“Nothing outside a person can defile him”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 14th Sunday After Pentecost + August 30, 2015

Texts: Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Confession: I preached on these same Bible passages last week at a friend’s church. But the sermon you’re about to hear is wholly different from that sermon for a whole lot of reasons: you’re a different church, God is doing something different here than God is doing over there…I could go on and on. But the biggest reason for all that is different between that sermon and this sermon is that between then and now I had a tiny revelation. (Thanks to Pr. Scott Jamieson’s preaching at the Church of Another Chance.)

I approached that sermon thinking about the gospel story like this: the Pharisees and scribes say to Jesus, “How can you let your disciples eat without washing their hands? That’s against our religion,” and Jesus says to them, “It’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, it’s what comes out.”

But that’s not exactly what Jesus says. It’s one of the meanings of what Jesus says, but the actual words are, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile him.” There is nothing outside of a person that by going in is able to defile him.

It’s just a little difference, but it totally changes the impact of what Jesus is saying — at least for me. If Jesus had said, “It’s not what goes in that defiles, it’s what comes out,” he still would have been calling for a big shift in thinking: stop worrying so much about all these outside rituals; pay attention to what’s going on inside. But in this way of telling the story, we just kind of brush past the outside things and on to the inside things. If the message hits home, the Pharisees and scribes will walk away with one question: What’s going on inside of me? They will mediate on what’s going on in their hearts, on how sincere their faith and their practices are.

But Jesus’s actual words are even more intense. They linger a little longer over our relationship to the things outside of us. He says the things outside of us don’t have the power to defile us. This is more than saying, “don’t worry so much about outside things.” This is making the bold claim: “What’s inside of you is stronger than whatever comes at you from the outside. The outside things have no power over the inside things.”

And this claim should make the scribes and the Pharisees and us, too, rethink how we relate to world and the people outside of us. We should walk away with two sets of questions: The first has to do with our deepest, driving intentions: What’s going on inside of me? Is that core part of me we call a heart, that firebox that holds all my intentions and desires — is that part of me truly seeking to follow God, or am I driven by something more worldly? And the second question is: If what comes at me from the outside does not have the power to defile me, but what comes out of me does have the power to defile me, how will I act? How will I relate to the people and the situations I encounter?

For one thing, we should stop making excuses for our own behavior. C. S. Lewis once wrote about his own struggle with the habit of blaming his actions on the outside things. He wrote:

When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected; I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? … The suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.[1]

When I first read that years ago, it stuck with me like I had a rock in my shoe. It’s sort of a modern re-telling of Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and scribes: What comes at you from the outside doesn’t make you into something you’re not. But what you do — especially when your guard is down — is probably a revelation of your most honest self.

But there’s some good news that comes trailing along after that bitter-tasting reminder. What is outside of us does not have power over what we do, and what we do does not have power over God. Our actions cannot make God stop loving us. God accepts us, sins and all, and even the most sincere and mature Christian saint is still a sinner in need of grace. We are always going to need forgiveness, and it is always going to be there for us.

But even Martin Luther said that having faith in God’s grace should change the way we act — but we’re not working on our own to make that happen. As the Holy Spirit gives us faith in God’s unconditional love, that love changes the deepest part of us. It changes our desires. It points our lives in the direction of that love. It changes the way we see ourselves. It changes the way we see others. And because our hearts are being transformed, our actions are being transformed, too.[2]

Our actions can help us see where we are still in need of God’s transforming power. If we notice, like C. S. Lewis did, that we’re often hurting other people with our impatience,  that can clue us in that we need to pray for God to help us learn patience. It’s not a matter of becoming watchdogs of our own actions; it’s a matter of tuning in to the gospel message that God loves us unconditionally, and that God loves those around us unconditionally, and of trusting that message more and more fully, more and more deeply, so that that message changes our very being.

Jesus’s teaching that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” — that should change the way we see the world in another way, too. The difference that believing in that statement makes is obvious in the differences between Jesus and the Pharisees.

The Pharisees lived like they needed to protect themselves from anything that might harm them. Throughout the gospels we see them putting up walls to keep people out. They wouldn’t eat with people who did not obey their traditions. They cast judgement on others for every little way that they broke the rules: we see that they judged Jesus’s disciples for eating without washing their hands, for picking the heads off of grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). They criticized Jesus for eating with sinners (Luke 5:27-32; 15:1-2) and for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). They were always on the lookout for contamination, so that they could cast it away.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live like that? They must have always been on the lookout, so that they could avoid anything that might have contaminated them. It sounds to me like a life chained to fear.

But Jesus believed that the things outside of him did not have power over who he was. He lived his life free from that fear. Free from the need to always protect himself or prove himself, he could go to the people who needed help. He could eat with the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. Rather than building walls made of judgement, he could open himself up in love.

