Trinity 13: The flow of power is reversed
Mark 7 1-23 (with omissions)
Today we meet Jesus’ most persistent and regular antagonists, the Pharisees and the Scribes of Jerusalem…
when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands they found fault.
They are disputing about something that perhaps even Christians today barely even think about anymore. They’re disputing about defilement and purity. They’re disputing about how to be holy.
Today it would seem like a sin against good manners to point to someone as holy. The one pointed to would be an object of pity and the one who points is laughable, since he or she doesn’t seem to get the point, which is simply that if Christianity is have any staying power in the modern world it needs to get in line with conventional morality. This means affirming that it is best to be good but not too good, at least not so good as to interfere with our usefulness in society as consumers and workers.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews however wrote, Holiness, without which no one can ever see the Lord. The very first sermon in the eight volumes of John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons is called “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness” and he begins this sermon by quoting that line of Scripture. He asked his listeners why the New Testament made such a statement, and he answers; “even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.” It is not that God prevents the wicked from having eternal happiness: it is that they do not have a mind accustomed to heavenly things, and therefore they would be bored in heaven just as they are bored down here in church. Newman declares: “A careless, a sensual, an unbelieving mind, a mind destitute of the love and fear of God, with narrow views and earthly aims, a low standard of duty, and a benighted conscience, a mind contented with itself, and un-resigned to God’s will, would feel as little pleasure, at the last day, at the words, ‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord,’ as it does now at the words, ‘Let us pray.’ ”
If holiness is necessary for future blessedness let us attend to this dispute about how to be holy between Jesus and the Pharisees. What can we learn?
Preachers tend to be hard on the Pharisees. Do we see the difficulty they faced? They’re not cartoon villains. They were men—men who learned the right lesson but drew the wrong conclusion from the Law of Moses.
Under the Law of Moses, ritual defilement was intended as a kind of sign or shadow: to show us in our pride that we could not, by our own strength and power, keep ourselves clean from sin. The intended lesson: we need God to cleanse us through Christ.
But the Pharisees understood the Torah differently. They concluded they could find purity and sanctity in only one way: separation. Indeed, the word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “separate”. So they separated themselves from Gentiles, from touching the dead and dying, from lepers, and from the blood of women. Maybe they were right to see in these ritual prohibitions an image or sign of lifelessness. But they were wrong to conclude that by separating themselves they could avoid the sin which ritual uncleanness signifies. And so in an ironic way, they took the mirror of ritual uncleanness that God has given them in the Mosaic Law, and instead of seeing in it an image of their own uncleanness and defilement by sin, the turned it around and said to those around them, “See how unclean you are!”
The problem came when Jesus brought a higher revelation and a higher law: one that was capable of actually overcoming defilement.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus proclaims the New Law - on a mountain, like Moses on Mount Sinai. And in the Gospel of St Matthew when He comes down from the mountain He encounters one person after another who, under the Old Law, was defiling. He heals a leper. He could have just said, “Be healed!” (as He did when he healed the Roman centurion's servant). But instead, Jesus does something very deliberate and significant: he touches the leper.
Under the old Law, such an action meant you were ritually defiled and could not go up to the Temple to worship. You had to go through a whole week of purification. Uncleanness, sin, and defilement were more powerful influences than cleanness, sanctity, and purity. In the old Law, sin was the superior power. When someone afflicted with some ritual uncleanness that symbolizes sin touched someone who was clean, the ‘flow’ of power went in one direction only: the clean person was defiled but the unclean person was not sanctified.
But when Jesus touched the leper something astounding happened: the leper became clean and Jesus was not defiled. The flow of power was, for the first time, reversed.
Jesus turns the Pharisaic understanding of the Law around. He touches lepers and they are healed. He receives Gentiles and they receive faith. He spends time with demon-possessed people in a cemetery and they are restored. He permits the touch of a menstruating woman and she's healed. He touches a dead person and she is raised. He eats with tax collectors and sinners and makes them saints.
Yet, in all this, the Pharisees see only the ritual defilement, not the revolutionary reversal in the flow of power. Pride has blinded them. They are so certain they are clean they cannot say with the leper, Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. So they miss the crucial lesson that the time for separation is past. In Israel's childhood, separation from uncleanness and sin was necessary just as it is necessary for us to keep our children from ‘bad influences’, as I was saying last week. But with the dawn of the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the bad influences that are to be conquered with good ones, sin that is to be conquered with virtue, and death that is to be conquered with life.
