“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Mark 7:8
Sometimes, I’m not sure why I attend church services when I go on holiday. At the first church I attended, the clergyman stood up and said, “Good morning everyone. Because of the swine flu the archbishops have announced that wine at Holy Communion will be received by intinction (this means dipping wafers into the chalice, he didn’t explain what it was, though) and that there should be no sharing of the peace. The old colonels were right after all”. This seemed to please the congregation of a dozen mostly retired people because two or three shouted, ‘Hear, hear’. He did not explain why old colonels would be happy about this, perhaps the congregation were in on the joke. He then began the service, not once giving a page number or explaining anything; maybe it is assumed that anyone who might casually wander in would automatically know all that was necessary.
At the second church, things were much more positive. There was a congregation of 60-70, including fifteen or so children for the Sunday School, which was not bad in the middle of August when most of the parishioners were away. The disappointment was that the nearest thing to anyone even saying ‘hello’ was the churchwarden walking up the church with notice sheets and saying to me ‘ Have you got one of these?’
The worst experience still remains that of a few years ago at a village in western England. A man who might have passed as a retired headmaster greeted me at the door. He handed me a book and said, ‘we’re up in the choir this morning’. Dressed in a short sleeved summer shirt and cream cotton trousers, I didn’t look like a typical Church of England member, but I wasn’t offered any more advice. I went up to the choir stalls and sat beside two older ladies who offered me no greeting, but continued their conversation which seemed chiefly to centre on the price of hotel rooms in Folkestone and how both of them enjoyed the spaciousness of their double beds since the demise of their respective husbands. One lady was anxious lest her offer to the hotel to pay a single room supplement might mean she would be put into a room with a single bed. (I remember asking you at the time if this is the sort of conversation that normally takes place in church pews before church).
The clergyman came out of the vestry at 8 o’clock precisely. The congregation for the only service in the village that day numbered nine. There was one young couple, but the reason for their presence became clear when the clergyman began to read the banns for their marriage. He commented to the young lady that she came from a very nice part of the Isle of Wight and that he had been there himself once, and had almost missed the ferry. He then launched straight into the Communion service. It had been at least twenty years since I had attended a service from the Book of Common Prayer as used by the Church of England and I found myself fumbling through the pages. By the end of the fairly perfunctory service I was almost relieved to go.
Had I been one of ninety odd per cent of the English population who don’t go to church, but had just decided to go to see what went on, what would I have made of it? Had I had serious spiritual problems and decided to go to the church in the hope of finding some help or support, how would I have felt?
I’m sure there was sincere faith amongst the people of those congregations, but the only feeling I personally felt was that I was an outsider, an interloper into someone else’s occasion. Perhaps it was a failing on my part, but I did not get a great sense that I was meeting with the living Jesus.
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is always exciting; always relevant to the problems and needs of people; always challenging to those who need change; always open to those who seek help; always a friend to the stranger; always a support to the tired and depressed; always an inspiration to anyone who tried to follow him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is the most amazing, most charismatic, most life-changing man. Shouldn’t coming to church be about meeting with him?
I remember someone talking about growing up and having to endure what he called “the mind-numbing boredom of the Church of Ireland”. I wonder if that feeling is widely felt.
When we hear Jesus’ scathing attack on the Pharisees in today’s reading from Saint Mark, we think it’s got nothing to do with us. The Pharisees were a religious group 2,000 years ago, but they had become stuck in their ways. Their beliefs were sincere and they were good people, but the life and the power had gone out of their religion. Jesus says to them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” They would have been furious at him. They would have dismissed him as a troublemaker and a rabble rouser. They would have been angry with him because he had hit a sore spot. Many devout Jews knew that their religion had become lifeless. The very reason why groups like the Pharisees had sprung up was to try to counteract what they saw as the rottenness and deadness at the heart of religion.
Jesus doesn’t tell them that what they believe is wrong. He tells them that how they go about practising their beliefs is the problem They have forgotten the commands of God and they have become concerned only with their own traditions.
There are many people who have no problem with Christianity, their problem is with the way the church goes about things. They are happy with the commands of God, what they are not happy with are the traditions of the church.
Jesus’ command to us is clear, to make disciples of all people, but we will not be able to do that if our traditions become an end in themselves. Traditions are only useful if they serve the original purpose, which is to tell people about Jesus. Jesus is not concerned with the outward rituals, he is concerned with what is in our hearts and the hearts of those we meet.
It is not what we do, it is the way that we do it. It’s not the outward traditions that count, it’s the faith we have in our hearts. There can be 16th Century liturgies that are full of warmth and life, and modern worship events that are cold and impersonal; what is important is that we meet with God and not just with tradition. What is important is our meeting with this amazing, charismatic, life-changing man, and our response to him.
Jesus criticized the worship of the Pharisees in words from Isaiah, ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’. I’m sure that criticism applies to all of us at times, it certainly does to me, what matters is how we respond. What matters is us asking ourselves, ‘how can I help make my church a place where anyone who walks in feel that they can meet with God?’
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men,” Jesus accuses the Pharisees. Let’s not be guilty of the same accusation.
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 30th August 2009