I wonder where we stand on that spectrum from Pharisee to Jesus, from fear to faith, from self-preservation to hospitality. Are we focused on proving ourselves to be good, or are we living out of that somewhat reckless freedom that comes with knowing we are forgiven, and that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts? Are we focused on keeping ourselves safe, or can we take the risk of loving as Christ loves?

Of course there are ways in which the things outside of us can affect what’s going on inside of us. We can think of people around us who become “bad influences,” or of the way the everyday stresses of life can wear us down, or of how a tragedy can make us feel totally weak and exhausted. Sometimes the way we have been treated by other people makes us want or need to protect ourselves.

This is why we need to make sure we are constantly tapping back in to God’s love, the source of our strength. We see that Jesus himself did this habitually. Jesus surrounded himself with faithful friends (the disciples); Jesus frequently went off by himself to pray; Jesus took part in the rituals of his people. In the same way we should make a habit of participating in Christian community, of remembering our baptism and taking communion, of keeping personal practices that help us keep connected to the God who loves us and strengthens us, who guides us and transforms us.

We do all this for our own benefit, to keep living free from fear, free from anxiety about our own perfection. We do it to refill ourselves with the promises of God. And we also tap into God’s love for the sake of others, that we may be open rather than closed, vulnerable rather than defensive — that we may be less concerned with keeping ourselves safe, and more concerned with sharing the love God gives us.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 192.

[2] See Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian,” also called “Concerning Christian Liberty.”


God’s Love Changes Everything

Written for the Church of Another Chance, Davidson Co. Male Correctional Development Center, Nashville, TN + August 21, 2015

Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23

Before I start in on the preaching, I want to do a little activity. Everyone close your eyes for a moment. I’m going to say a word, and I want you to grab hold of the very first image that comes to your mind. The word is: Jesus.

What did you see?

Today I’m going to start off by telling a bit of the story of Martin Luther. Not Martin Luther King, Jr. – though his dad did get their name from Martin Luther. And as some of you might now, I’m a Lutheran, and this guy is where we get our name from, too. But anyway, I want to start telling Martin Luther’s story by talking about the image of Jesus that would have popped into his head when I asked him that question I just asked you.

I’m pretty sure this is the image that Luther would have seen, because this image was all over the place in Europe 500 years ago, which is when Luther lived. And it was right there in the yard of his church. It was a picture of Jesus sitting on a rainbow – which is almost too sweet and happy, like something you’d seen on a kid’s TV show. In one hand he holds a lily, which represents the resurrection and eternal life – still sounds pretty good. But in the other hand he’s got a sword, and that represents judgement and eternal suffering. So despite the rainbow and the flower, it wasn’t really a happy image: it was the image of the Christ the Judge. Its message was loud and clear: watch out, ‘cause he’s watching you. It terrified Luther, and he refused to look at it. But he could still see it inside his head.

Example from 15th c. France; the Beaune Altarpiece or “The Last Judgement” by Rogier van der Weyden

This was a time when most Christians were terrified about their eternal fate all the time. First of all, plague was wiping out lots of the population, pretty much without warning, so death felt even closer and more sudden than usual. And then the church’s message of salvation was focused on how people had to make up for their sins: by doing good works, by fasting, by giving money, all sorts of things. Salvation was like math, like accounting: you had to make sure your total number of good works was at least as high as your total number of mistakes or sins. If you were trying to figure out whether or not God accepted you, the common answer was, “Well, just try your best.”[1]

So Luther did. He was a monk who followed some really strict practices: praying all the time, forcing himself to stay up all night, or sleeping in the cold without a blanket, fasting so much he almost starved himself to death, even hurting himself. He spent hours – I’m talking, like, 6 hours at a time – confessing his sins to another monk, over and over. And this was a guy who spent all his time with other monks, or alone praying – so you have to wonder what sin was eating at him so badly. But no matter what he did, he never felt like was safe from that image of Christ the Judge.[2]

The man he was confessing to all the time finally told Luther to become a teacher at the local university, hoping that teaching would get his mind off of his own sin. And while Luther was studying the Bible so he could teach it to others, he discovered something: he kept finding parts of the Bible that said things like, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:15). Over and over again he read — right there in God’s Word — that humans aren’t saved by what they do; they’re saved by what God has already done. Luther realized that if he wanted to feel safe and accepted by God, he didn’t need to be constantly counting up how many good things he’d done and making sure that number was bigger than the number of sins he’d committed. He needed to have faith that God loved him and accepted him just as he was.

I wanted to tell this story today, because I thought we could all relate. Almost every time I’ve been to worship here, someone has stood up during the Joys and Concerns and shared that he was struggling to forgive himself. He was struggling to believe that God really does love him and forgive them and accept him, even with his past, and even with his struggles and his weaknesses. And always, when someone is brave enough to share that burden, a lot of people in the room nod like they know exactly what he’s talking about. Like that’s exactly what they’re going through. And most of the time, I’m one of those people struggling to believe that God loves me even though I’ve sinned and just keep on sinning.

