Many churches have very fine traditions that are meant to encourage a deeper understanding of the Christian walk. Ceremonies and pictures can all help remind us of the important lessons of salvation. But didn’t Jesus condemn traditions as really burdensome legalism? Not all traditions. In fact the traditions of baptism, taking bread and wine were established by Jesus. How can we tell good traditions from bad? In Mark 7:1-23 Jesus gave some guidelines. Human traditions are not necessary for salvation and there is no reason to criticize those who do not follow them. Many traditions are in the unimportant category of mere human rules. Matters of the heart are what’s important. When traditions reject God’s commands or nullifies his word they are wrong. Rituals cannot cleanse what really defiles us. That is the wrong thoughts from inside our hearts.
A literal interpretation of the Greek word baptize is incomplete as many passages of Scripture show, most clearly in the baptism of Israel to Moses when they didn’t even get wet (1 Corinthians 10:2). Although washings and cleansings were religious ceremonies, the word baptize was not originally a religious word. Mark 7:1-23 also shows another use of the word baptize, to wash or cleanse. The disciples had failed to ceremonially wash their hands according to tradition, before they ate. The tradition developed from the Pharisees’ application of commands such as that in Exodus 30:17-21. They had biblical basis for their cleansing traditions. Jesus’ criticism was not that they used the Bible, but that their interpretation had made such a big deal out of the physical that they neglected the more important cause of uncleanliness, the human heart.
There is no doubt that every denomination needs some kind of ongoing reformation effort. How do we go about this without creating division? Jesus challenged not only religious traditions but the interpretation of the Bible behind them (Mark 7:1-23). Similar to but more perfect than the Protestant Reformation, Jesus’ reformation was not based in the highest offices of his day, but in the grass roots. Although the outward form of religion may need some changes, Jesus' priority in reformation was the inner person. This is the reformation that is often missed. We seek to change outward forms of worship but in so doing become just like the Pharisees. Jesus’ reformation basics saw the important battles not in outward things but in the heart. Allow the Holy Spirit to fix the inside and the outside will take care of itself.
This current campaign has proven one thing: neither party is qualified to hold the highest offices in the country. Republicans lied that Obama raised taxes on middle income families, when in fact he had signed several reductions. Democrats lied when they blamed Romney for decisions made at his former business when he was no longer making such decisions. Republicans lied about Obama causing America’s loss of AAA credit rating, when in fact Standard and Poor’s cited the reason as both sides not working in harmony. Democrat claims that as governor Romney cut taxes on millionaires and raised them on middle income families is false. Further details can be found at factcheck.org a website devoted to correcting lies in politics. What defiles America? Both Republicans and Democrats are guilty. Would not Jesus say that lies defile America (Mark 7:1-23)?
This election is so partisan that both sides have fallen into the cesspool of lies and distortion, as one reporter called it “brazenly willing to twist the truth.” But the biased mentality is a lack of understanding of human reality. It is a self-righteousness that labels ourselves good and the other guys evil. Yet, we are all in the same boat and have experienced the same sins in our heart, what the Message terms “obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness.” (Mark 7:1-23). Yet, strangely when we confront evil we think that it is us and them instead of us and us. The “us and them” mentality is a delusion, a lie. It makes us think that we are better than anyone else when we are all hopeless without Jesus Christ.
I grew up in a family where burping at the table was not allowed and knives and forks were called cutlery. Then I went to a fundamentalist Bible college where we were taught the proper placing of silverware, glasses and plates on the table. Then I learned that burping in China is a compliment to the cook and that other cultures use their hands to eat. Later I saw how traditions like etiquette can contradict the Bible. Etiquette can be an expression of love for neighbor, doing what makes a guest feel comfortable and welcomed. Etiquette can be outright self-aggrandizing snobbery and thus hatred of neighbor in disguise. Etiquette can also be a blind, unthinking adherence to outdated traditions. In Mark 7:1-23 Jesus broke with religious etiquette that did away with God’s commands and effectively nullified God’s word.
The church has always had problems. Is there an answer? Some think that a solution is a non-denominational or independent church, but a one dollar bill is still a denomination and as long as people gather together there will always be politics. Others try to avoid the institutional church, but even a house church or hermitage for one is organized and therefore an institution. The difference is only scale. Even becoming a hermit does not give us escape from the evil within our own hearts. The real problem is not polity or structure but the human heart (Mark 7:1-23). Running away is not the solution because we go to church to be part of God’s kingdom on earth, and the solution is not from within the human hearts in the church, but the message of the church, the Gospel.
