Experience, Religion, and Relationships, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 with James 1:22-27 Sermon Summary
Many people begin their Christian relationship with God after an ecstatic experience, perhaps at a conference or a retreat. A parallel universal phenomenon is falling in love. All one has to do is look at the lyrics of a popular praise song to see the similarities, for example, “Unfailing Love”.
Such experiences are powerful. They are also temporary. And when the ecstatic experience vacates our soul, two things can come to fill the void: religion and relationships.
In this typical confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus admonishes the religious leaders of his time for putting more emphasis on the “human traditions” than on the “commandments of God.” Note that Jesus doesn’t contrast traditions with “personal relationship with Christ” as so many evangelicals do today.
No, the contrast is with the commandments of God which are predominantly relational, but not predominantly individualistic. God’s commandments are as much if not more about how we relate to one another than how we individually relate to God. Six of the Ten Commandments are such. Jesus’ list of what defiles us in verses 21-22 are mostly interpersonal.
The Pharisees thought they were being faithful. They had developed their traditions in order to facilitate people’s faithfulness. Their traditions built a “fence” around the commandments of God to ensure that one wouldn’t transgress the commandments. An example today would be total abstinence from alcohol (a traditional proscription in some Christian circles) in order to avoid drunkenness (a biblical proscription).
The Pharisees warranted Jesus’ critique because the they valued the traditions above the commandments. We do this today, and it’s nowhere more obvious than in worship. Try to change something about a church’s worship and in most cases the resistance you’ll encounter will come from the desire to retain traditions, regardless of how ineffective they are in facilitating the kinds of relationships God commands us to have.
We might read James 1:22-27 as a paraphrase of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees. James says that religion is validated by right action, just as Jesus said that religion is invalidated by wrong action. The important thing to take from these passages is that both religion and relationships are important and indispensible. The crucial matter is keeping them in the right order: right relationships trump religion.
Religion and relationships can fill the void created when powerful but temporary ecstatic experiences vacate our souls. We need to keep them in the right perspective. God wants our relationships to be conformed to the pattern of Christ. Our religion and experiences need to facilitate that goal.
To this end, to help us as a congregation maintain religious traditions that honor the commandments of God, the leadership of Faith Presbyterian Church has developed new Mission, Vision, and Goals.