It’s difficult, at least for those of us who have looked into church history at all, to think of the word “reform” without thinking of the capital-R “Reformation,” that 16th-century movement initiated by Martin Luther and a few others which resulted in the birth of the Protestant Church. Many of you have heard the story: Martin Luther, a priest and teacher in the Roman Catholic Church, had some . . . suggestions for how the church could better itself. He wasn’t looking to start a new church; his intent wasn’t to attack or weaken the Roman Catholic Church. In fact he wished to build up the Catholic Church, and remain a part of it. And he thought his “suggestions” would help build it up. So he offered them. In part, by nailing them, ninety-five of them, on a church door one day. Martin Luther had . . . a lot of “suggestions.”
Well, the response of the Pope and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t, shall we say, entirely positive. It seems they weren’t looking for suggestions that day. In fact, they demanded that Martin Luther present himself before them and withdraw, or recant, all his suggestions. He did appear, but he didn’t recant, and he ended up being thrown out of the church. Only then did he decide that he had no alternative but to start up his own church.
But he hadn’t started out that way! His intent had been to reform, to make better, the church he was in, the Catholic Church. His intent was to improve it from within, to help set it straight in a couple areas and build it up, not divide it. It just didn’t work out that way.
Another one of the Reformers was named John Calvin, and the church he ended up starting was called “the Reformed Church.” It is the ancestor of the Presbyterian Church, our church, and it has as one of its mottos these words: “Always Reformed, Always Reforming,” or sometimes translated, “Always Reformed, Always Being Reformed.” Or to paraphrase: we’ve made some improvements, and we won’t backtrack on those, but we know we’re not perfect, so we’re always looking to do better. We keep evaluating ourselves to see where we can improve further.
Reforming, you see, is not meant to be a divisive or combative thing. It’s not meant to result in a split church, or a separate new church, or an excommunication, or a resignation. Reforming is meant to be done from within the church, by someone who means to stay within the church, and who sincerely has the best interests of the church at heart and wants to see it improve.
Unfortunately, church people, at least as much a other people, tend to get a little defensive when someone offers “suggestions” about the way they’re doing things. They aren’t always real receptive, or real open about admitting that there are some things they could have been doing better. So reformers aren’t always met with open arms.
Jesus was a Reformer. And he, like Martin Luther and many other reformers, was not met with open arms either, by the church leaders of his day, the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were the “Pope” and “bishops” of his church, the ones in charge, watching out to make sure the church operated correctly. They were like our Book of Order! Perhaps that’s why we have a Book of Order in charge of our church instead of a particular person or people; books don’t tend to get as defensive and angry as people.
But before we get too hard on the Pharisees, before we assign them the black hats, and boo and hiss every time they come on the screen in their role of resisting Jesus, it might be helpful to try to relate a little to where they were coming from. Let’s put ourselves in the place of the Pharisees for a moment: Imagine someone walking in that door, some stranger, right now, right at this moment, in the middle of our service, and beginning to speak—loudly: “You’re doing several things wrong, you know. For starters, your order of worship is all wrong; you do things in the wrong sequence. And what’s that flag doing up there in the corner? This a church building, not a government building. And you’re sitting in the wrong places; you ought to close those pews in the back and make everybody sit up front. And another thing . . . “ It wouldn’t take very long for this guy to get on our nerves, would it? Who does he think he is, barging in here and telling us the things we’ve been doing for years are all wrong? Who asked him, anyway?
So we can understand the Pharisees’ annoyance when Jesus started trying to rearrange things in their church. For not only were they members there, but they were even in charge, they believed, of making sure things were done properly. You can see why they would resist him.
This is why there are several conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark. He was intent on trying to reform the religious practices of his time, to improve them, to set them straight, to make them better; and they were trying to defend the current practices, their practices, and make him go away, and stop upsetting things. The result is the series of conversations we’re looking at today, between Jesus and the Pharisees, under the title “Mark’s Jesus: The Reformer.”
