Sunday, August 30, 2015

Understanding Faith

[This was shared during worship this morning with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio.]

Mark 7:14-23
Our gospel lesson for this morning opens with these words: “Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this…’” 

The word in the Greek in which Mark first wrote that is translated as understand is σύνεσις. It has nothing to do with intellectual firepower. It has the idea of getting with a fact. Here, Jesus wants the crowd to "get with" what He wants to convey to them, something even a little child can understand.

Now, Jesus spoke these words on the heels of the incident that occupied last Sunday’s gospel lesson, when Jesus scorned the Pharisees and teachers of the law for laying human laws on people and turning salvation from God into a contract in which they said, “If I engage in these human traditions, God has to give me what I want.” But in response to the Pharisees' and the scribes' supposed piety, Jesus said: “You turn your backs on God’s commandments in favor of your own traditions."

Having made His point, Jesus is done with the Pharisees and the scribes and, we're told, calls the crowd to Himself. 

Jesus was always being followed by crowds. They weren’t His followers, although some would eventually come follow Him maybe. The crowds were the were the curious. They were curious about this Man Who claimed to be God, Who performed miracles, and set people free to know God.

The Pharisees and scribes hadn’t understood Jesus’ teaching, because they hadn’t wanted to. They exemplified a truth about which writer Upton Sinclair once said, “"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it." 

Jesus doesn’t force God’s truth on people. 

He doesn’t force salvation on anyone. 

Each person, one at a time, must either receive Christ as God and Savior or not. And they must keep receiving Jesus or not every day, which is why Martin Luther says that the lifestyle of a believer in Christ is daily repentance and renewal. 

But no person will receive Christ as Savior if they do not first understand the difference between religion, which is what the Pharisees practiced, and faith, which is what Jesus offers all of us.

Faith is nothing but total trust in Jesus as God, Lord, Savior, and King

Faith is trusting that the God Who took on human flesh, died as He took on the punishment we all deserve for our sins, and rose so that all who believe in Christ, surrendering their lives and wills to Him have life with God that never ends. This is what Jesus wanted the crowds to know, understand, experience, and live.

So, Jesus calls the crowd together and says--I'm paraphrasing here: “I want you to understand that you don’t have to go through some ritual purification ceremony every time you eat. That’s not what a relationship with God is about.” So, as we’ve noted, Jesus called the crowd together and said, “...understand this. 'Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.'” 

Whatever physical dirt may accidentally enter our mouths when we eat is not going to destroy our relationship with God. It’s the unclean things that come out of a human being, the sin that emanates from them that defiles them, that declares independence from God and His moral law for all humanity, that drives a wedge in our relationships with God and others

Don’t worry about performing all these ritual laws that the Pharisees give you, Jesus was telling the crowd. Be more concerned about what the sin already inside of you can incite you to do and say and obsess over absent the Lordship of Jesus over your life!

In verse 17, we’re told that Jesus left the crowd and went into “the house.” Jesus has now left the curious crowds and is huddled with the Church, the people who follow Him, believe in Him. It's exactly what's happening now as we worship, gathered in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Now we know that Jesus is both true God and true man. So, He always understands what's going on inside of us better than we ourselves don But if Jesus had entertained any notion that the disciples in the house understood His teaching any better than the crowd, He would have been quickly disabused of the notion. We're told: “...his disciples asked him about this parable [the short parable about what goes into a stomach not defiling a person].” 

Jesus' response to the disciples is classic. Verse 18: “‘Are you so dull?’ [Literally, Jesus asks the disciples, ‘Thus are you also without understanding?’] Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” 

And then Jesus speaks in terms that any of us can understand. Verse 20: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

As I read these words of Jesus, I must ask myself, “Do I look like a person whose life has been and is being transformed by the grace that comes to those with faith in Christ?” Or, “Do I look like a person who goes through the religious motions? I come to worship. (Heck, I even lead worship.) I recite the Creeds. I say the Lord’s Prayer. I periodically help at Saint Vincent’s. I say prayers. But is my heart with Jesus? Is my will with Jesus? Is Jesus my all and all?

Surveys in recent years show that the attitudes of Christians regarding some of the sins that Jesus lists--sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, and so on--are indistinguishable from the attitudes of the surrounding culture. Christians pretty much commit the same sins as their non-Christian neighbors. But they feel OK about it because on the Sundays they’re in worship, they mumble a few words of confession. And, after all, as our Lutheran pastors always remind us, we’re all sinners; we’re just sinners who are saved by grace through faith in Christ. So, many Christians think, it’s all good. 

The demonic character in one of George Bernard Shaw’s plays could act as the spokesmen for many: “I love to sin. God loves to forgive sin. It really is an admirable system.”

This way of thinking is really just another new human commandment. This command says: “Give Jesus, really the idea of Jesus, your intellectual assent. Confess that, ‘Jesus is a nice guy’ and you get heavenly fire insurance against the flames of hell. You get a ‘Pass Go, Get Out of Jail Free’ card.” 

But guess what goes untouched with this human command? The very thing that Jesus came to change: Our hearts, not that organ in our chests that pumps out blood, but the seat of our wills, where we decide how to live our lives, the heart that lies within us that causes us to sin

Jesus came to change our hearts, to change our very beings. He came to transform us from the inside out so that in this life, however imperfectly, we seek to follow Him, do God’s will (even when we don’t want to), love God, love others, and help others to know Jesus too. He came to transform us from the inside out so that in the life to come, God will give us a completely new life in Him, where all that exists on the inside and on the outside is a heart and a life devoid of sin, covered and filled with the purity and love and power of God.

Jesus’s words today confront us with a choice about what we want. 

Do we want human traditions that make us look clean on the outside but leave us dirty and far from God on the inside, where we live? 

Or do we want a relationship with Jesus, God revealed to all the world, a relationship that brings us to life, that helps us move away from superficial religiosity toward becoming the people we were made to be: people of love, hope, and integrity

The better choice should be obvious. God help us all--God help me--to make the right choice, to completely and unreservedly throw in with Jesus, each day and always. Amen 

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