Ritual and Faith

Sermon at St James, Colwall, Sunday 2 September 2018

Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

To listen to the sermon recording as you read:

When I was a small boy we always had boiled eggs for breakfast on Sundays, and only on Sundays. It was a bit of a ritual. An old yellow enamel pan into which the eggs were carefully placed and when we ate the eggs we tapped the shell and peeled, rather than cutting the top off. And for some years I really thought that the whole world ate boiled eggs on Sundays.

Families have a way of developing little traditions and rituals that are often unique to them. Think of the ritual of bedtime for the children – favourite stories to be read; set words to be said before the light went off. Or the songs and games played on long car journeys; or the daily ritual of meal-times; or the way birthdays are celebrated; or when and how Christmas presents are opened. All of them slightly different but all of them giving us a sense of belonging and comfort.

It is the same with religious groups like ours. We Christians have set ways of doing things as in this Communion service today – the hymns and prayers, the peace, the bread and wine etc – so much so that some people say that non-churchgoers might be scared of doing the wrong thing if they were here. The trouble with rituals is that they give the outsider a sense of being excluded.

Take one practice common to millions of Christians – the signing of the cross by a believer. What do we make of this? During the World Cup football I noticed that many of the footballers made the sign of the cross before coming on to the field. It would have meant many things from a superficial, superstitious act to bring good luck, to a genuine trust in Christ’s mercy to do his best. Who are we to judge? We human beings need our rites and rituals.

The group of people for which this was more true than most was the Jews. The Old Testament provided them with the instructions, the law, the Torah, by which they should organize their lives. From Moses and his heirs had passed down the traditions, the rules for living by which a Jew could please God. On the face of it, it looked simple – obey the law and you were one with God. But there were two main difficulties with this. First there was the tendency for people to add to the law to make it more clear and that made things complicated and secondly it gave the impression that simply obeying the law was enough and ignored what was going on in a person’s heart and mind.

Our first lesson today from Deuteronomy is clear on the first point. It says, “so now Israel give heed to these statutes. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it…” And the Sadducees kept to this. But the Pharisees disagreed and down the centuries a body of interpretation had grown up which expanded the law - for example long lists of what could and what could not be done on the Sabbath.

You will know how Jesus came into conflict with both groups and the issues raise their ugly heads in today’s gospel. Mark tells us that some Pharisees had noticed that Jesus's disciples were eating food with defiled hands. This has nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with going through a ritual cleansing before eating, which was part of the oral tradition that the Pharisees saw as important. Jesus was angry with this approach telling them that they teach human precepts as doctrines and abandon God’s commandments to hold to human tradition. No one should be a slave to a man-made rule.

And then he goes much further and quotes Isaiah “This people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” and goes on to say that laws and rules do not take note of what we human beings are like on the inside. It’s the human heart that must be directed towards God not just our deeds. Our motives, our desires, our inner thoughts are so much more important than lip-service to rituals and traditions.

So what about our family traditions and our Christian ways of doing things in church? Well they are clearly there for our comfort and feelings of security and as an aid to our well-being, but they are not sacrosanct and we must always feel free to ignore them in the cause of goodness and love and faith.