A Cleansing Ritual for Preachers

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Mark 7:1-23

7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

There are probably very few readers of this blog who don’t know of the work of the Jesus Seminar, a gathering of leading New Testament scholars who gathered, in the lead up to the Millennium, to evaluate the content of the canonical and apocryphal gospels in the light of emerging scholarship.  The seminar voted on the reliability and authenticity of the stories and saying attributed to Jesus by the compilers of the gospels.

One of the spin offs of the project is a very useful book by Robert W Funk and The Jesus Seminar entitled, “The Gospel of Jesus”.  It is a redaction of the material that the seminar deemed to be most likely the authentic sayings and stories from Jesus.

In my preparatory reading for preaching the gospel passage this week, I decided to reference the Gospel of Jesus. (It is chapter 14 for those who have a copy to hand).

What I discovered was interesting.  The following sections of Mark’s Gospel were deemed not to be authentic.

6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said,  21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It seems that at the core, the events and sayings of the passage are authentic.

What isn’t is the quotation of Isaiah as back up for the saying (6-7), the polemic against the Pharisees (8-11), the explanation of Jewish customs (11-13) (to be expected given the non-jewish audience of Mark) and the listing of what the actual evil intentions are (21-23).

As a preacher I find the superfluous material above particularly challenging.I realise that I am the better preacher when I present the message of Jesus as simply and contextually as possible.  I am, on the other hand, probably the least true to the kerygma (message) of Jesus, when I become polemical and argumentative, when I proof text to back me up, when I over explain everything, and when I presume to make lists of offences by which I judge others and encourage them to do the same.

After all isn’t that exactly the point of this passage in the first place!

The Feast of Christ the Comrade (Christ the King/Reign of Christ A)

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I am sure it has been done, but as I think of Christ the King this Sunday, I am intrigued to look at Jesus in a category beyond the traditional Jesus of Nazareth and History and the Christ of Doctrine and Faith. There is another character in this process that I would want to call Jesus the Brother and Guide, Jesus the Comrade.
As Theology has evolved in the past few decades, we have come to an understanding which goes beyond the search for the Historical Jesus.  This Jesus of history keeps eluding  us  despite the best efforts of scholars, including the work of the Jesus Seminar.
There is also, I suggest, a need for something more experiential than the Christ of Doctrine and Faith, the Christ of the catechism or confirmation class.

More and more people are suspicious of formulaic creeds and requisite confessions of faith as the conduits of their spiritual relationships. I suppose if we had been aware of where we were going as a theological community in the seventies and eighties, we would have interpreted the shift of the Liberation Theologians from Orthodoxy (correct beliefs) to Orthopraxis (correct practices) as the harbinger of the shift that I have just described.  We need more insight into Jesus beyond history and doctrine. This is the reason for my appeal for a third dimension to this hologram of Jesus, namely the Jesus of Experience, the Jesus as Brother and Guide.  Jesus the Comrade.

Without seeming to be a survivalist, I do think the church, as always, is failing to read the writing that has been on the wall for some time. People in the West are finding it more and more difficult to access the Jesus of the literalist who speaks in red letter quotations in their King James Version bibles. More and more thinking people who are awash with information from the new “river of life”, the internet; are saying of the holy books, “How did that come to be written as it is?” The answers are no longer hidden in the Old Boys clubs of Divinity Libraries, you can read it for yourself on Wikipedia.
Similarly the question is raised about the creeds that for generations have been the unquestioned bastions of belief. “Who said so?” say we post-moderns and all the resisting and crook and mitre rattling in the world, is not going to reconstruct what has been deconstructed.

One of the most delicious things I heard Richard Rohr say in Cape Town last year was, in response to a question from a Reformed minister as to how he coped with being a free thinking priest in the Roman Catholic Church? Richard responded, “When a structure is collapsing you don’t have to push it.” When the laughter died down, he continued, “In fact, you shouldn’t even touch it, lest you be hit by the oppositional energy that is propping it up” (I am quoting from oral memory here so may not have the “red letter” version of the saying).
All this stuff and nonsense from an largely irelevant church trying to lord it over the people with dogma and decrees is at best sad, and at worst insulting! It only serves to afford the ever Evangelical Richard Dawkins with a caricature of what a person of faith looks like.
A luddite and a laggard, too frightened to read and too stubborn to really think!

It is time that thinking people who follow Jesus say to those who choose to represent them, in this way,”No!”
To speak to the singular, free thinking, non-aligned and consequently, quite lonely people of today, we who have the task of communicating Good News will have to do better than quoting the Bible and Patristics! (even Matristics may not be enough)

I am not so convinced that ending the Christian Year by an appeal to Christus Pantocrator, or Christ the King is that skilful or even relevant.
People today find Kings and Queens quaint. Royals are at best wonderful distractions and when they plant trees up the aisles of Wesminster Cathedral they get a giggle, but they are not going to save us in from the terrors of the night and the toppling of all that we believed would be there forever.
That is why I am appealing for a new look at this Jesus. Not Jesus the King but Jesus the Comrade.

You see the King (or Queen- except the one from “the Village” or Soho…[if you don’t get it Dora, don’t worry just read on]) Ahem, let me start again.
The Monarch, is the one who sends you into battle, who commands and demands your loyalty without ever really standing with you and alongside you. Kings have blood on their hands but it isn’t theirs. This righteous, judgemental monarch, how does he in any way resemble the Jesus whom I meet in the dark nights of my despairing?

A Comrade however is far more real to a footsoldier like me. When I am in the trenches with mud up to my knees and pee running down my pants for terror of what lies over the top, it is the hand of the Comrade that steadies me, stills my shaking, and strikes up a “lucifer to light my fag”.
That’s who I need and want with me.

If I look closely at the Gospel for this Sunday I see not a distant detached King but a Comrade who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger who is naked sick and in prison. I know of few kings or queens who have first hand experience of that.
Jesus my Comrade is the one who comes to me when I am hungry even after my lovely home cooked meal, thirsty after my bottled Evian water, a stranger in my home town, naked in my designer labels and in prison whilst speeding down the freeway.

This is the Jesus who I believe will outlive the Jesus of History and The Christ of Dogma, not because those others are not interesting but because Comrade Jesus is more relevant.
How do we meet this Comrade Jesus? Well to be sure don’t look in the palaces and cathedrals.
You might even struggle to find him in church.
He will be found in the places of need. Those places where you hurt and others hurt and you are not afraid to be with pain, in pain and to hold it all in a secret com-passionate silence.
There remains for us to rediscover, (and it is a re-discovery) because this is not new, simply neglected; the mystical reality of the Jesus-Christ encounter which is unmediated and unmitigated by Creeds or Councils and which is able quite firmly to survive Cynicism too.

I am speaking of the personal encounter that is the potential of everyone who follows Jesus’ instruction to “when you pray, pray to your father in secret, and your father who hears in secret will reward you.” and then in counterpoint to understand , ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
So as this Christian year ends, excuse me if I don’t get too excited about your Imperial Christ the King, I am only four Advent weeks away from the Crib and I can smell the straw and the dung. That’s where my Comrade calls me to be.