Church has problems, but also the Gospel which is the solution to all human problems. What is the real problem with church? Is it the traditions, the burdensome rules made up by men or the politics? In Mark 7:1-23 Jesus discussed a few of the problems of religion 2,000 years ago, but ended up concluding with the real problem. If church did not contain people, it would not have problems. The real problem with church is not that it occasionally gets things terribly wrong, we all do. What is the real source of evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly? The real problem with church is that it contains people and all of the church’s problems come from something that is deep within all of us, the human heart.
We sometimes hear of Wesley’s quadrilateral. It is misunderstood, because it is neither Wesley’s alone nor an equal-sided quadrilateral. It is actually Albert Outler’s interpretation of Wesley’s teachings. Yet, Outler could have equally attributed it to the Catholic Church or used it as a summary of church history. Outler’s four sources of church teachings: scripture, tradition, reason and experience are also not equal as the term quadrilateral would imply. Wesley insisted that scripture comes first, tradition must be based on scripture, reason helps us understand scripture and we experience what the scriptures promise. The picture of a quadrilateral would imply that we place tradition on an equal footing with scripture. It is faulty. Even Wesley taught that tradition is subordinate to scripture and Jesus explained clearly the danger of creating human rules without the authority of scripture (Mark 7:1-23).
I once met a Christian who proudly proclaimed that she had never had a drop of alcohol in her entire life. That would be laudable if it was a Christian value, but it is not. It has absolutely nothing to do with real Christianity as Mark 7:1-23 explains. Not only was her anti-alcohol stance a contradiction of Jesus’ own example (he turned water to wine and blessed communion wine), it was also a contradiction of Paul’s advice to a minister under his supervision (he recommended that Timothy drink a little wine). How do we get such pseudo-Christian values? Mark’s Gospel explains these things as worshiping God in vain with teachings that are merely human rules. All churches contain such errors, human traditions and rules that we somehow assume to be of divine authority. We simply must discern the difference.
Murmuring and grumbling are common to our experience. We have all done it and are all just as guilty as the disciples who left Jesus in John 6:56-69. We murmur about positions in the church, the kitchen, the music, the preacher, the upkeep, local organization, the conference and the bishop. Yet, despite our continual complaining, some few are remarkably silent. Could it be that they have a secret? What could be the secret to not grumbling? How can we be a part of those who do not murmur and seem to be absent when gossip is on the menu? Perhaps these verses give a clue. Perhaps we should learn the lesson my grandmother and mother taught me, we can’t talk with our mouths full. Perhaps those who continually feast on Jesus are satisfied and have no desire to complain.
In John 6:56-69 the word for eating Jesus can also be translated as munching, crunching or gnawing on Jesus. Perhaps now we understand why it was so offensive to many of the early disciples and they left. Yet Jesus said that those who do gnaw on him remain in him, and twelve disciples did. Do we remain stuck in a doctrine of men and when it proves wrong we lose faith? Do we remain stuck in a fellowship of people who when they move on or die so does our faithfulness to God? Do we remain stuck in a particular style of worship music and if it changes then we decide to quit the church? Theories, camaraderie and music are not a complete meal. They are good for a while, but the real food is in munching on Jesus.
What is a real good reason to keep attending church? Could it be that there we find the words of eternal life (John 6:56-69)? It doesn’t matter what denomination we attend, if we see past all the customs, politics and other human activities, most churches do teach the words of Jesus, the words of eternal life. Are we proud to be the stewards of such words? The word pride in today’s English can be either the good trait of pleasure and joy, such as a parent who is proud of a child. It can also be the wrong kind of pride, arrogance and vainglory. Denominational pride can be both good and evil too. The most important thing that we possess, of which we can be rightly proud, is that in Jesus Christ we have the words of eternal life.
Does Jesus offend us? The same words that are spirit and are life (John 6:56-69) offended many of his own disciples 2,000 years ago. Do they offend us today? Those followers of Jesus were offended because he downplayed their own religious traditions regarding manna. What offense would cause us to leave the church? When people leave they often point a finger at other people, but that also points at Jesus. We are really saying, “How could Jesus show grace to those people in that church?” Jesus’ mercy offends us because he allows fools to preach and sinners to lead. Church life is a constant winnowing process. The chaff is driven away and the wheat stays. What about us? Will we leave because the words of life offend, which demand grace and mercy towards others, or will we stay?