Our Gospel today has been called the “discourse on defilement”. It reports a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees, about what is pure and impure. Jesus calls all the people listening to Him and He tells them:
Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.
The immediate question is about food, but the deeper assumption of the Pharisees is a permanent temptation for us too: to situate the origin of evil in an exterior cause. If we are caught doing something wrong we want to blame someone else, we want to blame our circumstances.
But evil actions do not have exclusively external roots; their origin lies in the human heart, where the seeds are found of a mysterious cooperation with evil. With bitterness the Psalmist recognises this: Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. We are weakened by an intense influence, which wounds our capacity to enter into communion with each other. As we come to know ourselves we within us a strange force of gravity that makes us turn in and affirm ourselves above and against others: this is egotism, the result of original sin. If we know ourselves then we know that this is true. As G. K. Chesterton once quipped, Original Sin is the only Christian doctrine that can really be proved. Adam and Eve were seduced by Satan’s lie. They snatched the mysterious fruit against the divine command. In so doing they replaced the logic of trusting in Love with that of suspicion and competition; the logic of receiving and trustfully expecting from the Other with anxiously seizing and doing on our own. They experienced, as a consequence, a sense of disquiet and uncertainty. How can we free ourselves from this selfish influence and open ourselves up to love?
But when Jesus touched the leper the leper became clean and Jesus was not defiled. The flow of power was reversed. He turned the Pharisaic understanding of the Law around. In our Gospel today He goes on to reinterprets holiness by interiorizing purity:
There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.
A person is defiled by what comes out of the person's inner being. Defilement or purity depends on our inner attitude. Holiness is not determined by rituals and rules. It depends on our hearts. Jesus criticizes of the legalistic teaching of the Pharisees:
Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
A person is holy as a result of honouring God and opening their heart to become a dwelling place to God. Holiness has to do with God's transformative relationship with humanity, as St Peter wrote:
Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behaviour; because it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy’.
Those who are called by God to become the body of Christ are therefore named as saints. They represent the new temple of God. In Jesus the Jewish holiness code is, therefore, also spiritualised. John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Those who seek to be holy will become saints in and through a relationship with Jesus. Where this happens, His holiness becomes our holiness. It is contagious: we too can live as saints, wholly devoted to God and the Holy One of God.
This reinterpretation would later on determine the early Christian approach to the old rituals and rules. They are no longer essential for being a Christian.
What about the ritual that we gather here every Sunday to celebrate then? What about the Eucharist? Why is that still essential for Christians?
In the Eucharist the same miracle takes place as when Jesus first touched and healed a leper and was not defiled. In the Eucharist, in Holy Communion, the holiness of Jesus becomes our holiness. We touch Jesus and our sinfulness, our impurity, does not make Him impure. His purity makes us pure. Defilement comes from within. But Holy Communion with Jesus can purify our hearts.
St. Augustine heard a voice from on high that said to him: “I am the food of grown men; grow, and you shall feed upon me; nor shall you change me, like the food of your flesh, into yourself, but you shall be changed into me.” It is not the Eucharistic food that is changed into us, but rather we who are mysteriously transformed by the Eucharist. We do not change Him. He changes us.
The Eucharist has the power to do this because the bread and the wine undergo a real change during consecration. Because the sacrament is a “divine thing” it has the power to communicate divinity to us. In the ancient church it was the custom that after receiving the Eucharist for the first time the newly baptised in many places would then also drink from a chalice filled with milk and honey. An ancient commentary explained that in partaking of the sacraments the Christian has arrived at the Promised Land. The land is not a geographical place. It is our own glorification in Christ. The Promised Land is our resurrection body, glorious with in-corruption and peace. The Eucharist is already realising this promise in us. Our very bodies are the destination, that is, when Christ’s resurrection will be fully manifest in us.
This is a journey in Christ will purify our hearts. He will sanctify us. He will overcome the defilement of our hearts. His miraculous power is at work and the journey has begun for each of on of us in our participation in the sacraments.
The Rev'd Dr James Lawson, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 29/08/2021