Far be it from me to disagree with Jesus, but there are good reasons for washing hands and food before eating. The Gospel reading we have just heard is therefore one of those puzzling passages (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23). What is more we know that what we eat can affect our behaviour and our mental state. The chemicals can change our brains and so it can ‘defile’ and bring on all sorts of strange behaviours. And evil intent does not get into the heart without coming from somewhere else. People learn what they see and experience, and this changes us, be it from lacking the control to fight unhealthy passions and impulses, not having the strength of will or character to deal with these, or seeing as normal unhelpful ways of responding in situations and we could do with a better influence on us to help us learn a better way of responding.
Jesus is not actually talking about the psychological drives within us, or dietary balance for wellbeing and mental health, or basic food and personal hygiene. He is going deeper than this. He is challenging his hearers that words and rituals alone do not cut it or cover up when we are spiritually deficient. What is the tone and character that drives our thoughts and actions? Where are these really rooted? And here we enter one of those interconnected debates.
In the Hebrew faith, and we know it ourselves, rituals and actions can be a powerful force in shaping how we see the world. They reinforce through very subtle and powerful means what is important and have a symbolic function. So carrying the Gospel book in procession into the church at the beginning of a service says this book is important to us. But it only has any effect on us if we actually read it, mark it and inwardly digest it. Just carrying a book does not do much for us on its own. Saying certain prayers at certain times of the day or before meals or whenever, does not do much to us if it becomes formulaic and we are not really present in the moment that the words are said. Ritual alone may impose certain behaviour, or conformity, but it does not necessarily change our character, not on its own that is. It needs to be accompanied by a narrative, by a story and script that says this matters because… this is important because… we do this because it helps us see that this is where the sacred lies or it reinforces how to live in faithful trust. And that might be about the sanctity of life and every life, it might be that some functions and roles require respect and honour otherwise we have a deep problem.
Rituals pop up in all sorts of places. In court the judge holds the key position and is beyond contradiction. People stand when he or she comes into the room and the court is only in session when they are present. This affirms the absolute authority of law and that reinforces its importance for good order. Everyone must respect it and is subject to it. We have democratic processes to change the law and to challenge it if that is what we want to do. But in court we know that the judge has a role that places them in the seat where law is to be and is honoured. The judge, as a person, may well be flawed in various ways but they are expected to embody the law they uphold so that when they sit in that place there is integrity.
The same goes for clergy. While it is a longstanding principle that the efficacy of the sacraments is not dependent on the worthiness or unworthiness of the person who administers them, people want and expect to see reflected in them the standing they give to what they do. There has to be integrity, that they behave in a manner that is in tune with the gospel and ritual that is being espoused, all the usual limitations taken as read. So if there is a serious breach of trust there, then there are ways to deal with this. As with judges, they are expected to live in a way that reflects what they uphold. Integrity matters. The ritual and the character should match. The ritural on its own is not enough.
So ritual speaks of the character deep within what is being honoured and declared. It might also fulfill a practical function too – like washing hands and food – but the primary focus for Jesus in this passage is the meaning behind it. It is no use just washing things without making sure that we look at what might need cleansing deeper inside how we are. This is why Jesus called some of those leaders hypocrites and in other places ‘white washed tombs’, and they didn’t take kindly to him for that.
This was expressed further in the Epistle reading (James 1:17-27). Ridding ourselves of sordidness, rank growth in wickedness, and instead welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has power to save our souls. Being doers of the word, not merely hearers. How deep does this go? What is the fruit that evidences this? And how do we really strengthen the character of grace and truth so that it penetrates, seeps deeply into who we are? Well, there is no quick instant ‘Red Bull’ like way to achieve this. Energy drinks cover up something else – lack of sleep, lack of energy for other reasons – and offer a pretense that all is well and we can function at a certain level, when in reality we can’t. And as we have seen this week with proposals to ban high energy drinks being sold to children, what goes into a person from outside does indeed change them, because the chemicals affect the brain. So it is the affect that we are concerned with not just the outward action. How is a particular act affecting our character and how is this bearing fruit for us?
This is why the central ritual act in our church worship – the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of bread and wine – is an act of remembrance. Through and in it we don’t merely have magic food, a kind of spiritual Red Bull, but we are to remember through it and in it all that Jesus was, is, did and said: his life, his passion, his teaching, his resurrection and his affirmation of life in abundance. It is the whole act that counts, from opening greeting, through confession and absolution, songs of praise, words of hope, to prayer and blessing. Then we find, in the words at the end of the Epistle (v27), that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We are to be shaped by the Kingdom of God, which calls us to justice, hope and blessing, self-giving, thanksgiving and recognition that we serve a higher purpose than our own immediate gain. In calling to remembrance, this act becomes for us a moment to reinforce and reconnect with what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. May God give us grace to live the faith that lies behind everything that we do in ritual and for those rituals to be reminders for us of this vibrant and transforming faith. And don’t forget to wash your hands and food too!
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 2nd September 2018