I was invited by the Bishop of London to preach at St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 31st July 2016 at the 3.15 Choral Evensong service. My text was 1 Corinthians 14, in which St Paul discusses prophecy and tongues. The text of my sermon is below:
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ goes the old playground rhyme. But our experience proves this untrue – as words are powerful things and may be used creatively or destructively.
Many of us will know the life-giving joy of a word of encouragement, but also the crushing force of cruel comments or spiteful speech directed at us.
The Christian Scriptures acknowledge the power of words and language. The voice of the Lord is powerful and majestic claims Psalm 29. The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning, breaking trees and shaking deserts. The words of God at the very beginning are creative – ‘Let there be light.. Let there be living creatures… Let us make humans in our image’. God’s voice brings substance out of nothingness, being out of non-being, order out of chaos.
The voice of Jesus commands the wind and the waves to be still; calls the paralysed man to get up and walk; and declares the forgiveness of God to all who repent.
Words – voices – speech: powerful things. It has the power to divide, as in the story of the tower of Babel; and also the power to unite – as in the account of Pentecost.
And perhaps that’s why the apostle Paul, in his letter to the small Christian community in Corinth, is so keen to emphasise and explain different kinds of speech and how they should be used. He reflects on the spiritual language of ‘tongues’ – spiritual utterances directed to God in prayer; and also on the language of prophesy – directed not at God but at the community and society in which we live – bringing order out of chaos. I think of these as ‘speaking up’ and ‘speaking out’.
With language and sound we convey emotion – and perhaps nowhere more than in song. An old songwriter once said that with words we think thoughts, and with music we feel feelings, but in songs we feel thoughts and think feelings. And songs need not always make sense:
‘We go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong // Remembered forever as shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom // Chang chang changitty chang sha-bop // That’s the way it should be – wah-oooh, yeah!
That’s from the musical ‘Grease’.
Or how about the Hanson hit pop song: ‘MMMBop bidi dapa doo wop
Doo bi dapa doo bop Bidi dapa doo, yeah, yeah’
Even the great Beatles hit relies upon ‘Na na na nana na na, nana na na, hey Jude’.
When my children, now 9, 7 & 5, were babies, I used to speak to them with nonsense language – babblish. Watching old video recordings it look ridiculous – but at the time it was a wonderfully intimate way of communicating with them.
My children as babies would smile and giggle and take delight in my nonsense words – even though the sounds were devoid of any intelligible meaning. They still conveyed and communicated love and affection. Sometimes non-sense words make total sense when we’re expressing intimate feelings.
The spiritual gift of tongues experienced by Christians through the ages, and written about in the New Testament, is a non-sense language for communicating our love and affection for God our Father.
When we pray or sing in tongues, it’s a sort of inversion of what I did with my children: instead of a father communicating love with nonsense words and sounds to his children, we, the children of God, communicate with our heavenly Father in a way that bypasses the usual processes of rational thought and language formation.
As well as expressing love and affection, this spiritual language can be a wonderful gift when we are overwhelmed by the complexity of a situation, and yet we need some way of holding it before God in prayer. The theologian and former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, puts it this way:
‘For some, praying in tongues is a way of lifting things and people up to God when we don’t know what their particular needs are, or perhaps when the need is all too blindingly obvious and we are so overwhelmed that we don’t know what to say.’
Paul is clear that the spiritual gift of tongues is beneficial insofar as it enables us to ‘speak up’ – that is, to communicate with God our Father through unrecognisable utterances. ‘Those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God’ claims St Paul.
Our love, our affection, our intercession for the needs of the world too complex for us to understand may all be offered to God with the same intimate babbling sounds as those with which any of us might speak to a newborn baby. Paul concludes, ‘I would like all of you to speak in tongues.’
However Paul goes further – ‘speaking up’ is not enough – we must also ‘speak out’ with prophetic voices. Prophesy, he writes in verse three, is for building up people, encouraging them, and consoling them. In other translations, it is for strengthening, encouraging and comforting. In other words, prophetic speech has to do with serving human society. It has little to do with predicting the future or soothsaying, but rather is about the utterance of God’s truth in a disordered world. It is the language of truth and justice.
It is prophetic speech which brings substance to nothingness, being out of non-being, order out of chaos. Indeed, four times in the passage, Paul talks about both individual people and the corporate church being ‘built up’ by prophesy.
God’s word is powerful – and is creative and productive when uttered in prophetic speech. Five intelligible words, like the five smooth stones of the Old Testament King David, when uttered in the slings of prophetic speech may overcome the threatening and destructive Goliaths of our age.
What will this prophetic ‘speaking out’ sound like in our age? Well, it will certainly be a word on behalf of the outsider and the refugee – for God himself knows what it is to be a refugee. It will certainly be a word on behalf of the widows and orphans of our day – the most marginalised and vulnerable socially and economically – for God has a preference for the poor.
It will be a word of comfort to the disturbed, yet one which disturbs the comfortable. It will be a word out of Mary’s song – which talks of a world turned upside down – where the poor and hungry are lifted and fed, and the rich and powerful are brought down from thrones of their own making.
In an age beset by fear and conflict, it will be a word of love and of peace. The prophetic words of God ‘spoken out’ in his name will draw forth joy out of sorrow, hope from despair; peace out of conflict, love over hate; light out of darkness and life out of death.
All this is seen in the one unique and supreme word of God – Jesus Christ himself. The word that was with God from the beginning, and was made flesh that we might see God.
The most significant word ever spoken in the history of the world is the word of God in Jesus Christ. In him we discover the creative word and work of God – making humankind in his image to share in the stewardship of all creation.
In Jesus we discover the reconciling work of God to draw us to the source of life and light when we had wandered far from home. In Christ we see the one who lives now at the right hand of God our Father speaking up and speaking out on our behalf as he makes intercessions for us.
In Jesus we see the one who call us to ‘speak up’ in joyful worship and ‘speak out’ in compassionate service of others as he commands us to love God and love neighbour.
So let us raise our voices in glorious tongues of praise to God our maker and redeemer; and let our prophetic shout for Christ’s love and mercy resound through all the world.