Washing is a part of life. Most of the time we do it without thinking about it. Sometimes it can be a chore. At other times a pleasure. We wash ourselves, our children, our clothes, our food, our pots and pans, our floors, our windows, our cars, our patios. Depending on how house proud we are, we wash or dry clean almost anything.
Why do we do we put so much effort into keeping things clean? Why is it important to us? I guess one of the most pressing reasons in the back of our minds will be hygiene. Whether we are obsessive or laid back, we all know that we should wash our hands after using the loo or before eating or preparing food; that wounds need to be kept clean and our hospitals free from infection. After hygiene come the cosmetic reasons for cleanliness. We want to look our best, so we bath and shower regularly, not only to remove dirt, but also odours. Our clothes go through the wash often for the same reason and we wince when we hear of people in Elizabethan times remaining in the same clothes all winter using only perfumes to mask the smell. Refreshment is another reason for washing. In warm weather such as we have had this summer, the use of showers rises as people take two or three in a day to freshen up.
Our gospel passages today from Mark chapter 7 (verses 1-8, 14-15 & 21-23) have Jesus in discussion with the Pharisees about washing. The disciples had been caught like naughty boys eating without washing their hands. We can presume it would have been normal for people to wash their hands before a meal for hygiene reasons especially as they often ate from a common bowel. However, the Pharisees were probably looking out to see if they had ritually cleansed themselves. In the book of Exodus, (30.18-21 & 40.30-32) we learn how the priests were expected to wash both hands and feet in a prescribed way using a bronze bowl. By Jesus’ time, at the instigation of the scribes, this ritual was being extended to normal Jewish people. The Pharisees, always trying to catch Jesus and his disciples out, would have noticed that the disciples did adhere to the stricter rule.
Mark goes on to helpfully explain other customs including washing produce from the market along with cups, pots and kettles. We may well regard that as good practice, but it was probable that such rigour was lacking among other races. However, Mark describes it as the ‘tradition of the elders.’ This implies that it was ritualistic washing done not simply for the purpose of hygiene, but for religious reasons. Over the years, the elders of the Jewish faith gradually encouraged the ritual cleansing which in the past had been the preserve of the priest, to be part of everyday life for Jews. Such washing was intended not only to remove dirt and bacteria in so far as that was understood, but of other impurities which might make you unacceptable to God.
The idea is common across different religions. For Moslems, washing in a prescribed manner, ‘wudu’ is always done before prayers. This involves the hands, feet, head, mouth and nostrils. A mosque will contain special facilities for this purpose. The Quran makes clear that God loves those who keep themselves pure and clean. (2.222) The ritual washing is understood not only as a cleansing of the physical body but also making the heart clean before God.
In Hinduism, it is thought good to bathe ritually in rivers considered to be holy, notably the Ganges, before great festivals. In certain branches of the faith, ritual washing also occurs before the taking of food.
In Christianity, baptism whether by sprinkling, pouring or total immersion is seen as a symbol of cleansing from sin. Christians differ in the what they believe happens at baptism, some placing more emphasis on the faith of the candidate and others on the work of God in the sacrament. However, properly understood, it is an outward and visible sign of the Holy Spirit’s inner cleansing of the human heart. It is not the external ritual alone which is effective but the rebirth and regeneration of the whole of a person’s life. As John the Baptist put in when speaking of Jesus: ‘I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (Matthew 3.11)
When preparing parents for the baptism of their children, I sometimes ask them whether they think it will make any difference to the way their child behaves. Understandably, the question can throw them, but it is intended to introduce the idea that it is not the act of applying water to the baby’s head which changes anything but having God in their lives which makes a difference. Baptism is not like going to the surgery for an immunisation. There is no immediate discernible effect. It is rather about initiating a relationship with the living God who expresses himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whether you are asking it for a child who you intend to bring up in the fear of the Lord or for yourself as an act of faith in the God you are discovering, true Christian baptism is an outward expression of an inner cleansing that only God can accomplish.
This draws us back to words of Jesus in todays gospel reading. You may have wondered why Jesus was so scathing about the pharisees adherence to ritual washing. Surely such washing was a good thing? Was not Jesus himself baptised, ritually washed in the Jordan, and did he not commend baptism to his disciples? The answer lies most clearly in Jesus’ words recorded in verse 15: ‘Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them’. Human beings are not made impure, unclean by what they eat or drink or by not washing their hands properly. Such things may make us ill, but do not defile us in God’s eyes. Instead it is all the bad we do that comes from within: theft, murder, adultery and other sexual sin, deceit and wickedness. (verses 21 -22) You might say; but that’s not me! I haven’t murdered anyone or committed adultery. I haven’t stolen anything…well I may have misappropriated a few paper clips from the office, but what is that on the grand scale of things? But again, Jesus points out, it is not just the things we do for which we can get caught, it is evil thoughts, greed and malice, arrogance and folly. When we search our consciences, we know those things are there in some shape or form, even if we keep them well hidden from the world, they are not hidden from God. No amount of ritual washing or the physical action of baptising can remove them. They pollute every human heart and in too many instances are allowed to destroy lives and threaten human existence.
‘But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.’ (1 John 1.7) These words from the letter of John written in the light of the Jesus’ death on the cross show that by walking in the light, sharing fellowship with each other and Jesus, that mystery of the sacrificial death of Jesus, his blood acts as the ultimate cleansing for our lives.
There is a real danger for all religion to become mechanistic. To say; if you do A, B and C then D will happen, and all will be well. The pharisees of Jesus’ day did that as do strict Jews today. It is the way many Muslims see their religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons too and there is danger that Christians go the same way, whether the ‘doing’ is of an evangelical or catholic nature. Instead, we are called into a relationship with the living God through Jesus, in which the real sanctifier is the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In this relationship, nothing can be hidden, all is made well, and baptism attains it full significance.
The words of the prayer known as the ‘collect for purity’ draw these thoughts together:
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open
All desires known and no secrets are hid
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
By the inspiration
Of Thy Holy Spirit
So we’ll perfectly love Thee
And worthily magnify Thy Holy Name
Through Christ our Lord
Trinity 14 02.09.2018