Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (B – Proper 16)
August 23, 2009
Text: Mark 7:1-13

“Wash your hands before you eat,” every good mother reminds her children. Sorry kids, this is not what Jesus rebukes in the Gospel lesson. In fact, to wash or not to wash is not the question here. If anything, in commending the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Mark 7:10; ESV), Jesus commands children to do as Mommy says. If Mom said, however, that you need to wash your hands before supper if you have any hope to be saved, or to merit righteousness before God, then Jesus would condemn Mom as a false teacher, teaching as commandments of God the traditions of men. And that’s the issue in our text. The Pharisees were teaching as commandments of God what were merely the traditions of men. And they taught that one merited righteousness before God by observing such traditions. They taught that these traditions should be observed for salvation. And such teaching is the very teaching of the devil himself, a lie that assaults the one true faith that we are saved by Jesus’ blood and righteousness alone.

Tradition is not bad, any more than hand washing is bad. As a matter of fact, tradition can be a very good thing. We love the family traditions we observe on Thanksgiving or Christmas or the other holidays. My wife has a tradition of making the family a special breakfast every Monday morning, and I’m sure my children will treasure this tradition and probably try to integrate it in one form or another in their own families someday. Every sport has traditions… baseball in particular, which is why I enjoy watching baseball the most. Cultural traditions give the individuals within them a sense of identity. Such traditions can also inspire patriotism and loyalty to one’s country. Thus we sing the national anthem and recite the pledge of allegiance. We have traditions in this congregation, like giving Bibles to our fourth graders, as we’ll do in a couple of weeks. And the Church-catholic has traditions, and of course, the art with the traditions of the Church is to determine which are simply the traditions of men and which come from God’s Word. But even the traditions of men can be fine traditions, worth retaining because they serve the Gospel, even if they are not commanded by God.

The issue, again, is teaching the traditions of men as if they were the commandments of God. The Pharisees taught the traditions of the elders, in this case the washing of hands and cups and pots and vessels and even the furniture, as if such were the commandment of God, necessary for righteousness and salvation. I hope you wash your hands. I hope you wash your dishes. I even hope you vacuum underneath your couch cushions from time to time. And believe me, I wash my hands religiously after everyone comes through the greeting line after church, especially during cold and flue season. You might say it’s a tradition I have. But such washing does not make you or me any more or any less righteous before God or worthy of salvation. Jesus’ substitutionary righteousness alone counts as our righteousness before God, and His blood and death alone is the payment for our sins.

The sixteenth century Reformation was largely a debate about this. The central question was whether one was saved by faith alone without works, or whether one was saved by faith and works. Luther rightly and biblically maintained that even when the works are commanded by God, we are not saved by performing them, indeed, we cannot perform them, at least not perfectly. We’re saved by Christ alone, by grace alone, and this salvation is given to us by faith alone, without works. The works come after salvation, after faith, as a result, not as a cause. But the Roman church maintained that one is saved by faith and works. And not only did Rome insist that one had to do the works commanded by God in Scripture to be saved, Rome insisted on many works that were not commanded in Scripture, declaring them to be meritorious before God. A good example of this is monasticism, i.e. monks and nuns. Now, monasteries aren’t bad in and of themselves, especially as originally intended as “schools of theology and other branches of learning, producing pastors and bishops for the benefit of the Church.”[1] The problem was that a pernicious false doctrine developed around these monasteries, that by becoming a monk or a nun one did a higher and holier work than the common people, meriting grace and righteousness and achieving a state of perfection before God. This is a damnable doctrine of the devil, an anti-Gospel doctrine of salvation by works. Here what could have been a very good tradition of men in service to the Gospel of Christ became rather an abominable false teaching, because this tradition of men was taught as the commandment of God. God preserve us from all such false teaching! Over-against this the Lutherans confessed, “Every service of God, established and chosen by people to merit justification and grace, without God’s commandment, is wicked. For Christ says… ‘In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ Paul teaches everywhere that righteousness is not to be sought in self-chosen practices and acts of worship, devised by people. Righteousness comes by faith to those who believe that they are received by God into grace for Christ’s sake.”[2]

