Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 7:1–13
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 25-26, 2018
I spent this last week, Monday through Friday, at my alma mater, Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (https://www.csl.edu). I was there with Fabricio Velasquez, leader of Multi-Ethne Church that meets here at St. John’s, for a week of orientation as he begins his studies in the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT, https://www.csl.edu/academics/programs/ethnic-immigrant-institute-theology). I will be serving as his mentor and supervisor, and so we spent much time absorbing the whole experience of being on campus, together with other students from around the country and beyond: resident students entering the Master of Divinity program, as well as distance-learning students like Fabricio who are enrolled in programs like EIIT, Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP), and Center for Hispanic Studies (CHS). It was an awesome experience, and I ask for your prayers and support for Fabricio as he enters into this 4-year program of study. He is the face of future ministry in our church body: non-Caucasian, bi-vocational, and coming into ministry by an alternate pathway. I have to say that the campus looks better than I remember when I was a student at the seminary – beautiful landscaping and plantings, buildings and facilities that are both well-maintained and up-to-date, and an atmosphere that is very welcoming. Concordia Seminary in St. Louis is where Pastor Nass graduated in 1960, where I graduated in 1988, where Pastor Campbell graduated in 2006, and now where Fabricio Velasquez is enrolled. The seminary has been in existence for 180 years, and the current campus with its beautiful Gothic stone architecture, has been in place for nearly 100 years. With all of this history, you can well imagine that there are lots of traditions associated with such an institution. For me, if I’m going to St. Louis, one of my traditions is a stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard (http://teddrewes.com). I’m happy to report that I introduced Fabricio to this St. Louis landmark and now he’s hooked. But even better than this were the words of Dr. Dale Meyer, President of Concordia Seminary, who spoke to us on the first day. He said that the life of the seminary is not about Luther; it is about Jesus. He said, “Last time I checked, Luther is still buried at the foot of the pulpit in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He can’t raise himself up from the dead. Only Jesus can do that. That’s why we’re all about Jesus.” I wanted to jump up and shout, “Hurray!” Tradition can certainly be a wonderful thing, but it can also cause problems. It can obscure truth, especially the truth of the kingdom of God. Tradition is what we hear about in today’s Gospel lesson and Jesus has a few things to say us about this. This becomes the theme for preaching today. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Jesus is in a dispute with some of the scribes and Pharisees. At issue here was that Jesus allowed his disciples to disregard the ceremonial law of Judaism. Specifically, the disciples were eating with unwashed hands. This had nothing to do with good hygiene and washing your hands to prevent the spread of germs. It wasn’t about removing dirt, but the ceremonial removal of defilement from contact with things that were unclean. And not just hands, but utensils, pots and pans, even furniture – anything that could have been contaminated by anything impure or unclean. This might sound crazy to us, but this was the tradition, literally “what has been passed down” (τήν παράδοσιν), that Jesus and his disciples were not following, and it got the attention of the religious leaders. To not keep the tradition was to attack the very heart of Judaism. Jesus confronts the human tendency – not just that of the Pharisees, but our own tendency as well – to elevate our beloved customs and traditions to something that is above the Word of God itself. Let’s be clear on this: we Lutherans love our traditions, and they are many: the “correct” hymnal to be used; singing “Silent Night” in a darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve while holding lighted candles; worship services at times that are convenient for us; Confirmation at the end of 8th grade; etc. Sometimes we feel so strongly about these traditions that we can’t imagine church without them. But are they substance or are they style? If we are honest with ourselves, much of what we hold near and dear to our hearts is likely to be tradition. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with these. It is only when we insist that things must be done according to tradition – my tradition – that we run into trouble.
Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah in today’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 29:11-19) in responding to the scribes and Pharisees: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mark 7:6b-7). That is a stinging indictment against the very people the Lord called to be his own. But is is true of you and me today? The answer is a resounding yes. We, too, are guilty of just going through the motions and paying lip service to God, all the while our hearts are busily occupied with other things. The truth is, lip service is disservice. Are we about religion – going through the motions and checking the box – or are we about relationship with the Lord that is a living and vibrant thing? We can easily fall into the trap of teaching man-made tradition instead of the liberating truth of the Word of God. The uncleanness, the defilement, is not “out there” somewhere. It is here in our own hearts. As the psalmist writes, and as we spoke together: “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2-3).
Try as we might, we cannot wash away the defilement that stains our hearts. That is something only God can do, and the good news is that in Christ Jesus God has done this for us. Through the cleansing blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross, we have been washed clean and given a new heart. It’s interesting to note that the major word used by Mark to describe how the religious leaders washed their hands, pots, and pans is the very same word the New Testament uses to describe how God washes and cleans us. That word is Baptism (βαπτσμοΰς, Mark 7:3-4). What mere ritual washing or clean living could never do, God has done for us in this washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit that is holy Baptism (Titus 3:5). God himself has made us acceptable and pleasing to himself, declaring us to be clean within and without through Baptism. This is so because in Baptism we have been joined together into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3ff.). Jesus is only One who has ever lived that “good, clean life” before God, and yet Jesus chose to exchange his purity as the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and take upon himself the dirt and filth of our unclean hearts and unclean living. All that Jesus has done comes to us through the cleansing waters of Baptism. It is pure gift. We cannot buy this gift, and we don’t earn it through good behavior or exemplary living. It is God’s gift to each one of us.
Over against whatever traditions we may have, this truth must stand above them all. May the Lord God help us to hold fast and treasure this saving truth always. Amen.