Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rules and Adiaphora

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

After our 5-week sojourn into the gospel of John, we return today to the gospel of Mark, and pick up reading it just about where we left off. Jesus has calmed the storm, healed a lot of people, fed thousands, and sent the disciples out to do ministry in his name.

He has done enough that the Pharisees and scribes leave Jerusalem for Galilee to check him out. They have heard he preaches and teaches and acts contrary to the traditions they uphold. In this case, they watch him and the disciples at a meal, and observe that they don’t wash their hands before eating. They watch and catch him red-handed – or maybe it’s dirty-handed. J

Hand washing is an important ritual in many religions. It is not about getting the mud or germs off so we don’t get sick. It has to do with coming before God with clean – therefore holy – hands. The Greek word translated as “defiled” has the sense of “common” as opposed to holy. So, for the Jews, the washing of hands was very important. Not washing them was an insult to God.

So … the Pharisees catch Jesus and the disciples eating with common, unwashed, unholy hands. They accuse him of not following the traditions of the elders. These traditions are based on the Ten Commandments, and the hundreds of rules listed in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. The Pharisees and scribes know them all, plus the oral, unwritten rules which interpret the written rules. Jesus knows them all, too, but does not allow the rules to override his concern for people.

Jesus knows that the rules were given to the Israelites by God, a sign and symbol of the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. Throughout the Old Testament, there are stories of how the people frequently strayed, worshiping other gods and not obeying their own God. The prophets warned that there would be consequences, and there were. First the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and then the Southern Kingdom, Judah, were conquered and the people scattered. The people of Judah were taken to Babylon.

This deportation, called the exile, was seen as punishment for their sins, and so once they returned to Judah, the leaders tried hard to keep themselves and the people in line. They wanted to make sure they never got punished again, so they developed rules which applied to every aspect of life. They were to be, as much as possible, a holy people of a holy God. Unfortunately, at times it seemed they worshiped the rules and not God.

Jesus’ ministry challenged the accepted standards of living as a Jew in his time. His intent was to make it clear that the rules were made to help people stay connected with God, not as an end in themselves. He accused the Pharisees of giving God lip-service, but not their hearts. They are more worried about the letter of the law, about obedience to all the rules, than they are about really pleasing God.

It’s easy to criticize the Pharisees. It’s clear to us that they just didn’t get it. But we too fall into the same traps. We all have our expectations and rules about how worship should be, but we need to be careful that our rules aren’t more important than our relationship with God.

For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, salvation involves remembering God’s saving actions in the Exodus, in taking the people from slavery in Egypt and into a land of their own. That salvation continued only if the people were obedient to God’s rules.

For Christians, salvation comes in the form of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the ongoing presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit plants in our hearts the gift of faith, which we simply accept. So, salvation comes from believing in Jesus.

We like to imagine that there are rules and regulations, requirements and strings attached to the gift, but there are no strings attached to the gift of God’s love and mercy. If we did a study of worship in the various denominations, and then the individual congregations within each denomination, we would discover that the rules and practices we have at Hope Lutheran are very different. Yet, God loves us all, just the same.

There is a word which describes this: adiaphora. In Greek, it means indifferent. The Christian tradition has adopted it to describe those things we do which are not necessary for salvation.

Believing in Jesus as God’s Son and our Savior, that’s necessary for our salvation. Lutherans say, “We are saved by grace through faith apart from works of the law.” That’s not adiaphora! However:

· If we play the organ or the piano or a guitar and drums, it’s adiaphora.

· If worship leaders wear robes or not, it’s adiaphora.

· If we read four Bible lessons or just one, it’s adiaphora.

· If we have one worship service or two, it’s adiaphora.

· If we use wafers, whole wheat bread, pita, or rice crackers for communion, it’s adiaphora. (I happen to prefer giving you a good-sized chunk of Jesus to chew on, but still, it’s adiaphora.)

· If we sit in the same seat each week or move around the sanctuary, it’s adiaphora.

· I’ll leave you to think of some more traditions which are adiaphora – you get the idea.

It really comes down to accepting the free gift of God’s love and mercy. It’s also a matter of not judging as wrong that which is different from what we prefer, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our salvation through Jesus Christ.

Returning now to the gospel passage, Jesus goes on to say that it’s not what goes into a person, but rather what comes out of a person that is clean or unclean. I remember a frequently used saying that when we point a finger at someone, there are three more fingers pointing back at us.

In Christian terms, if we wish to judge the heart of someone else, we must first examine our own hearts. How pure our own motives in judging someone else? Is it because they are putting us at risk? Is it because we care about them and want to help them? Or is it because we want them to be and think just like us?

Since we have already been saved by Jesus life, death and resurrection, and offer to God our belief, is it necessary that we even judge someone else? Or are their actions adiaphora? If our own hearts are focused on Jesus and what he wants for us, we will find we judge others less and seek God’s forgiveness more. But, here again, we need to be careful to not seek perfection in ourselves. We need only accept God’s non-judging love and mercy, the free gift of undeserved grace.

In recent weeks, I have challenged you to observe how much you pray, and to hopefully discover that you pray more than you think.

I have challenged you to observe when you put God first, and to make adjustments to how you live when you discover ways in which God is not first.

This week, as you pray and observe your own lives, also pay attention to how often you judge others by your own standards, not God’s standards. What is in your heart as you think about others? Is it hate or love? Is it anger and resentment or compassion? Is it judgment or acceptance?

I pray that as followers of Jesus, we are filled with love, compassion and acceptance, and see others through his eyes.

Please pray with me. Merciful God, it is so easy for us to judge others. Help us to remember that you are the only judge we need. Help us to be as merciful to others as you are to us. Amen