Mark 7.1-8, 14-23
One of my earliest memories from going to church with my family as a small child is of people getting dressed up on Sundays. Women wore hats with veils, and gloves and nylon stockings to church. Men wore suits and ties and a hat when outside, which they took off as soon as they entered the church.
We are so much more casual now about what we wear to church. But in the post war period being very formal when going to church was just the normal thing you were expected to do.
Were those worshippers back then all hypocrites because they dressed up? Only God knows. But I think it is reasonable to say they were just as sincere in their love of God and their neighbour as we are. We would be wrong to judge them by our standards, or judge them more harshly than God does. After all, they were our parents and grandparents, and they lived their traditions.
In today's gospel Jesus has some strong words to say about tradition. Depending on how we read it, Jesus could appear to be saying that all traditions are empty and should be forgotten. But that would not be the best interpretation.
Jesus was in Galilee with his disciples, and his reputation had spread. Some Pharisees and teachers of the Law had come down from the city to the rural villages to observe Jesus to see what he was up to.
As these city visitors observed his disciples, they asked Jesus why his disciples did not live according to the traditions of the elders. Why did his disciples not do ritual washings of their hands and cooking and eating utensils like the Pharisees?
To our ears the ritual washings sound like good sense: washing hands after going to the market and before eating, washing of kitchen utensils and so forth. In the city the Pharisees had the time and money to be able to perform the required washings, and they had ready access to water supplies.
The disciples, on the other hand, came from the peasant farming and fishing communities in rural Galilee. They did not have readily available supplies of water, or the time and money. So country people had, out of necessity, modified the requirements for ritual washings to peasant life.
The thing that raised Jesus’ anger was the unspoken purpose behind the Pharisees’ ritual washings. They were using their rituals to maintain their social identity as an elite group. They considered themselves better than people who didn’t follow the rituals. If they washed properly, they were special, and everyone else wasn't.
It reminds me of a particular train ride I took one Saturday into the city. It was full of football fans all dressed up with team scarves, jackets and hats on their way to a football match. They would have seen people like me not wearing any scarves, jackets or hats. Because of the way we were dressed, there was a social distance between footy fans and non-footy fans. The Pharisees used their ritual washings to keep a social distance from people they didn’t like. This was their hypocrisy, revealing that they did not really love their neighbours as God required of them.
Jesus had no time for religion being used as a weapon. But it doesn’t mean that Jesus had no time for tradition. After all he worshipped regularly in his local synagogue, and he went up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals.
Every generation has to work with the traditions of its elders, the ways of life and faith of those who came before us. Today, with the fast pace of change that goes on around us, and the desire to keep up with that fast pace, keeping the traditions of our elders can feel inappropriate.
Many churches want to keep up with the digital revolution, with musical forms, and other aspects of modern culture. In that way they believe they can create a more sincere and heart-felt worship than those who have gone before us.
These are godly goals. I believe that God blesses the desire to be relevant, to speak to this generation in ways that it can hear. By all means, with God’s help, our worship should be sincere and heart-felt.
As Anglicans though, we walk a slippery slope. We broke away from the traditions of our elders in the 16th century when Henry VIII got his divorce, and then we went on to keep most of those traditions. At the same time we made freedom an important part of the life of our branch of Christianity.
People who have never been to a church are mystified by what goes on inside. So many churches have chosen to look and feel no longer like a church as their ancestors knew. This is a guess on my part, but I think that most Anglican churches in Australia have stayed in touch in some way with the look and also the forms of worship handed down to us from the past, much as we do here at St Mary Mag. When Maranatha Baptist Church starts to worship here on Sunday afternoons, their style of worship will be very different from ours, as they try to relate to a younger generation.
If we are going to get the most from our Anglican traditions, and to be a blessing to the fullest extent, and not just because they are the ‘traditions of the elders,’ we need to know what they do for us. What is good about our traditions, what are the things that set us apart as Anglican?
Ask everyone here and each of us might have a different answer. Mine is this: each week through our liturgy we hear as if for the first time the greatest story ever told, the whole drama of redemption, from creation to the second coming of Christ. We acknowledge that when we say together:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
We come to hear that story weekly, to rediscover that we have a place in that story, and to be reminded that we have been and are being gathered up into the whole great story of salvation.
That may sound ambitious, but that is what happens in Anglican worship. Through the words and patterns we use, we are enfolded in the activity and purposes of God. How this happens is through our belief that it is the Lord who is present, and that he presides over our gathering.
The whole story is summarised in the Great Thanksgiving. It is as if we all come together at the local swimming pool for a swim each Sunday. We might think that the most important thing is our changing into our bathers and diving into the water. But in fact the pool, its water, the showers and changing areas, the building, the attendants, the cleaners, the car park, and many others things have been carefully provided for us so that we might have our swim.
In theological language, our whole Sunday event is filled with grace. God has got in touch and invited us for a swim in his pool.
The traditions of the Anglican elders help us to know that. The shape of our worship has ancient origins, and is amazingly like what it has always been. It tells the drama of redemption from beginning to end, and provides a place for you and me in that great story as we feed on Christ in the bread and wine.
When Jesus accused the Pharisees and scribes of hiding behind the traditions of the elders, the first Christians did not understand Jesus to have done away with all tradition. They continued to worship in the Temple and in the synagogues. But it was inevitable that new traditions would be formed around the new part of the story about Jesus. Those old and new traditions make up our Anglican style of worship.
The important question that is always worth asking is this: are we making good use of God’s story when we come together for worship? Would Jesus be pleased with the way we use our traditions old and new? They provide the life force of our worship, in and through which we hear God speaking his story, our place within his story, and our obligations that flow from it.