**I just returned home after attending the annual Apprentice Gathering. This year’s theme was “The Joy of Kingdom Living,” and all the large group gatherings and workshops focused on the six traditions of Christian spirituality outlined by Richard Foster in his 1998 book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. In keeping with this year’s theme, I thought it might be worthwhile to post a series of sermons on the same subject I preached back in the spring of 2012. Each week during the series, I included a bulletin insert with some suggestions for trying the practices of each tradition, based on suggestions at the end of each chapter of Foster’s book. This is the second week’s sermon, on the Holiness Tradition.
April 22, 2012
What about the other 56/100?
Our look at the six major spiritual traditions of Christianity continues this week with the Holiness tradition. As I mentioned last week, the goal is always a balance, in which each of the six is a part of each Christian’s life, without having one carry excessive weight. And each one has its pitfalls, its potential problems if it is overemphasized or misunderstood.
Last week we examined the Contemplative stream of Christian spirituality, and we heard about ways in which people sometimes shut themselves off from the world and take devotion to prayer to an excessive extreme. Of course a deep prayer life is supposed to be the foundation of every Christian’s spirituality, but if it keeps us from living and serving, then we’ve taken it too far. Even men and women religious living in monastic houses don’t do that; in addition to prayer, each monk or nun spends time each day working at some task for the good of the community. And living in community means regular interaction with other human beings who will, more or less inevitably, get on one another’s nerves sometimes. Prayer is a very important part of such a life, but it isn’t the only part.
The stream of Christian spirituality we will look at today carries with it a danger that has cropped up many, many times through history. We tend to associate it with the Pharisees in the Bible, but it’s certainly not something limited to Pharisees, or even to Jews. It’s called legalism. Jesus continually railed against it among his fellow Jews, and if he were here today he’d probably say many of the same things to some of us who call ourselves his followers. That’s what happens in our story today, and it gives us a way to recognize what exactly holiness is, and what it is not…
Legalism has a twin, of course, which is “works-righteousness,” the erroneous belief that we can earn our salvation through our own behavior. Because we’re human, that’s a project that is doomed from the start. All we get when we decide that religion is solely about the rules we must follow, or determine that following those rules diligently is what saves us, is failure and hopelessness—because we cannot do it, not perfectly. And I think a fair number of people tend to believe that observance of rules, even to the point of the idea that such observance is how we are saved, is what holiness is all about.
I suppose it’s easy for that misconception to crop up, since the holiness tradition is also sometimes called “the virtuous life.” Really, it is about good behavior… that just isn’t the starting point.
We see a little bit of what the holiness tradition is about in our text today. Jesus and his disciples are eating, and the Pharisees noticed that the disciples didn’t wash their hands first. This isn’t the kind of hand-washing our moms all told us to do before supper, to get rid of the general grime of the day. It was a ritual hand-washing, originally only required for priests, whose food came from the daily sacrifices at the Temple. Somewhere along the line the elders of the people, the ones who studied the Jewish Law and taught everyone else how to follow it in everyday life, had decided that it applied to everyone. But it wasn’t actually written that way in the Law itself…rather like the prohibitions of some Christian traditions against drinking any alcohol or dancing aren’t actually to be found in the Bible.
At any rate, the Pharisees and scribes ask one of those “Why do you…” questions that’s clearly not so much a request for information as an accusation; but Jesus comes right back to them with one of their own. And he points out one of the biggest dangers of legalism: it’s pretty much always selective, and (as he said in another place) focuses much more on the speck in the other person’s eye than on the plank in the accuser’s eye.
But the holiness tradition is not about legalism. It’s about purity. Wait… how is that better? you might ask. We’ve got some pretty big objections to the notion that any of us can be pure, too. First of all, we tend to think of purity as being about never sinning—which takes us back to that legalism we just rejected.
We also tend to think of it as relating mostly to sex. I could go into a huge number of reasons why I think tying the notion of purity to not having sex presents an excess of problems for us and our relationships to our bodies, but it’s not entirely germane this morning—except to say that’s not really what I’m talking about. The purity that is the basis for the virtuous life, the holy life, doesn’t come from abstaining from sex; it’s much bigger and much more all-encompassing. It’s also just as unattainable through human effort as perfection in keeping a list of religious rules.
The second part of our passage for today tells us about this purity, in sort of a roundabout way. After he rips into the Pharisees and scribes for quibbling about hand-washing while they toss their elderly parents into the street (which could be an exaggeration; as far as I know there’s no evidence that the practice Jesus condemns here was terribly widespread), Jesus goes into teaching mode. He calls the crowd, the people who have come to hear him teach, and says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” He says that what you put in your mouth goes through you, your body takes what it can use from it, and then what it can’t comes, to be graphic, out the other end.
What comes out of your mouth, on the other hand, comes from a deeper place. And what comes out of our mouths demonstrates, for all the world to see, our purity (or lack thereof) where it really matters. We can keep a bunch of rules about how and when we wash our hands, what we do and don’t eat, when we pray and the words we say, what we do and don’t do on Sundays… but those things don’t mean anything if they’re only skin-deep.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to do good; it doesn’t mean that our behavior doesn’t matter. But true virtue, true holiness, flows outward from a pure heart—that’s the kind of purity that is commended by Jesus in many places, as well as by his brother James in his letter further back in the New Testament.
As I said, though, it really isn’t any more attainable by our own effort than diligent keeping of some arbitrary set of rules is. Even so, it’s not impossible… and it demonstrates why, as we’ll see, the Christian spiritual life is at its best when it’s a balance of all six of the traditions that have come to us through Christian history, flowing out of the example of Jesus’ own life.
For the kind of purity of heart that results in a virtuous life, inward purity that manifests itself in moral and loving behavior, is really only possible as we, prayerfully, allow God to transform our hearts. We can’t do it on our own; we simply turn our hearts and our lives over to God and let God do the work. We do it every day—every hour, if that’s what it takes. And before too long, we discover that it’s no longer a struggle to do the right things; it’s automatic, because our hearts are no longer turned toward evil and nastiness.