May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is demonstrating the difference between two very important theological terms: Orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
Orthodoxy means having the correct and generally accepted theory, doctrine or belief. Being a Christian according to Orthodox ways of thinking means that you believe in the Holy Trinity, that you believe in the mystery of Jesus being fully God and fully human, that you believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting…and everything else that we claim to believe in the words of the Christian creeds! Orthopraxy means correction of action or practice. Orthopraxy involves judging one's Christian life not so much on correctness of their beliefs, but in the evidence of their actions. Orthodoxy, it seems, has to do with what one does with one's head and mouth. Orthopraxy has to do with what one does with one's feet, hands and heart. Being a Christian according to orthopraxy standards means living a certain way, literally being led to actions by the Holy Spirit, not just enlightened on what to believe as truth.
Our Gospel lesson is sort of broken up in thirds this morning, probably by folks who didn't think that you would want to sit here too long in late August. There's a part which describes the scene – the Pharisees are criticizing Jesus and his disciples for not following the law in that they are eating with defiled, that is, not ritually washed, hands and bowls. After a short break Jesus says that it is not what goes into people that defile them, but what comes out of them, and then after yet another quick break, Jesus talks about the heart being the seat of all evil intentions, and then he lists the ones that are on his mind at that time. It seems to be a little disjointed, and I think that if I describe what he says to the Pharisees in verses 9-13, we get a little more insight about his argument with these, “orthodox” Jews of his day.
In these five verses, Jesus challenges them on their own selective applications of God's laws. He accuses them of encouraging people to ignore one of the most important of commandments – honor your father and mother – in order to make their offerings to God. “If anyone tells father or mother that whatever support you have from me is an offering to God then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother.” In other words, a person can half-heartedly and with no emotion help their parents in order to make an offering to God instead of in order to honor them as the commandments tell us to. There is no true love toward parents in this way, only an obligation to God! And Jesus says that they do many things like this!
This brings us back to the differences between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. We can think rightly and still not act in love and concern toward those that God places in our lives. That is orthodoxy, and a real danger of this is slipping into traditionalism: that is, turning some long held traditions into hard and fast rules to live by. But orthopraxy means that a person might not have all of the doctrine and theology down, but in their discipleship, he or she demonstrates the kind of agape love that Jesus first showed to all of us in his life and ministry, and his death and resurrection. It is so very difficult to think oneself into a right way of acting; it is much more successful and lasting to act oneself into a right way of thinking! That is what we are called to do as Christians- focus on how our lives proclaim a right relationship with God so that even if we are not “all right” with God now, we are growing into that relationship every day!
It seems to me that Jesus is telling the Pharisees that all of their categories for understanding blessing and defilement are wrong! Blessings and defilements don't happen because a person either pleases or displeases God with empty rituals. Blessings happen as a gift from God, and defilement usually happens when our heart turns inward and we stop living out a concern for others. You cannot keep evil spirits from entering into your body by washing hands, pots, etc. before eating. We now know that we can keep bacteria, germs, and illness causing microbes out of our bodies by doing these things, but they knew nothing about these microscopic beings back then. What we can do, according to Jesus, is watch what we say and do, always showing honor and respect to others as we live together and proclaim the love of Jesus in word and deed. But we don't act in this way to keep the evil spirits out, to earn some kind of points with God or to build our ladder up to heaven! We do so because it is a good and right way to honor the one who gave his own life for us, Jesus Christ our Lord.
This has a lot of implications for us as we move forward together as a church in the upcoming months and years. Some people believe that church is a place where we believe ideas to be either true or false according to our doctrine, that religion is about attending services or even meetings. Now one of the things that I appreciate about the Lutheran denomination of Christianity is that we do have a wonderful emphasis on theology and doctrine, and honest debate and study and being somewhat – if not fully – “orthodox.” But I also appreciate our denomination because we have a strong sense that being grounded in these things is only the beginning of our relationships with God. If faith and belief and God-knowledge does not lead us into a lifestyle then it is useless, like a bright candle that someone has covered with a bushel so that its light cannot be seen by others.
We are a group of people who does not emphasize following God's law as a pathway to eternal salvation. We know that this has already been given to us as a gift from our risen Lord, free of charge! Our relationship with God's law is based on the fact that we want to proclaim to the world the fact that we love God and it is in loving the world that we show forth that love.
So when people ask us, “Why is marriage and family so important for you? Why do you give up your time on Sunday mornings to worship or go to Sunday school? Why do you place some of your own hard earned money into the offering plate? Why do you donate food or walk a couple of miles from one church to another collecting food for the pantry? Why do you volunteer to drive seniors to appointments or visit them in their homes or nursing homes? Why do you treat your parents with honor, get involved in your kids' schools or keep an eye on your neighbor's house for them?”
Christians who define themselves by orthopraxy don't answer those questions by saying that it is an obligation according to doctrine or teaching. It isn't a tradition of the elders, like the Pharisees told Jesus. It isn't even because of superstition or earning Karma or keeping away the evil spirits or anything like that. It is because we love Jesus – that is why we are doers of the words and not merely hearers, as James puts it. And we love Jesus in these ways because Jesus first loved and still loves us. Thanks be to God that we have the gifts, the means and the abilities to following God's statutes and ordinances in ways that express the gratitude that we have to God for all of God's benefits to us.
As we move forward as a church, may we be guided by our intentions to show forth our love for Jesus in the ways that we treat each other, our families and the strangers among us. I trust that God will continue to bless our congregation. Let us return thanks to God by acting rightly in our call to be blessings to others. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.