Scripture: Mark 7
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” ~ Mark 7:14-15
When I lived in Moscow, my family and I attended the St. Andrews Anglican Church, one of only three Anglican Churches in Russia. While it follows the worship of the Church of England they strive to serve Anglicans of all traditions and countries. My family always was relatively involved in church wherever we lived – my dad and sister would sing in the choir, my mother would help with Sunday School or church leadership and my sisters and I would participate in Sunday school, plays and more. St. Andrew’s was no different.
Which made the actions of the priest all the more devastating when he functionally excommunicated all the American and Canadian members of the congregation over the matters that were happening in the Anglican Church in Canada and the Episcopal Church at the time with the election of Gene Robinson in the US, as the first openly gay bishop and the move towards blessing same-gendered unions in the Diocese of New Westminster BC.
Now don’t get me wrong issues surrounding same-sex marriage and the election of same-sex bishops are important matters for the church to address (whichever side of the issue you find yourself on) which we as the Anglican tradition have struggled with for decades without any real resolution, but they should not be communion breaking, they should not be a matter wielded by leadership that divides and destroys the common life of the church. Sadly, this is only one matter in a long line that has caused or continues to cause deep division in denominations or churches.
The tendency to raise issues of doctrine and church practice to foment division is certainly not unique to our church or our time, as our reading from the Gospel of Mark highlights.
Theologian Chelsea Harmon writes: When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not take on the ritual task of washing before they eat, they aren’t asking out of concern for personal hygiene. They’re asking because this sort of washing has become an identity marker for them as Jewish people—they were the only ethnic/religious group that practices such a thing; it sets them apart, and it helps them tell others apart.
Notice how Mark takes the time to describe the thoroughness of their washing: they wash all of their food vessels, and any time they are out and about among people who are different than them, they come home and “clean” off anything that might have gotten them defiled. These details serve a dual purpose. Mark is writing to a mostly non-Jewish community who didn’t understand or practice these rituals so he needs to explain them, and they show us how far removed this human tradition had become from the law it is rooted in.
In Exodus 30.17-21, Moses is told to set up a washbasin for the priests to use before going into the presence of God, including when they are going to make an animal offering to the Lord on behalf of the people. They washed in recognition and as an expression of the holiness of God (as in, humans are not holy compared to God, the always holy one). To put it briefly, priestly ritual cleansing related to food was about marking and communicating the holiness, purity, and oneness of God more than it was about anything else.
Eventually, someone somewhere decided that if it was good for priests to do, it would be good for everyone to do, and a new tradition was born. And see how the tradition, shaped by human hands and hearts, becomes about us rather than about God? The Pharisees’ question reveals their focus: they aren’t angry that God’s holiness is being violated, they are insulted that “these people” aren’t setting themselves apart from “those people” as is “our custom.” Instead of God’s purity, the tradition of the elders made the ritual cleansing be about separating themselves from others, about their own purity compared to others. True, a definition of holiness is “to be set apart,” but God’s intent with this and other purity laws had taken on a whole new life and meaning through the “tradition of the elders.”
Jesus however was not interested in outward acts of ritual which set one group apart from another, but rather in the inward purity which comes from the heart. Jesus is clear in his rebuke of the Pharisees that nothing outside of a person can defile, but rather it is from within where evil, malice, anger and the multitude of sins develop and take root within the human heart.
In emphasizing and elevating a human tradition the Pharisees had missed the point and allowed their hearts to harden so that the love, forgiveness and mercy of God could not breakthrough.
While it is true that doctrinal matters, such as marriage, ordination, worship and more may be more than outward rituals like the ritual washing of the Pharisees, I do not doubt that Jesus’ rebuke carries as much weight as it did in its original context.
In holding to one position or another, or one tradition or another we can allow our hearts to calcify and harden to the point where we cannot find it in ourselves to love those who disagree with us. And even if we are on the side of truth, by allowing difference and disagreement to lead to animosity and division we have committed the same mistake as the Pharisees and elevated our human concerns and ideas above God, we have actively broken the communion of the church: This is Sin.
You see, Jesus is often largely concerned with the unity of his followers. Whether it is in the farewell discourse to his disciples in the Gospel of John or through the Apostle Paul – it is clear that God values the unity of the church, God values the love that we share for one another – even in the face of sin and disagreement. And one of the hallmarks of the church is that difference is celebrated and counted as a gain rather than a hindrance. In every age, the Church has been made up of the rich and the poor, the old and the young, different ethnic and cultural groups and people of diverse opinions and interpretations.
The Church would be all the poorer if we were all carbon copies of one another, in fact when the Church has attempted to do that – think colonial methods of forced Christianization – it has resulted in terrible atrocities and the degradation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our witness to the grace, mercy and love of God.
The clearest and best way to follow Jesus and to share his Gospel with the hungering world is, to begin with, Love – love of God and neighbour, the two greatest commandments that Jesus uses, to sum up, all the laws of Israel. If we begin with love then even when we disagree and differ from our fellow brothers and sisters and Christ, it need not lead to division, it need not cause injury to the body of Christ which is the church. A love rooted in Christ, as the Apostle writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, is patient, kind and bears all things (to name but a few of Paul’s characteristics of love).
Even in the face of sin, we are called to love. Jesus constantly sought out the sinners of his day, the outcasts, those who broke the law of Israel or were considered unclean. He shared tables and broke bread with tax collectors, he touched the demon-possessed, he taught and sought fellowship with all who would listen to his words of life – even those who he knew whose hearts were too hard or ears too blocked to hear him. This is good news for every one of us – since we too are sinners that Jesus has sought out, we too are sinners with who Jesus wants to be in communion with, we too are recipients of his boundless grace and love. And we are in turn called to share that love and grace with the world.
As the church moves forward into the uncharted waters of the post-lockdown world we must remember to hold our traditions, our convictions and our actions lightly – we cannot allow them to harden our hearts so that we cannot love those who have different traditions, different convictions or different actions than we do. Remember that it is when we allow difference to become division and animosity that sin takes hold in our hearts and minds. Remember also that just as God has loved you, sinner, as you are, so you too are called to share that love with the world around you. Only mutual love and bearing our differences and disagreements will allow for a vibrant and life-giving church for years and ages to come. Of that I am sure, and I pray that the Holy Spirit gives us the strength and conviction to live into that reality.