In John 6:56-69 Jesus said, “the words that I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life.” How can words be life? We may remember a childhood myth: sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. The truth is that words can hurt or heal. Words can kill or give life. Words are powerful. The words that Jesus spoke to his disciples then, he speaks to us today. If we listen to the words of Jesus, they give us life eternal. The words of the Old Testament are profitable, but that was a ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3:6-8), preparing for the ministry of the spirit. The spirit gives life. A preacher’s words do not give life either, unless they incorporate the words that do give life, the words of Jesus.
In John 6:56-69 Jesus said, “the words that I speak to you, they are spirit”. What does it mean that words are spirit? It means that his words were spiritual. His words were not just to be received in heavenly terms, as opposed to worldly, but they were spirit. The natural mind cannot understand the things of God, so words that are spirit can only be received in spirit. We who did not live at that time and never met him in the flesh can nevertheless receive his words today, because they are still spirit and therefore not limited to time and place. Without the words of Jesus, baptism, communion, Bible study and prayer become empty rituals. It is not the physical trappings of our tradition that bless us today, but the words of Jesus Christ which are spirit.
In John 6:56-69 when Jesus asked the disciples if they would leave him, they replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Yet, so often we want people to come to our church, rather than Jesus Christ. I believe with all my heart that the more we promote ourselves, our denominational "distinctives" and our man-made system, the less blessed we will become. The more we promote Jesus Christ as the answer, the more he will bless us and our denomination. Did not Jesus say, "I will build my church"? Why do we try everything but Jesus? I would love to be able to say that our denominational distinctive is that we promote Jesus Christ more than anyone else does. Then, I believe that the blessings from heaven would be poured out in abundance.
Jesus is the bread of life (John 6:35, 41-51), the center of our faith. He can also be found pictured in Numbers and Deuteronomy. He is pictured in the cloud and the fire, the light of the world will come again in the clouds. He is the royal scepter to rise out of Israel. As the bronze serpent was raised up, so was Jesus on the cross. He quenches our thirst like the water from the rock. He was a prophet like Moses. The cities of refuge typify refuge in him though our sins are as scarlet. His return will be announced by a trumpet. As Aaron ran with the censor of incense to intervene for Israel, so too does Jesus intervene on our behalf with the Father. Jesus is pictured in the urim and thummim, truth and judgment.
Jesus as the source of eternal life (John 6:35, 41-51) can be found in type in the third book of Moses, called Leviticus. In the burnt offering, Jesus is seen offering himself completely. In the meal offering our fellowship is pictured with a perfect sweet Savior. In the peace offering we see Jesus as creating peace between God and humanity. The sin offering pictures Christ who died for our human corruption and similarly the trespass offering pictures Christ’s sacrifice for our trespasses against God’s law. The festivals also pictured Christ. Passover pictured the lamb, firstfruits pictured Jesus as God’s first fruit, Jesus atonement for our sins, and God’s incarnation in Jesus and tabernacling with humanity as one of us. Jesus is also the scapegoat upon whom all our sins rest and he is the high priest of our salvation.
Jesus is the bread of eternal life (John 6:35, 41-51) and can be found in type throughout the Bible. For instance, in the second book of Moses, commonly called Exodus, Jesus is pictured in Moses’ life itself. Though he was a great deliverer, active in freeing a whole nation from slavery, Jesus is a greater deliverer. He came to free the whole world. Jesus is also called the lamb of God, pictured by the Passover lamb, an innocent sent to the slaughter. As we partake of communion, we eat his flesh as the ancient Israelites ate the Passover lamb. Jesus is also pictured in the Manna from heaven. He said that he was the bread sent from heaven, providing eternal sustenance. His eternal salvation is pictured in the temporal salvation of the water coming from the rock at Horeb.
