The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s134g06 Sunday 22 St Barnabas' East Orange 3/9/06
'why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?' Mark 7.5
We can assume from the stridency of Jesus' answer that this question was not asked in a spirit of idle intellectual enquiry but in a spirit of criticism. There is a fairly unsubtle implication that Jesus, as a religious teacher, was being negligent in his training of others. They thought that they could unsettle Jesus and get him to get these others to do what they want. And I reflect that so often our prayers are to get God to get others to do what we want .. I would not even begin to try to count the number of times in the last 30 odd years, various people have wanted me to get others to do what they want! This is the basis of my reason for having notices in pew bulletins, parish papers, notice boards or at morning tea, but never by me during worship.
These people who questioned Jesus exempted themselves from actual responsibility, for they ask not: 'why do your disciples not live according to our traditions?' In their question they throw the responsibility on others on the traditions of the elders. This has echoes on the 'faith once delivered to the saints' that we are supposed to replicate unaltered down the centuries. Don't blame us, blame the elders, blame the tradition. It exempts us from having to think or be creative. All we have to do is comply and others ought to comply also, no matter what. Any consideration of the work of the grace of God seems immaterial.
It is salutary to recognise that the founder of our faith was accused of permitting deviations from the faith once delivered to their elders. There is no point in asserting that the tradition from which Jesus allowed deviation was wrong whereas our tradition is right. Replacing one rigidity with another both at the expense of others is hardly a message that would have got Jesus killed.
I reflect that Jesus had no particular message to people as to how to be a follower except that we are to love others. Some may have a faith with lots of rules and regulations whereas the faith of others is far more eclectic.
Some of my liberal colleagues are distressed that it seems the rather more 'hard line' expressions of our faith are attracting many more people than the liberal expressions. It seems as if those who have a definite message, a message that seems to stress the difference Christians are to other people are becoming more popular. If we are to believe the reports, it is in Africa that the Anglican Church is growing most prolifically where there is a spirit of competition between the Christian and the Moslem faiths.
Australia, along with many western countries are finding that people have deserted the church in droves. I suspect that this began with the sexual revolution and the wide availability of the contraceptive pill and other methods of birth control. This was compounded by the advent of television and Hollywood actresses who divorced and remarried, very publicly, numerous times. (Funny that the exploits of their partners seemed to attract less attention!) People began to realize that God didn't strike these people dead, and so that some of peoples' fears were lessened. People began to think that they were able to leave abusive relationships, and women began to realize that there was the possibility of something other than having a succession of babies. Secularisation and liberalism are seen by traditionalists as the worst enemies of the Church.
However I wonder if the liberals ought to be distressed. The report of the opposition to Jesus was that his disciples didn't follow the traditions of the elders, so we can be fairly certain that this is true. So I suspect that Jesus' followers still don't follow the traditions of the elders, particularly where people are marginalized and hurt by them.
I have said before that the religious faith that continues to cause most poverty, suffering and premature death throughout the world is not that of Osama bin Ladin or George W Bush, but those who prohibit the use of the contraceptive pill and condoms - many parts of the Christian Church but who would dare say this?
Of course there are going to be those who oppose this secularisation and liberalism and they might indeed be able to attract people in their thousands but the shear numbers of people who have lost their fear and have begun to use their brains will always outnumber them.
Jesus' followers are those who have been lifted to their feet, those whose primal dignity as humans to stand on their own two feet rather than grovel before the Almighty, and to use their God given brains, and we ought to rejoice for ourselves and for others that this is so. I do not want to return to life as it was before the 60's!
Sometimes as I have looked at this or that revival through the Church, I've seen them be great blessings to some quite large numbers of people. I was involved with the charismatic renewal after I was ordained, and more recently there has been the "Alpha' movement. But somehow, after this initial blessing they have quietly petered out. This has often left people bewildered and sometimes very guilty. Each of the various movements have sort of implicitly expected that there is a tradition to which others will be blessed if they adhere to it.
Now without being critical, I wouldn't worship a god who expected me to convert the world to follow a particular tradition, no matter how blessed I was by it. This god seems more like a hard task-master who inspires love in me only for what he or she can get out of me. And strangely enough, I can't see much biblical evidence for this. I see far more biblical evidence for God wanting us to love others, simply because they are our neighbours, simply because they are there.
So Christians have traditions, but traditions do not take precedence over people. People are not rejected through failure to comply with a tradition. Indeed if we look carefully we will find that a different tradition often illuminates something in our own. Christians are not subservient to traditions, traditions help people at various stages in life. In fact, of course, different traditions are helpful in different stages in life. Young teenagers, brimming with hormones, are not likely to enamoured with staid Anglican worship, which suits those who are more elderly. People who work on the land, hardly seeing many people through the day will look for something with a bit of fellowship attached. However those who deal with people each and every day will look to worship fairly privately. I recall in one country town I lived in, the doctor had to shop in a different town, lest people accost him in the aisles, asking his advise and no doubt the retailers would have not realized the reason and the doctor labelled as anti-social.
Last St Bartholomew's Day, the first reading for the morning office was from 2 Chronicles:
'a multitude of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, "The good LORD pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the LORD the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary's rules of cleanness." The LORD heard Hezekiah, and healed the people. .. The whole assembly of Judah, the priests and the Levites, and the whole assembly that came out of Israel, and the resident aliens who came out of the land of Israel, and the resident aliens who lived in Judah, rejoiced. There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem. Then the priests and the Levites stood up and blessed the people, and their voice was heard; their prayer came to his holy dwelling in heaven.' (30:18-20, 25-27)
So Christians continue to be people who do not live according to this or that tradition, and our society continues to be overrun with such people. It is the people who label only those who follow their tradition to be Christian, and who consequently realize the smallness of their minority and need to hear the words of the prophet Elisha who opens the eyes of his servant to see the multitudes: 'Do not be afraid, there are more with us than there are with them.' 2 Kings 6.16
May we rejoice that as Christians we are called to be creative and accepting of creativity, for this seems a much happier place to be that determining how everyone else will act and believe!
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