Of course, we should follow the commandments of God, not to merit righteousness or grace, but because Christ has already given us His righteousness and grace. But here we must make a distinction between what is a commandment of God and what is a tradition of men. Whatever God commands us in His holy Word we should believe and do. We should honor our fathers and our mothers, because God says so. We should lead sexually pure and decent lives in what we say and do, because God says so. We should give of our time and our talents and our treasures for the work of the Church and for the benefit of our neighbor, because God says so. These are non-negotiable. This is the way God would have His people live, and this is what love for the neighbor demands. But things neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture are free. The technical, theological term is adiaphora. We’re neither commanded nor forbidden by God to meet for worship on Sundays, for example. We could meet on a different day, at a different time, even though meeting on Sunday is a good tradition of the Church that serves the Gospel, and even has theological meaning as the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. We’re free to pick a different day to worship, but we are commanded to worship. There are many different church buildings with different styles of architecture, because church architecture is a free thing, neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. But we are commanded to meet together somewhere for worship. And even though our salvation doesn’t depend on it, of course we want our worship space to have meaning and substance, to serve the Gospel, even to proclaim the Gospel by the deliberate placement of its furnishings and art, and even the shape of the building itself, because we recognize that the traditions of men can be used rightly and wisely, for the sake of the Gospel. We could come up with many more examples of this. The proclamation of the Gospel and love for our neighbor should always determine our use of tradition and our approach to matters of adiaphora.

It always happens that when we talk about traditions and adiaphora in the Church, we inevitably are led to ask questions about the Church’s liturgy. We even call it traditional worship, because it embraces the traditions of the Church’s divine service. We are very traditional. If you’ve ever visited a Roman Catholic church, you may have noticed our worship services are very similar to theirs. That is because from the very outset, the Lutheran reformers insisted we should retain all that is good about the medieval Roman church. We just needed to get rid of what was bad, like worshiping the saints and thinking of the mass as a sacrifice we perform to appease God. Otherwise, we retain whatever we can, because it is a beautiful and substantial setting for the proclamation of the Gospel and the reception of the Holy Supper, and unites us to Christians across the generations, across the ages, across the world who sing the same liturgy. But isn’t this an example of a tradition of men taught as a commandment of God? No. There is freedom here. Look in the opening pages of Lutheran Service Book and you’ll find no less than five different settings of the Divine Service. And we recognize this is not exhaustive. And then in addition to the Divine Service, notice all the prayer offices included in our hymnal, again, not exhaustive. There is great freedom here. But notice something else… In fact, I have a little challenge for you. Open up your hymnal at home sometime this week and look at the liturgy and see if you can find anything that isn’t either a direct quote of Scripture or based on the Holy Scriptures. Far from teaching the traditions of men as the commandments of God, the historic liturgy of the Church is about placing the very Word of God on your lips. Here is the liturgical pattern: God speaks. We listen. And then we say back to God what He has first said to us. The liturgy is not primarily about our praises and worship but about God’s gifts to us. Praise and worship come after. We’re mostly passive in the liturgy. We just receive. And when we do actively participate, we’re still receiving, and we’re just repeating what we’ve first received. It would be wrong to speak of the liturgy as a commandment of God. We ought rather to speak of the liturgy as His gift.

For it gives us His saving Word, the Word about Jesus Christ, the Word that is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, crucified for our sins, raised for our justification. Not only can you NOT be saved by obeying the traditions of men, you can’t even be saved by obeying the commandments of God. Because you can’t obey them. Even if you obey them outwardly, inwardly your heart is full of sin. But thanks be to God, Jesus has fulfilled the commandments of God for us. He perfectly honored His parents, His mother Mary and step-father Joseph, as well as His heavenly Father, in our place, so that His fulfilling of the Fourth Commandment counts for us! He perfectly fulfilled all the commandments in our place, so that His righteousness counts as our righteousness. And then He suffered and died in our place, for our guilt, for the forgiveness of our sins. God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. He proved it by raising Christ Jesus from the dead. Our risen and living Savior now enlivens us through His Word and Sacrament. He breathes into us His Holy Spirit. He sanctifies us, makes us holy, so that we want to do the commandments of God. And He gives us His freedom. We don’t do the works of God OR the traditions of men to be saved. We’re saved already by Christ. We do them only for the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbor. God grant us always to believe rightly, to remain steadfast in His Holy Word, and to do according to His will. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] AC XXVII:15 (McCain, p. 54).
[2] AC XXVII:36-37 (McCain, p. 56).


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