If Jesus is the bread of life (John 6:35, 41-51), what do we do with the rest of the Bible? Jesus referred often to lessons from the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures. Paul and the other apostles pointed to Jesus, not themselves or the church as the way to salvation. So there is a clue as to how we would study the rest of the Bible. Every part of the Bible points to Jesus in some way and so we study it from that point of view. This is called Christ-centered Bible study. We do not study Genesis without noticing the seed of the woman, Jesus’ descent from Abraham, his high priesthood like that of Melchizedek, his being a sacrificed son like Isaac, or a rejected brother like Joseph. Throughout the Bible we feed on the bread of life.
The biggest problem with our denominations is the narrow doctrines which restrict thinking about Jesus to within denominational walls. If I study a Lutheran commentator he is not likely to challenge the idea of consubstantiation when discussing Jesus as the bread of life (John 6:35, 41-51). If I read a Catholic commentator he is not likely to go outside the box of transubstantiation, just as an Eastern Orthodox commentator is unlikely to contradict his own tradition. If I read a United Church of Christ commentator she is not likely to go outside of the box of interpretations associated with that denomination. Even among so-called inclusive United Methodist Church commentators few are truly inclusive of other opinions outside of the Wesleyan box. Yet, all these churches are Christian and all contribute wonderfully to discussion of Jesus outside of the box.
Do we partake of communion without partaking of Jesus? Can we partake of the bread after thanksgiving (the meaning of Eucharist) and still not partake of the bread of life (John 6:35, 41-51)? Is it the Lord’s Supper that we share or a counterfeit and hollow supper of our own self-worship? Can we so worship our own traditions surrounding the communion, stoles, garments, crossing everything in sight, theories about the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, wine versus juice, unleavened versus leavened bread, and who has what authority to perform what ceremonies, that we miss the whole point? Have we created a communion either without Jesus or where Jesus is shoved into a corner and our ideas and traditions come to the forefront? Jesus said that he is the bread from heaven. Do we commune with Jesus?
We can easily focus on health and wealth, but neglect the example of suffering and self-sacrifice that Jesus left us. We can focus on mere human beings and their authority more than the authority of Christ. We can overemphasize the importance of our heritage and traditions while neglecting the heritage that Jesus left us. We can chase miracles coming from Jesus but never the purpose of miracles in bringing us to Jesus. We can spend our lives researching theology and never come to Jesus. There are so many distractions which can cause us to focus on anything but Jesus. Let us drink of the living water so that we never thirst again (John 4:10-14) and partake of the bread of life (John 6:35, 41-51) and let us not allow distractions to take away what Jesus has to offer.
In our spiritual studies do we partake of the bread of life, Jesus (John 6:35, 41-51)? The entire Bible is important to the Christian faith. The teachings of great leaders like Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley are important. However, we can study these things at home, in seminary or Bible college and neglect the bread of life. In my Methodist tradition it is sometimes said that we need to get off Wesley’s horse and back onto the rock of Christ. Jesus explained clearly what the central teachings of the church ought to be in Matthew 28:20, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” As institutions and individual Christians study the holy scriptures, full study ought to include the whole text in historical context, but the bread of life is still Jesus.
How often do we eat bread? We can have it plain or toasted for breakfast, as a wrap or sandwich for lunch, as crisp bread for an afternoon snack and as croutons on a salad in the evening. There are dozens of ways we can enjoy bread all day long. How often do we partake of the bread of life, Jesus (John 6:35, 41-51)? Jesus often spoke of common everyday elements to associate with spiritual principles, because we ought to be thinking spiritually all day long. Some people are annoyed if we seem to talk about Jesus too much. We don’t talk about bread all day long, but it is everywhere. Perhaps that’s how Jesus ought to be in our lives. As we go about our daily tasks, do we think about what Jesus has done and taught us?
Forget the junky white stuff that some people call bread, there are so many wonderful varieties of whole-grain bread that there is no reason to eat unhealthy rubbish, even if it is deceptively labeled wholesome. In countries drowning in false advertising, we miss out on the wonderful varieties that other countries enjoy every day. Flour can be so much more interesting than nutrient-depleted white flour. There are acorn, almond, amaranth, bean, barley, buckwheat, cassava, chestnut, chickpea, coconut, corn, emmer, fonio, hemp, kamut, mesquite, millet, oats, pea, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, soy, spelt, tapioca, teff, triticale and quinoa flours. Where have we been? We have been in a fog of advertising deception which lies to us every day that overpriced, nutrient-poor garbage is healthy. We need real bread. There is also a bread that lasts forever, Jesus Christ (John 6:24-35).