What is it that Jesus felt needed reformed? What things about the religious practice of his day had to be set straight? There are several, we shall see, but they seem to fall into three categories. And as we did last week, when we considered who Jesus included in the church, I hope that for each category we will ask ourselves “Does our church need that reform? Does what Jesus tried to do for his church then still need to be done for our church now?”
The first category I call “self-interest.” This is the category in which it’s easiest to side with Jesus and against the Pharisees, because these are areas in which it appears the Pharisees were acting selfishly, instead of for the good of the whole church. One conversation, in Mark 3, goes something like this: The scribes, in this case, say of Jesus, “The only reason he can tell demons to go out of people is that he is the prince of demons himself, so they have to listen to him.” It’s a variation on an old religious theme: “Whoever’s against us is an enemy of God.”
There’s a confusion between the people of the church, or the church itself, and God. The scribes act as if they’re one and the same: “This guy who’s challenging us must be Satan, because everyone knows that the enemy of God is Satan, and see, he’s our enemy.” The flaw in the argument, of course, is that the scribes don’t equal God, any more than this church’s practices equal God’s practices, or our opinions equal God’s opinions. We do our best, of course, to conform to God’s ways. But I don’t think we can say we’ve made it. We’re not God; we don’t speak for God.
One of Jesus’ main obstacles was to get the scribes and Pharisees to acknowledge that they might be doing anything wrong, that they weren’t God, or infallible like God. And we aren’t immune either, of course, from occasionally saying “You have to agree with me, because my opinion is God’s opinion, and to oppose me means you’re opposing God.” We’re not God, and sometimes we have mistaken ideas of what God wants. Such a distinction must be maintained.
Another instance of self-interest may be the most famous of Jesus’ acts of reform – the cleansing of the Temple. By evicting the money changers and animal sellers from the Temple, Jesus tried to eliminate those practices which were no more than crass, money-making activities, and had nothing to do with worship or mission, but just pure personal profit. Any confusion of church activities with selfish personal-profit activities must also be avoided.
Jesus tried to point out the distinctions between truly following God and using the church to work for one’s self. He warned against equating one’s own position or project or institution with God; he pointed out the difference between legitimate church activities and those conducted for an individual’s selfish gain. He tried to reform the church away from catering to the church members’ self-interest, instead of the good, or the mission, of the whole church.
The second category of reform had to do with what the Pharisees considered important, with their sense of priorities. Were the things which the Pharisees thought important really worth investing a lot of time and attention in? One thing the Pharisees liked, for example, was ritual. There were certain things one was supposed to do at certain times just because . . . well, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do! Somewhere along the line, they had lost sight of why they were doing some of them.
In Mark 3, the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples weren’t fasting, like they were, and Jesus’ answer goes straight to the why of fasting: “My disciples aren’t fasting because it’s not the right time to fast. The reason for fasting isn’t present right now, so we’re not fasting. Fasting is a symbol of sorrow or despair, and now, while the Messiah is here, is not a time of sorrow or despair. So we’re not fasting.” There are right times for doing things, and wrong times; they shouldn’t be done just any old time for no reason. If they are, they’ve lost their meaning, just as if we mumble the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday at 11:19 without ever thinking about what we’re saying. There ought to be some point to it.
The Pharisees also got caught up in the letter of the Law, in doing things a certain way, too much. In Mark 3, for example, when faced with the choice of whether or not to heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath, they would have chosen not to heal him, because there’s a Law which says not to do work on the Sabbath. And being caught up in the letter of the Law, they forgot to value a human being, a person in need of help. The Pharisees priorities had gotten confused and needed to be reformed—a concern for people is more important than making sure one is not breaking a law.
And, sometimes, the Pharisees seemed to intentionally hide behind a law instead of doing what they knew they were supposed to; they used the Law. This is the case in our Scripture lesion this morning: some Pharisees, apparently, were looking for ways to avoid their obligations to their parents, according to Jesus, so they pretended they had to neglect their parents in order to follow one of God’s laws instead. They pretended they couldn’t help their parents financially because of the tithing laws, the laws about giving to the church—while all along they knew the commandment about honoring mother and father very well.