And this struggle, this doubt that we have in common with one another and with Luther and with so, so many people – this struggle can get even more difficult when we hear Bible passages like the ones we heard a few minutes ago.

We’re struggling to hold on to the faith that we are loved by God, that we are saved by God, even though we do wrong; that what matters is faith, is trusting in what God has done, not what we do or don’t do. And then we hear that first reading, from the letter of James, and he is talking all about actions, about what we do. “Be doers of the word,” he says. If our religion is true and right before God, he says, our religion is to “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.” He defines good Christian faith by what we do. In fact in the next chapter he asks, “What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” And he answers his own question: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14, 17).

So what do we do with that, when we believe that God loves us and accepts us regardless of how many mistakes we make, of how many outright-bad things we do, and even regardless of how many good things we do?

I’ll tell you what our friend Martin Luther did with that. He said, “Well, that book really shouldn’t be in the Bible. It’s got the wrong message.”

But I’ve got to disagree with him. And that’s because Jesus himself thinks that what we do is important.

Remember the passage from the book of Mark we heard a few minutes ago? Some really religious people come up to him and say, “How can you let your disciples eat without washing their hands? That’s against our religion!” And Jesus tells them, “It’s not what you take in that defiles you, that makes you unclean or unworthy; it’s what comes out of you.” And it’s tempting to say this is another case of Jesus saying, “Stop worrying so much about laws and actions and being perfectly obedient; spend all that energy thinking about what’s going on in your heart.” It’s tempting for us to end the story there, and say that Jesus wants us to stop thinking about works.  But Jesus is saying more than that. He’s saying that what comes out of us, that things we do, the words we say, the thoughts we think – all that matters. A lot.

But he says the people who were yelling at him for letting his disciples eat without washing their hands have got it backwards. We can’t do good things and obey traditions and quote the Bible and wash our hands and pray the perfect words and give money to charity and hope that all these actions will win God’s love and acceptance. That’s backwards.

We do good things because we know that God already loves us and accepts us. We resist evil because we know that God already loves and accepts us. Jesus says, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” And I think that means that it’s from the heart that good intentions come, too. The question isn’t, “If I do this, will God condemn me?” The question isn’t, “If I do this, will God accept me?” The question is: “If you know God already loves you – unconditionally loves you – what does it do to your heart?”

And this got me thinking about where sin comes from. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can offer my own testimony. I know that when I sin, or when I fall off the path, it’s not because I’m willingly disobeying God. My sin comes from my own brokenness. I do what my friends are doing, even if I know it’s wrong, because I want to be part of the group, I want to feel accepted and loved, and I have a hard time believing that I already have love and acceptance from God. Even when I fall into sin when I’m alone, it’s usually me trying to escape that voice in my head that’s telling me over and over: You’re not good enough. Nobody loves you. You’re worthless. But God’s love can heal that brokenness and break those patterns of sin.

God’s love can overpower all the times people have told you you’re not good enough to be loved and all things people have done to you that make you feel like you’re not good enough to be loved. God’s love can overpower that broken record in your head that says, “No one cares about me. I’m alone in this world, taking care of myself.” God’s love can overpower our past and the hold it has on us. God’s love can overpower all our defenses and our doubt and our anger and our fear, and God’s love can break in to our hearts. And when God’s love gets into our hearts, when that faith that God loves even me grabs hold of us – everything changes. God helps us to stop acting based on all those old feelings, and God helps us to start acting based on this love. Not only God’s love for us, for me, but God’s love for everyone. We’re not doing good things because we’re trying to please God or because we’re trying to show everyone how Christian we are – we’re doing good things because that’s what love does, that what God’s love makes us do.

I think that’s what James meant when he said, “Faith without works is dead.” James said if you hear the word, the message of God’s love, and don’t then become doers of God’s love, it’s like you didn’t actually hear the word. He says it’s like looking in a mirror, seeing that you made a mess while you were brushing your teeth and got this bright-green toothpaste all over your mouth, and then saying, “Lookin’ good!” and walking away. You got the message, but you didn’t get the message. It didn’t get inside you, it didn’t inspire you to change.

But if we get the message of God’s love and the saving power of Jesus Christ, then we’re going to change. But we don’t have to do it alone; God works with us and in us. Through our faith the Holy Spirit is always transforming us, making us new, and so our actions will always be changing. We’ll always be getting better and better at acting out of that love, of pouring that love we have back into the world through how we treat other people. And we’re probably still gonna sin sometimes. And we’re probably gonna fall off the right path a few times. But God will never give up on us, God’s never going to stop loving us, and God’s never going to stop transforming our hearts.

[1] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd ed., (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 56-58.

[2] Lindberg, 62.