Sunday, August 30, 2009


Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 17) – Year B (RCL)
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Sunday, August 30, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

I find it interesting how some things stick with us, despite seeming to be insignificant or inconsequential at the time we learned them. Yet, despite the seemingly insignificant nature, they continue to come back, periodically popping into mind – proving they are not so insignificant after all. One of those things for me is the Greek word adiaphora, which literally translates as “things that do not make a difference.” I first heard this word during my second year of seminary. The infamous Windsor Report, the Anglican Communion’s rather harsh response to The Episcopal Church’s consenting to the election of an openly gay and partnered priest to the episcopacy, as well as to the Diocese of New Westminster (Canada) approving rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. As soon as it was released, our theology professor required that we read the Windsor Report in preparation for a class discussion on its theological implications for The Episcopal Church and the entire Anglican Communion.

My first encounter with the term adiaphora came a mere 11 pages into the reading assignment. But I would become much more familiar with the concept, as this term popped up periodically throughout the document. In fact, the Windsor Report eventually devotes nearly three full pages of single-spaced, 10 point text to discussing the finer points of adiaphora as related to the disagreements on sexuality that were and continue to plague the Church. Those finer points are gone from my memory, and besides, they are not germane to my point. Or, if you will forgive me, those points are adiaphora to my point. What is important is the broader concept. In Christianity, adiaphora refers to matters not regarded as essential to faith. This does not mean such matters are not permissible, they are just not essential. They are not absolutely necessary to who we are as Christians.

This week as I have reflected on Professor Wondra’s explanation and our class discussion of adiaphora, I kept coming back to the thought that the concept of adiaphora is not as insignificant as I had originally thought. In fact, the concept is hugely significant. I kept coming back to the fact that the Church has taken on so much stuff that is not really essential to what we do. And for many Christians, we have taken on so much stuff in the development of our personal faith perspectives that is not essential. But it was obvious from reading the Windsor Report, there is not always agreement on what is essential and what is not. What one person views as adiaphora, another may view as essential. So, rather than attempting to define what does or does not constitute adiaphora, as does the Windsor Report, it seems to me the more valuable exercise is to approach it from the other direction, to define what is essential. What is essential to living a life of faith? What is essential to being Church?

And that’s precisely what today’s scripture lessons are about – attempting to address the tension between what is adiaphora and what is essential, defining what is essential to our lives of faith, and what is not.

We see the beginnings of this in the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy. In this lesson, we have Moses talking to the Israelites, who are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses is reminding them that their identity as a people is based on their relationship with God, that they are God’s Chosen People. This is based on the Covenant established between God and Abraham, and continually renewed through the Patriarchs, up to Moses. And a critical part of that Covenant, of what it means to be God’s Chosen, is to live according to the Torah, to follow the Law. This is what was essential. This is what continues to be essential to this day for devout Jews.

Pretty cut and dried. But when we get into the New Testament, we start to see the tension between essentials and adiaphora coming to light. And this tension is, in part, because as Christians we believe that there is a new covenant between God and his people. The old covenant, the Covenant between God and the people of Israel, has been superseded. Through Jesus Christ, the covenant has been extended to include all of humanity. And the terms of the covenant have been re-written. The New Covenant is no longer based on the Law, but rather, is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that means not just for Christians but for all humanity. The only problem is, at the time of the covenant being re-negotiated, it was a little unclear as to what conditions were being placed on humanity. Sure, we have such key provisions as the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), and the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37a-40). But how those key provisions get fleshed out, how we live into them, is another matter. And there are other provisions that seem important, but on which we are not entirely clear if they are essential.

We see this most readily in the gospel lesson from Mark. In short, the scribes and the Pharisees, the leaders of the Jews, are calling into question the devoutness, the religiosity, of Jesus’ followers, merely because they didn’t wash their hands before supper. For the Jews, the purity laws were very important. You had to follow them to be a good Jew. They were essential. They were, in fact, as we noted earlier, a way of identifying who was Jewish. The purity laws, as well as other legal requirements, were, if you will, a boundary, set up to identify the Jewish people. Ever since the Exile in Babylon, the Jewish people were faced with how to maintain their identity as God’s Chosen People in the face of encroaching political, social, cultural, and religious ideas from the advancing Greco-Roman world. Such purity laws, such boundaries, were seen as a way of protecting who the Jewish people were.

But Jesus saw these boundaries as a way of limiting, as a way of keeping people out. If you did not follow the proper laws, you were on the outside. You were not one of the Chosen. The Jews withdrew from that which they saw as unclean to avoid contact with those who were not like them. Jesus sought contact with the “unclean,” sought to include them within his own circle, within his loving embrace.

So, Jesus challenged the established purity laws. He saw what was essential. Was it essential to have clean hands when you eat in order to be a devout and faithful person devoted to God? No, of course not. Washing your hands before supper is adiaphora. (Unless your mother tells you to, but that’s a whole different matter, completely unrelated to faith). In challenging this one purity law as adiaphora, Jesus was, in effect, challenging the Jewish leaders to stop and consider what is essential to their life of righteousness, faithfulness and devotion to God. Was it following a bunch of laws, or was it something else, something more?

He goes on to tell those assembled that it is not eating with clean or dirty hands that determine if a person is good, righteous, and faithful. Rather it is what is in their hearts. It is what people do with their lives. It is how they chose to act that determines if they are good, righteous, and faithful. It is what they do to live out their faith, it is what they do to show their love for God that really demonstrates if they are good, righteous, and faithful, or not. For Jesus, this whole encounter was about stripping away what is adiaphora, what is non-essential, and focusing instead on what it truly means, what is truly necessary, to be a follower of God.

James, in his epistle, takes Jesus’ general thoughts about stripping away what is non-essential one step farther. James, instead of attempting to discuss what is adiaphora, goes for the jugular, laying out, from his perspective, what is absolutely necessary. James provides his assessment of what is the absolute essential for a faithful life in Christ – works, as he terms it. Now this whole notion of works can be a thorny issue. Since the Reformation, James has been viewed with suspicion, equated with “Popish” works righteousness. But I think James is, at times, taken a bit too literally. The central theme of his entire epistle is that faith requires visible expression. In other words, it does not do anyone any good to keep our faith to ourselves.

For James, our faith is an integral part of who we are. He says, “welcome . . . the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (James 1:21). The implanted word – the Word of God that is innate, inborn. The word of the gospel is an inborn reality. It is a gift from God given to all of us. But having the gift of the Word, having faith, is not enough, as far as James is concerned. As he says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). I don’t think that he means that we have to be doing good works in order to “buy” our way into heaven, to buy our salvation, as is sometimes argued. That is already assured through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, I think, for James, works are an organic process, the results of faith, the manifestation of a life faithfully lived. Or put another way, actions speak louder than words. Our actions add value to our words. They establish truthfulness to what we profess to believe. Our actions, done from that deep place of faith, lend credibility and authenticity. Our actions reflect what we truly believe.

An essential, as far as James is concerned, our actions, the way we live out the Gospel message in our daily lives, the way we share it with those we encounter, is the corrective to the adiaphora, the non-essentials of our life of faith, which can bog us down and prevent us from focusing on what is truly important –loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is up to each of us to determine, to discern with the help of the Holy Spirit, how we are called to manifest those essentials in our daily lives.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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