Control your speech
Quarter: Jesus and the Reign of God
Unit 3: Live justly in the reign of God
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 23, 2014
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture Lesson: James 3: 1-12
As we finish the Winter Quarter lessons, James reminds all of us who teach how awesome is the task, and how diligent we must be to fill that God-given role in the Kingdom. His disclaimer that not many should presume to teach is no excuse to say “get someone else!” Obviously, the Church of his generation was going through growing pains, and everybody had their personal theological axe to grind. Paul confronted the same problem in the Corinthian Church with various groups claiming authority from some charismatic leader. (I Cor. 1:12) But Paul also saw teaching as one of the five gifts given by the Spirit for building up the Body of Christ, the Church. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
The role of teacher requires diligent preparation and commitment of significant amounts of time to be effective. Is our teaching true to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, or are we riding our own hobby horse? We have John Wesley’s guidelines, sometimes called the Wesley Quadrilateral, to check what we believe and teach to insure we are not misleading others away from the Gospel truth. False teachers have been a problem for the Church from the very beginning.
The test of Scripture is of first importance. If what you teach isn’t affirmed in Scripture, don’t teach it! Secondly, Reason is a gift from the God of all wisdom, and what we teach must make sense. Thirdly, Tradition is the test of time. We have 2,000 years of Christian history to measure where we are today against the Church’s teaching across the centuries. In addition, add the Jewish tradition of several more thousand years. What we teach ought to fit into the grand scheme of historical events in the Judeo-Christian revelation of God. Finally, we must consider Experience in walking the walk and talking the talk. The Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience), like a compass for a hiker, sailor, or flier, is an effective guide for living and teaching in the Kingdom.
Because James understands the power of the spoken word, he shifts to the danger of speech in general. Certainly teachers must guard their tongue to teach, but James sees the power of loose tongues in many other ways. In fact, his experience is very negative from the human perspective – even evil. With several metaphors he illustrates the power of talk. A horse is controlled with a bit and bridle, a ship is steered with a rudder, and a spark can devastate a forest with fire. With each metaphor James is guiding the reader to understand that humans cannot control speech –only God can.
As a preacher, Sam knows the power of speech to help, to heal, AND to hurt! With the best of intentions, words can do great harm. Sometimes, without realizing the consequences, we speak to a congregation or a class and someone present is offended by what is said or the way we say it. We have learned that the hearer has experiences to which our words speak in negative ways. The unintentional power of words is one thing, to say nothing about words intentionally spoken to alienate and denigrate persons.
For James, there is something evil in the ways humans can use words. In reading the passage for today, one could say James is fatalistic about the use of speech at all. However, such a conclusion would be erroneous. In verse 2, he recognizes our human tendency to stumble/sin, but he reminds us perfection can come only from God.
The reality is the tongue, one of the smallest organs in the body, has the power to control the whole body. Here is where the metaphors of bit, rudder and fire have power to get our attention. If one can control the tongue, one can control the whole body.
We have seen the devastating effect of cruel words as they destroy both individual lives and the life of the church. During the civil rights controversies of the 1960s and 1970s, we heard and felt the vicious words of parishioners as they expressed their attitudes about race. Another example was Sam’s annual renewal of marriage vows on Mothers’ Day, and the unintentional hurt done to divorced and widowed members. Words can hurt! Believe it!
Only God is perfect. Every good and perfect gift comes from Him alone (James 1:16-18). Only a perfect person could control his tongue (3:2). Such a person could not only control his tongue but also his total being. Since God is the only one who is perfect, He is the only one who can control the tongue. Our deep need is to be possessed by Him so he can forgive all of our sin and enable us by the power of the Holy Spirit to control our tongues and our total being.
The double effect of the tongue to bless or curse is made very visible in a recent movie “Twelve Years a Slave.” The true story of an educated, northern, free African-American who is kidnapped and sold into southern slavery is brought vividly to the screen. There are scenes of brutality, voices of hate, human pathos of children separated from their mother, the human yearning to be free, and the reality of death being preferable to living enslaved. To watch makes us as southerners once again conscious of a heritage we would like to escape and forget. For us as Christians, the most disturbing scene is Sunday worship where the scriptures are read by the slave owner and used to keep human beings “in their place.”
You ask, “How could he do that with a clear conscience and a straight face?” James would say “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:9-10)