On Keeping Our Means and End Straight

From the archives. Sermon delivered on Sunday, August 30, 2009.

Lectionary texts: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“For it is from…the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:22-23). With these words, Jesus cuts to the heart of the human condition, wouldn’t you say? Have any of you been guilty of one or more of the above “dirty dozen” that Jesus lists? I know this will come as a shock to you, but I am a multiple repeat offender, much to my shame and dismay. And if any of you are thinking at this point, “Well, I have only committed one or two of those sins,” or “I look like a saint compared to Fr. Kevin,” if your particular sin isn’t pride, you just might want to add that to your list because only pride drives us to compare our righteousness and shortcomings with others.

Jesus, of course, was responding to criticism lodged against his disciples by the Pharisees. To our ears, and with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, this criticism sounds trivial and petty. But to the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, among whom were the Pharisees, this was no trivial matter. For them, the issue of ceremonial washing had nothing to do with hygiene. Instead, it was a human tradition that had developed centuries before to help remind the Jews that they were God’s elect, God’s chosen people, and therefore they had to keep themselves separated from others to avoid being defiled or contaminated by them. Ceremonial hand washing was one way to do that. It seems that they had forgotten the second part of God’s promise to Abraham, that God would bless them so that they could be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2-3). Now before we get all uppity about this, I would remind us that we as Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church have not always been a blessing to others despite enjoying his many blessings. You see, the beat of the human condition goes on.

And true to the human condition—which usually gravitates toward getting it wrong or taking something good and distorting it into something bad, like ceremonial washing—came the mistaken notion that holiness, being God’s called out people, was a result of doing external acts. In other words, one’s works made one holy and righteous. Consequently, many of the traditions and ceremonies practiced by the religious authorities in Jesus’ day had been turned upside down. You see, the religious leaders had confused the means (the various traditions) and the end (personal holiness), and Jesus called them on it.

In challenging the Pharisees and their traditions, Jesus was not condemning religious traditions and practices as such. What he was challenging was the notion that engaging in the traditions makes folks holy. In other words he was telling them (and us) not to confuse our means and our ends. Jesus reminded his adversaries (and us) that our root problem is internal (who we are), not external (what we do). When Jesus said that evil intentions come from the heart he meant that they come from within our very core personalities. Folks in the ancient world used the term, “heart” to refer to both mind and the essential person, not just feelings. The problem, Jesus tells us, is us. Change the heart and you will change what you do. But here’s the catch: By our own power we are unable to change our hearts! We are trapped!

Now despite the claim of some that we humans have made much progress over time, the truth is that while our science and technologies have gotten more sophisticated, the human condition has essentially remained unchanged. Want proof? Who among us does not know folks, either personally or vicariously, who collectively have committed each of the “dirty dozen” Jesus listed? A quick read from last week’s news can just about cover the whole list. We may be more sophisticated in how we commit our sins these days, but the fact remains that we all still commit them, and that hasn’t changed since the Garden of Eden.

At this point some of you might be saying to yourselves, “Wow, Fr. Kevin! What an uplifting sermon! Preach it, baby!” Hang with me, please, because Good News is on the way. For you see, what is impossible for humans to fix is not for God (Mark 10:26-27). God knows that we humans cannot fix ourselves, even though we spend a lot of time trying to fix each other, and from all eternity has had a plan to address the problem of our sinful hearts. He has taken on our flesh, lived among us, died a terrible and cruel death on our behalf so that his holy and perfect justice could be satisfied, and given us our one and only chance to live with him forever. In Christ’s death, we are declared as “not guilty” in God’s eyes. This is what the NT writers mean by being “justified.”

But the Good News doesn’t stop there because Jesus has promised to send us his Holy Spirit to help us in our daily struggles and to transform us to become more like him as we await his Second Coming to finish the redemptive work he started on the cross (see, e.g., John 14-16; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Timothy 1:14). All of this is a free gift of grace and it is ours for the taking if we but accept it by faith. For you see, God knows we cannot make ourselves holy; the problem of sin is too deeply rooted in us, it is an inoperable cancer so to speak, and so he has acted decisively on our behalf to do something about it.