Jesus’ second type of reform was to try to get the Pharisees’ priorities straight by getting them away from the letter of the law, the specific literal words, and focusing on what was important instead: the reason for the Law, the intent of the Law, and the Law’s proper place, as something given for the benefit of humankind.
And Jesus’ third type of reform had to do with the Pharisees notion of “purity.” There was a tendency among the Pharisees, it seems, of wanting so much to remain pure and spotless and uncorrupted that they wouldn’t take any risks, wouldn’t reach out, wouldn’t do anything which might backfire and somehow contaminate them. The Pharisees asked, for example, in Mark 2, why Jesus was associating with sinners—didn’t he know he might be corrupted by his association with sinners? Perhaps it never occurred to them that they might, instead, influence the so-called “sinners” in a positive way; or, if it did, they decided not to risk it, being so concerned with their own cleanliness. Whatever the reason, their concern was to stay uncorrupted by not associating with certain people, rather than opening the church to all. Jesus tried to change that.
The Pharisees tried to remain pure not only by watching whom they associated with, but also by watching what they ate. Every bit of food was examined to make sure it was not “unclean,” and every bit was consumed in a certain way to make sure is was not made “unclean” on its way into the mouth. No unclean food would corrupt them. Meanwhile, Jesus suggests, they weren’t careful enough about what came out of them—their actions, their words, their attitudes. Jesus had to redirect their thinking toward what proceeded from them—their acts, their words, and the effect of these things on others.
So Jesus tried to reform the church, thirdly, by edging it a little farther away from its concerns with personal purity, and more toward openness—toward accepting and showing consideration for other people.
And that’s Jesus the Reformer – hoping to steer his church: (1) away from self-interest, (2) away from misguided legalism, (3) away from excessive concern for “purity”; and toward genuine worship, and a concern for other people and for the intent of God’s law.
Was he successful? Well, like Martin Luther, he made enemies through his attempt. And like Martin Luther, he ended up starting a new church, the Christian Church, rather than reforming the old.
So . . . is that new church what he wanted? Is it reformed? Let me pose a few questions, and let you answer for yourself:
- Jesus tried to reform it away from confusing itself with God; does his church ever confuse loyalty to a particular group with loyalty to God? Do Christians’ loyalty to a denomination or a particular congregation, for example, ever supersede loyalty to God?
- Jesus tried to cleanse the church of its selfish personal-profit motives; does his church ever get more concerned with its own profit or balance sheet than its mission?
- Jesus tried to reform the church of its factionalism, its dividing into groups, each claiming that he’s on their side. Does his church ever divide into factions, each claiming to be the only one with the truth?
- Jesus tried to reform the church of its mindless, inappropriate ritual. Do we ever do things here out of habit or without knowing why, rather than consciously and at the proper time?
- Jesus tried to reform the church of its obsession with the letter of the law, rather than being concerned for people. Would we ever say, for example, “We can’t consider helping them; that’s not in our by-laws.”
- Jesus tried to focus the church on the intent of the law, rather than its literal words. Would we, for example, refuse a child communion or baptism because they hadn’t gone through proper channels?
- Jesus tried to include all people in the church, rather than keeping it “pure” of sinners. Would we ever invite only those whom we thought were, quote “a good person for the church” instead of everyone?
- And Jesus tried to reform the church of its concern with keeping the church “pure” at the expense of taking action. Would we turn down all requests to use our building because we’re afraid someone someday might mess up the place?
Just in case too many of these questions had discouraging answers, I’ll remind you again of our motto: “Always Reformed, Always Reforming.” We’re not expected to be perfect yet. But we are expected to keep trying, to improve, to get better, to move closer and closer to being worthy representatives . . . of Jesus the Reformer.
Let’s pray: God we thank you for our church, and for the good it accomplishes, and for the many ways we have benefitted from being a part of it. And we also know that we aren’t perfect, as a church, in our discipleship, and ask that you would show us the ways we can reform, and follow you ever more faithfully. Amen.