By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement
“So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”’
He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’”
~Mark 7:5-8, NIV
The seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel begins with details about Jewish practices that had been kept for generations. It reminds me of the opening scene from the musical Fiddler on the Roof (lyrics written by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock) in which Tevye, the village milkman and local philosopher (accompanied by a village chorus) sings with gusto about their traditions. In summary, he shares how their practices were meant to reveal the identity of their people and their devotion to God. Like Tevye, I wonder if the Pharisees and other religious leaders were chanting “tradition” in their minds as they questioned Jesus about the actions of the disciples.
The response of Jesus is brutally honest. He calls the Pharisees “hypocrites!” and uses words from Isaiah to accuse them of “going through the motions” (in my words)—no longer following God’s commands but clinging to man-made rules they received from others. The Torah was meant to be a gift for the people of Israel to walk humbly with God and be a light to the nations; however, over time, the customs of the Pharisees had turned the blessing of Israel’s traditions into burdens for the people, and in doing so, they failed to guide the people toward a loving relationship with God.
Brothers and sisters, I wonder how many times we have held onto “the way we’ve always done it” and struggled to welcome people to join our fellowship and experience God’s grace and redemption. I’m betting that those who initially started some ministry programs or orders of service for worship didn’t mean for those things to become distractions nor that they believed our practices should remain the same from the time of their inception until the day Christ returns. When someone comes with new ideas, it shouldn’t cause a fight in the parking lot or cause members (or churches) to leave our fellowship. It should instead give us reason to pause and come together as the body of Christ to pray over the matter and read scripture to make sure that we remain in step with God’s commands.
God’s greatest command, revealed through the life and ministry of Jesus, is very clear: Love God and love one another. Everything we are about, everything we say, and every practice we carry out should point toward this target. Sometimes this means putting what is familiar aside so that we can create space for people to meet God and have a transformative experience with Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t be worried about the order of worship or if it changes, but instead how we are being changed through offering our worship to God. If our words in worship are going to be a fragrant offering for the Lord to enjoy, our discussions should not involve arguing with one another. Far be it from us to let the words of Jesus to the Pharisees ring true for us.
Rather than carrying on with business as usual, the last two years have surely caused us to step back and reflect. It has invited us to reimagine what “church” looks like and how to stay connected. This surely includes how we worship, what it means to care for one another, and how to use technology and social media to stay connected with one another.
My Sunday school class is currently reading and discussing The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges & Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation by Thom S. Rainer (available for purchase from Brethren Press). This and other discussions are surely inviting us to reconsider the “old ways” of doing things and what it looks like to faithfully carry out the mission of Jesus.
Our vision statement that was confirmed at Annual Conference this summer says it well: “Together, as the Church of the Brethren, we will passionately live and share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ through relationship-based neighborhood engagement. To move us forward, we will develop a culture of calling and equipping disciples who are innovative, adaptable, and fearless.” If we live into this, Church, we will find ourselves setting human traditions aside and living according to life-giving commands of God.
Learn about the ministries of the Church of the Brethren that grow and adapt to continue the work of Jesus at www.brethren.org or support them at www.brethren.org/give.
(Read this issue of eBrethren.)