August 30, 2015 – Camp Clean
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We spent a wonderful week last week camping on the Connecticut shore. There are many things that can be said about camping, but one of the notable things about camping is that it is impossible to really keep things clean. If you’re at the beach there will most certainly be a little sand in anything you eat or drink or wear. And at the campsite, even after you’ve hauled all the dishes to the communal dishwashing station and scrubbed as best you can, nothing is quite as shiny and clean as it would normally be at home. The correct response when camping if someone asks you if this towel or this fork or this coffee cup is clean, is “Well, it’s camp clean.” Because “camp clean” is the best you can do at camp.
The gospel reading today centers on a confrontation between Jesus and some of the Pharisees about the matter of cleanliness. The Pharisees were bothered that some of Jesus’ disciples were less than careful about observing the traditions of washing before eating. Ritual purity was a big part of holiness for the Jewish people because the language of “clean” and “unclean” is the language of the law of Moses. A person who was “unclean” – and that might mean anyone who was uncircumcized, or a woman who had given birth, or someone who had come in contact with a dead body – anyone who had broken any of the hundreds of laws that made up the Mosaic code – an “unclean” person, as long as they were unclean, was cut off: separated from God, because they were not allowed to attend worship at the Temple, and cut off from the community, too, because their uncleanness would make anyone who came in contact with them unclean as well. Only those who were “clean” were truly able to be in fellowship with God and their fellow Jews.
The Pharisees understood and embraced the basic premise of the whole of Scripture – that the “uncleanness” of sin severs our connection with God and disconnects us from one another. They embraced it so thoroughly, in fact, that they took the 600 or so laws of Moses and added hundreds more by way of clarification. It’s these added regulations Jesus is talking about here when he accuses them of leaving behind the commandments of God and teaching the traditions of men. They had taken the rules that God gave Moses, about foods and about keeping the Sabbath and about matters of justice, and they had added to them and created a system of rules and regulations that had become an unbearable burden for people instead of a means of keeping people connected.
But the real problem was that they failed to understand that the law of Moses, even in its original purity, was never able to cure what ailed mankind. It was always intended as a temporary provision – a way of keeping things “camp clean” until the One came who could deal with the real problem, which wasn’t a matter of morality and behavior, but a much deeper matter of the heart. “Don’t you see,” Jesus said, “that it’s never the things that come from outside of us that make us unclean? Look at all the rules about clean and unclean foods; what a person eats goes in one end and out the other. How can that make him pure or impure?” No, the problem is in our hearts – all that is evil comes from the evil that is already in us: bad thoughts, sexual immorality, deceit, envy, pride, foolishness. That’s the real issue; not what we eat or whether we wash before eating. Real uncleanness is a desperate condition of the human heart, not a matter for rules and regulations.
But that was a really hard thing to grasp for those who had lived their whole lives carefully observing the law. For them, the law had always been the standard of holiness, and the connecting thread that maintained the fabric of Jewish community. But the central message of the gospel is that Jesus came to accomplish what the law, with its hundreds of regulations could never, ever do. “If a law had been given that could give life,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “then righteousness, clean-ness, would have come through the law.” But the truth is that the law could never be – it was never even intended to be – more than a temporary guardian; the law was never able to do anything more than keep things “camp clean” until the Great Physician arrived who would deal with the real, underlying issue of sin, the cancer that was killing mankind from within.
It’s easy, and pretty common, to misrepresent the purpose of the law. It is very common for people to see the law as a harsh and brutal code set up by what they call the “God of the Old Testament” – as if there were an early prototype of God that acted like Attila the Hun, completely unrefined and utterly lacking in all the love and peace one expects from the God of the New Testament. But if you read the Old Testament in the context of the human history in which it was written, you find that the law of Moses is very much like other codes of law that existed in the ancient Near East – but with really important differences. The “eye for an eye” provision that sounds so brutal to us in the 21st century (not that we are really so very civilized either) was actually a way of setting limits for the punishments that could be inflicted, and of infusing compassion and mercy into a human culture that valued human life very little.
In its context, the law of Moses, as given by God, created a small island of justice in the midst of a very harsh ancient world, where the orphan and the widow were remembered and where human life was protected and where the rich were not allowed to run roughshod over the poor. It was definitely an act of compromise – God getting his hands dirty, as he has always done in his dealings with his wayward creation – not a heaven-on-earth utopia, but a glimmer of light and grace in a dark world. What the law was not, was a system to make us perfect; it could never restore us to life; it was only a guardian to keep things “camp clean” until he came to bring real healing.
If we really hear what Jesus says to the Pharisees, it is clear that no amount of obeying the law could ever make us clean of the sin that separates us from God and fractures our relationships with one another. Even if every man, woman and child obeyed the Ten Commandments and all the rest perfectly, they would still be terminally ill with what ails us all. Because our outer actions and choices don’t make us bad or good; they are all just symptoms of the inner condition of our hearts, and there is no law, no amount of obedience, that can fix that condition.
In 1967, a doctor from South Africa named Christiaan Barnard amazed the whole world by performing the first successful human heart transplant. His patient, 55-year-old Louis Washkansky, had diabetes and incurable heart disease; radical surgery was his only hope for life.
In all the centuries and centuries and centuries from the time of the Fall to the coming of Jesus Christ, mankind lived from day to day with an incurable heart condition, separated from God, isolated from one another, every hour of every day shadowed by the certainty of death. Nothing that we could do or not do was able to stop the evil that ate away at us from within like a cancer and poisoned the world around us. Our only hope for a cure was the most radical of surgeries – that our heart of stone could be removed and a whole and loving heart of flesh put in its place. There was nothing less that could give us life: no law, no self-denial or self-discipline, no amount of moral purity or spiritual enlightenment – nothing short of a new heart.
And that is exactly what Jesus came to do. He is the Great Physician who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. He forgave all our sins and healed our most desperate disease. He nailed our stony hearts to the cross, and gave us his own heart, his very own life, in its place, so that we could share his abundant life, without fear. And so that we might never again be separated from the love of the Father or the fellowship of his children.
Ezekiel prophesied that God was going to perform a heart transplant on his people: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
Life in Christ is life post-op, life after our heart transplant; and that means several things. What it doesn’t mean is that we are instantly good and perfect and righteous people, a cut above the rest of the world. You might have noticed that already. Specifically, we still feel the phantom pull of our old stony hearts, just like a person who has had an arm or a leg amputated still feels severe pain or itching in the limb that isn’t there any more. We have a new heart, and yet we still fight the battle against the old longings that Jesus talked about – bad thoughts, envy, pride, foolishness. But the truth is that all those things belong to our former life; the truth is that we died to that life in Christ when we were baptized into his death, and we live a new life in him.
And our new life has only one law – the law of love. When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet on the last evening before his death, he said, “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you love one another. That’s how the world will know that you belong to me, because of the love you have for one another.” Love is the single defining characteristic of our new lives. Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, because love is the fulfillment of the whole law.”
I think most of us still live so much of our lives in the shadow of our old heart, distracted by its phantom lies and longings and messing about with our old regimen of rules and regulations. Most of us have a long way to go to really take hold of the freedom and the power we have in Christ: perfect freedom from all law and condemnation, freedom not to judge one another and freedom not to be judged – and power to love with the love of Jesus Christ that transforms lives. That’s the power that the world recognizes in the lives of God’s people – people like Mother Teresa or Pope Francis – even when it doesn’t recognize God himself. But what we don’t always understand is that we have that same heart; we have been given that same freedom; we own that same power.
The apostle John wrote this encouragement to the church:
My beloved friends, let us love one other because love comes from God. Everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him.
My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!