Monday, September 3, 2012

“Skin Deep or from the Heart?”

Pastor John R. Wiuff
Sept. 2, 2012
Mark 7:1-8

An avid sports fan Tom Pech of Oshkosh was asked before the library board meeting if he planned to attend the Packer-Lion game at Green Bay come Sunday. His reply? "Is the Pope Catholic?"
The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern in November 1969

Like an unquestioned fact, the Pope's Catholicism must be considered beyond doubt - hence the ironic humor in merely asking the question. Apart from the occasional dissident Catholic writer who might ask the question provocatively in order to make a theological point, no one would actually ask the question seriously.

What if the Pope didn’t have a story about how he became Catholic? Would anyone take that as evidence that he’s not really Catholic? If I were to ask, “is the Pope really a Catholic?” no one would answer with his conversion story. The evidence isn’t a story about how he chose Catholicism but certain acts or facts that would count as evidence.

Any Catholic male who has reached the age of reason can be elected Pope (woman cannot become Pope because they cannot be ordained as priests). In practice, one of the cardinals in the conclave is elected as the new Pope. (The last non-cardinal elected Pope was Urban VI in 1379). If a Pope is not a bishop, then he will have to be consecrated as a bishop prior to becoming Pope. Technically, a non-Catholic male could be elected Pope, but he would have to be immediately converted to Catholicism, ordained as a priest, and consecrated as a bishop before becoming Pope. However, this is extremely unlikely.

The new pope also has to be able to speak Italian and must be under the age of 80 years old. Most of the cardinals in the conclave can speak Italian. None of these things means that the Pope is a true Christian. He can be truly Catholic but fail to be a real Christian in his heart even though he may be considered the head of the Christian church on earth.

Religion and traditions have been used to identify people and their beliefs since the beginning of time. You might say the first act of violence was over religious traditions between Cane and Able. We have been fighting ever since about what is the right tradition to follow and which makes us a real follower of Christ.

If our faith does not go beyond the surface of the skin it will never be real or true. A tradition that is worn does not necessarily reflect the inner faith that comes from the heart.

The proud always claim to be humble; liars plead innocence; and thief’s protest that they are the victim. Should it surprise us that the religious claim a sincere heart felt faith and love of God? How do we know that our faith is more than skin deep? How do we know that we are being led by the flow of the Holy Spirit from the heart? That is the question that Jesus takes up in our Bible lesson today.

1. The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2. saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. 3. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
Mark 7:1-8

Why do you wash your hands? Do you wash your hands? The number one rule for health all over the earth is to wash your hands on a regular basis especially before eating or handling food. With the start of school next week the spread of disease will rapidly increase as children gather, infect each other, and bring it home. This happens every fall and the first line of defense is the parents lecture: “Wash your hands!”

Most of us have been told that we should do something without know why we should. The generation before us simply told us to do something and didn’t take time to explain why it would be a great idea. Going to church, not getting drunk, and keeping sex for marriage are some of the great warnings given to us by our ancestors along with washing our hands. But we have been busy ignoring anything that was not explained or justified as some sort of silly rule.

This has become the anti-religion movement in America today. We are being told that we must choose between Religion and Faith as if they are incompatible. I’m sorry but that seems as silly as choosing to not wash your hands because “…it is a ritual lacking any meaningful purpose. Even if the medical community tells me that some invisible force is out there ready to kill me if I don’t wash, I can still choose to follow what I want to believe and feel in my heart. Some days I may just not want to wash.” (note: irony implied).

Part of us just doesn’t want to do something because we were told by our parents that this would be best. Just being a good child that is obedient seems like an unacceptable option to a questioning rebellious child. We see the pit fall of both and we believe the rebellious skeptic is just safe because we are in control.

In this passage the Pharisees have reduced the instruction to wash to a ritual that defines the worthiness of people rather than God’s original intent. You can’t really blame them or call them silly. We all need to be threatened by people in authority once in awhile to keep us from harming ourselves and others. Yet threats and “Because I said so” will not satisfy any of us for long.

So much of our lives are lived out of rules because someone told us so and that’s the way it’s always been done. There is always someone standing near by watching and evaluating us on whether we keep the rules and traditions. This is the way we raise our children and manage industries.

We see someone do something and we think we know what it means. They “saw some of the disciples eating food with hands that were ‘unclean.’”

So first we must ask what is the issue here: is it being ‘clean’ or following tradition?

