions are pretty loosely connected. Sometimes they’re even totally opposite from each other, because our words are false. People say one thing and do another, we know that. But for Jesus, his word and his action are always one. So the Words of eternal life that Peter was talking about are one with all that Jesus did and with all that he is. There is no division, no conflict, no dissonance, between the words of Jesus Christ and what he does and is.
And that’s why we can’t possess Jesus’ words without following in his footsteps. We can never separate his words from his actions. We could memorize the entire Bible – if we were really good at memorizing. We could stand on the street corner and yell the words of Jesus at people from morning to night. Some people do things very like that. But unless we are following Jesus in our living as well as in our words, our words have no life at all. Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on a rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Having the words of eternal life isn’t just about knowing the right words.
In fact, people have even used the words of the Bible to do all kinds of harm. Slaveholders in the early days of our country used the Bible to prove that it was perfectly fine for them to treat their brother or sister like a piece of property, or worse. Christians throughout the centuries, and right up to this present day, have hand-picked verses to justify their own hateful actions, or to use as a weapon against the people they hate or distrust or fear – even against their fellow Christians. The followers of Jesus have literally murdered one another, pretending it was in defense of Jesus’ words. In the Reformation Protestants killed Catholics and Catholics killed Protestants and everybody killed the poor Anabaptists. Today pro-life and pro-choice Christians condemn each other with the words of Scripture, conservative and LGBT Christians condemn each other with the words of Scripture, Republican and Democratic Christians condemn each other with the words of Scripture. But Bible verses, in and of themselves, taken out of context, divorced from the life and work of Christ, have nothing to do with the words of eternal life. They are much more like to kill than to give life.
And today, just like Peter, we are living in a time when so many people are turning away from following, or even listening to, Jesus. And often, people are not just turning away because they are a “wicked and sinful generation.” All too often people are turning away from Jesus because the Church has failed to speak Jesus’ words of eternal life in its actions as well as its words. All people are sinful, Christians and non-Christians alike. Obviously, we will never be perfect.
But when Christians proclaim a gospel of love but treat their fellow human beings with contempt,
when Christian leaders abuse their power, hurting those who are vulnerable;
when Christians look down on people who are different from them, people of different races, or different gender identities, or different religious beliefs;
when Churches amass great wealth and fail to help the poor;
when Christians care only for their own safety and prosperity when their brothers and sisters are hungry and poor and homeless and in danger,
then we, the Church, have failed to speak the words of life. Then our words bring pain instead of healing. Then we have made Jesus’ words of eternal life into empty, lifeless babble.
To follow Jesus means to follow him both in what we say and in what we do. It matters much less that we are able to rattle off chapter and verse, and much more that we live out his words of forgiveness and mercy and compassion and kindness; that we consider others as better than ourselves; that like our Lord, we seek to serve rather than be served. On the other hand, our lives are shaped by the words we read and listen to. If we allow our minds and our hearts and our mouths to be filled with the words of Christ instead of the jingle from the car insurance company, we will certainly find our lives and actions beginning to change. We will find that we are beginning to be more like him. And, although following Jesus always means sacrifice and giving up our rights, and often means suffering, surprisingly – or maybe not surprisingly – we will find that we become more fully alive. Because Peter was right, abundance of life is found in no one else. To whom shall we go? Only Jesus has the words of eternal life.