If we understand this simple but profound truth, that sin is deeply rooted in us and we are helpless on our own to overcome it except by the help of the Holy Spirit living in us, we are beginning to get our means and end in proper order. If we want to live with God forever, we must first accept by faith his free gift to us in Jesus Christ and then be humble and open enough to allow his Holy Spirit to live and work in and through us to help us put to death those things which defile us and make us unacceptable in God’s sight.

So what would be an appropriate response to this free gift of God to us? Imagine you got the gift of your dreams. What would be your response? It would likely be one of profound gratitude toward the giver and you hopefully would want to do anything in your reasonable power to please that person for giving you the gift. This is precisely what James is telling us in today’s epistle lesson. He reminds us that God is unchanging and ever Good. He tells us that God has given us a priceless gift of Jesus Christ so that we can live with him forever, even when not one of us deserves it. And what should be our response according to James? It should be a changed life, a life pleasing to God, a holy life.

Here is the critical point I want you to see. James is telling us (and Paul and our Lord Jesus himself would agree) that our faith must translate into action, by what we DO. But our DOING does not make us holy. God has already done that in Christ and is even now working in us to root out our sin and transform us into his likeness. We DO out of love and gratitude for God for what he has done for us. For example, if we profess to love our spouses, that love would not translate into beating them every day, would it? Instead, we would seek to make our spouses happy by doing things we know that are pleasing and wholesome to them. Likewise we should live our lives for the One who loved us and gave himself for us out of love and gratitude for what he has done for us.

This emphasis on holy living, is very Anglican, BTW. If you go back and read any of the great Anglican theologians’ works, you will see this common thread of holy living running through their writings. Like our Lord and James, they understood we are far too corrupt to ever earn God’s favor. Instead, they understood that God has already taken care of the problem of human sin. For those of us who have accepted God’s free gift, our gratitude should be manifested in changed lives and good works, i.e., in a life that is pleasing to God.

In today’s world of anything goes, this, of course, is not an easy thing to do. For example did you notice in the “dirty dozen” that three of them were related to sex? Given the increasing permissiveness of our society, it doesn’t take too much of an imagination to predict the kind of reaction we will get if we profess publicly a biblical standard of sexuality, one that advocates abstinence outside the context of marriage. Try it sometime. You will likely be branded as being narrow-minded, a prude, or worse. But if we intend to live a holy life, one pleasing to God, we must be prepared to live counter-culturally and according to God’s standards, not our own, something that is never easy to do in any day or age.

So what does all this have to do with fellowship, you ask? Just this. While it is true that only God can transform us and heal our evil hearts, the fact is we are flesh and blood and need human support as he does so. Thankfully God understands this and has given us small group fellowship as a means of grace to help him work in and through us to transform us into the beings he created us to be.

When we submit to small group fellowship we allow ourselves to be held accountable to one another and God can use this accountability to help us grow in grace. For example, are we encouraging each other to read our Bibles and pray daily so that we have a better understanding of what it means to live a life pleasing to God? If we are, then we do not pray and read the Bible daily because we “have to,” but because we want to so that we can better understand the mind of God for us and our lives. Are we teaching each other and learning the principles of holy living? Are we helping each other in our struggles and temptations and celebrating our victories together? Are we consoling each other in our defeats and losses? Are we asking each other what God is calling us to do in our daily lives, and whether we are following his call? These are some ways that can help us keep our means and end straight and grow in grace. And an even more fundamental question to ask ourselves is this: do we love God enough to even want to do any of this? The extent to which you answer this question honestly will give you keen insight into the nature of your relationship with the Living Lord.

Make no mistake. It is Christ and Christ alone who has the power to heal and transform us. There is nothing we can do that will change our hearts inclined to evil except to appropriate the free gift that is given us in Jesus Christ. He has taken care of our future by taking on our flesh, dying for us, and giving us his Holy Spirit to be with us so that he can help us become more like him. He has also given us small group fellowship to help remind us that he is doing all that for us so that we can keep our means and end straight. That’s good news folks, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.