5. So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
Mark 7:1-8

The answer given by the religious is the tradition more than being ‘clean.’ They would argue that we are kept clean in the eyes of God by following the traditions of men. Tradition is the measurement of clean and therefore more important.

Do we live by tradition? Do we argue that it is tradition that keeps us clean and therefore more important as a standard to achieve a desired result? Many Christians don’t like to associate with the Pharisees as being hypocritical religious zealots. The truth is that most of us live out of tradition rather than understanding and devotion to Christ.

I have encountered this at the most basic level throughout my ministry no matter where I am or who I am talking with. This week I had several conversations with Christians who did not know the reason why Jesus had to die on the cross so I could be forgiven. They knew they were supposed to forgive others, but when asked how the Bible defines forgiveness they could not answer. This is a profound example of how we get by on tradition without understanding.

Does saying the words: “Jesus forgive me…” and recognizing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God save us from sin, and hell while making us clean in God’s eyes? The answer is ‘NO!’ If we are just saying the words and following a formula given to us by another, we will find that tradition will land us on the wrong side of the sorting in heaven.

21. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23. Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Matthew 7:21-23

When we receive forgiveness beyond tradition we realize that we must have a Godly remorse in our hearts in order to have a God inspired joy. Just knowing about Christ and forgiveness is not the same as being know by Christ and experiencing a real spiritual cleansing of our souls.

Don’t let tradition keep you from knowing Christ. Assume you don’t know before you jump to the conclusion that you do know.

6. He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7. They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
8. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
Mark 7:1-8

I am sure that the religious teachers of that day would be shocked to be accused by Christ in this way. They knew and taught about the importance of obedience to God and the following of tradition. What they did not understand is the nature of the heart.

Some of us believe that if we change how we act we can change the nature of our hearts. Changing behavior and environments does not change a heart. Wanting to do better and trying to do better will not make us better. The idea that the problem exists outside of heart and can be fixed there is to totally misunderstand the gospel message.

Jesus came to teach us that the problem is in our hearts and not in anything external. That does not sound very encouraging because we all know that we can do more about our situation than we can change our hearts. All the forces of social reform, psychology, and good intentions are helpless in changing the nature of a person’s heart. If we are bent to sin and rebellion we rename it as personal choice and social reform. We know it is easier to rename something than to change it. We now claim the sexual sin is as fixed as gender in the heart of a person and can not be changed. We are surrendering to the unchanging heart and learning to live with all its faults and failings.

Miracles of miracles this is exactly what Jesus insists must change. The heart is something we don’t change but an organ that is changed from the inside out as we begin with facing some simple truths like sin, Godly remorse, and repentance. Our hearts are changed when they are touched by the Love of God and His sweet forgiveness. The hardness of hearts is transformed and shaped by the Master by believing, trusting and risking everything on the Word of God.

The Lord wants our hearts before He wants our lips. Even in saying this, many don’t know what it means beyond the tradition of the church, so let me break it down we can understand with our heads before we understand with our hearts.

When the word of God says ‘heart’ it means technically: soul. Soul is not a style of music in the Bible. Soul specifically means the way an individual reasons, feels, and most importantly chooses. When Christ wants a change of heart it is not simply a matter of feelings. Some people think they love God with their heart when the feel something in a worship service. Others can be intellectuals like me thinking that understanding God’s instructions and reasoning through the rational for His instructions is the change we need in our hearts.

The main issue with our hearts is not our feelings or our intelligence, although they are important and often flawed. The part God really wants to reach, the game changer to every part of our lives is our will. Will power, the ability to make a choice and hold to that choice no matter the cost, the reasons, or how we feel is the key to a changed life.

Our will is too weak and broken to be reliable. When we surrender our will to God He strengthens it and gives it the power to rule over our minds, emotions, and even our bodies. We live in a world of weak willed people who find it impossible to allow God into that level of their heart. Yet this is the very place God must be worshiped, loved and obeyed. Nothing else will do. We have been conditioned to surrender our will to desires, temptations and emotions, but the one person we could surrender to that would make a difference we avoid.

God wants your heart and that means He wants your will above everything else. How do we give Him our will? We choose. We choose with an unshakeable resolve to follow Him and to obey God no matter the cost. Even if we fall we choose now to get up and keep following. When we make that choice our emotions will follow and we will find an passion for pleasing Father God which will be greater than any other passion. When we make that choice we will find that our minds are sharper, better able to make sense of the world around us. Life will make sense again and there will be a purpose in everything we do, but we must begin with that choice deep in our heart. Not only will we understand why we need to be clean and how to be clean…we will want to be clean in the sight of Father God.

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