James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 “Christian” is a word that for some folks, has many different levels of meaning. For all of us, it means we have passed through the waters of baptism. For others it means baptism yes, and it means a life that is constantly in process, a life in which, we are growing to be more like Christ. We hear the Spirit’s call to be like Christ, but the transformation of life and spirit must first and always, take place in the heart. Accepting the identity of Christian, of “follower of Christ,” our outward actions, the life we live every day, must become a reflection of the heart.
Jesus affirms that outward actions reflect our inward heart, as he challenges the folks about some of their traditions of ritually cleaning hands before eating, and the tradition of washing cups, and pots. For Jesus, these little actions were no more than empty gestures that had loss their original intent. The intentions of the people, who were requiring these traditions, had shifted from being an outward sign of the heart’s love of God, to an action that found its purpose in the accolades of those who saw them doing it. For some of the people Jesus was challenging, what they did, the traditions and service they were offering was not because of a heart drawn to God, but a desire to gain admiration of others. Can you think of empty gestures in our traditions or in our culture that have somehow have lost their original intent? The problem with some of these things is not in the actions/traditions themselves, it is the theology, the intentions behind them.
It is in the human heart that our intentions emerge and it is from there, our actions emerge. Modern science reminds us that it is not in the heart organ itself where we process thought, intentions, or emotions. Those processes in the brain however; we recognize there is more going on there as well. It is through the spirit, the connectedness we have to God, which has a significant role in how our intentions manifest themselves.
The word intention means “an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result, the end or object intended, or the purpose.” When we consider an action we want to accomplish, it becomes manifested because of our thoughts, our desires, and our dreams. Our actions always come with a purpose. For instance, if we make a choice to give something to someone, hopefully, in our brain, in our spirit, the intention is to share, to give of ourselves, to follow God’s mandate to care for others.
Consider for a moment why you are here today. We all woke up this morning and made a choice whether to come to church or not. Hopefully, within our spirits our intentions of coming to worship today, was so we could join in this fellowship of sharing community with other Christians, to worship God, and to offer praises to Our Lord. In each of these examples, we do not merely need to act, we need to take a moment and consider why we have done, what we have done. We always need to examine the purpose behind our choices. Sometimes our outward actions get a little off track and we do things for empty reasons. Kind of like washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. We sometimes lose sight of the reasons behind what we do.
We as Christians must never forget that we must examine our hearts and the intentions of our heart, our spirit. Jesus said, “‘this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Some folks like to use this scripture as some misguided justification for eliminating traditions, traditions that have a legitimate connection to the intentions of the heart. I for one, do not believe Jesus was offering a justification for getting rid of traditions. I believe Jesus was challenging those early followers and us his current followers, to examine why we do what we do.
Jesus is asking us to look at our heart and examine if the purpose behind our actions reveal the desire to grow in a deeper love of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to grow in a deeper love with our neighbors, and to be a community of reconciliation and grace. If what we do as a community, if the traditions we hold on to support these intentions, then we retain them. If what we do comes in conflict with the heart’s desire to love God and love neighbor, we should abandon them for new ways of being.
In either case, we should begin every endeavor with an examination of our hearts and ask, “Why do we do this?” We approach this examination with caution because Jesus said, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Our hearts direct what we do.
Examining our hearts has implications for both us as a community, and us as individuals. Sometimes we act in ways that in our own minds is pure and in line with God’s ways, but is that always the case? A group of Christians had a grand idea to begin doing something new in the community. They were certain absolutely that this was of God and it was in service to their neighbor. However, there were some folks in the group, who before beginning, had not done the hard work of examining the heart before embarking on this endeavor. A few of the members of this group were struggling with why they were even involved in the ministry and they questioned whether it was based on a desire for self-grandeur. They eventually became blind to how their actions and reactions were affecting others. They needed a heart examination.
The spiritual practice of self-examination is deeply rooted in our tradition. St. Ignatius of Loyola was a loyal disciple in 15th and 16th centuries, who after a conversion experience in battle, began discerning how God was working in his life. He became a great spiritual director and he developed a process (The Daily Examen) which is a prayerful reflection on one’s own life and actions. The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.
We are all called to engage in an ongoing examination of our lives, not just on Sunday, but each day of the week. We must search our heart’s intentions from which, our actions emerge. If we find that our objectives are to love God, love neighbor and in so doing, be an instrument of grace and reconciliation, then we retain those actions that emerge from our hearts. If we find that our objectives are anything else, if our objectives become merely self-serving, if they create division, if we begin to undermine God’s work, then we must abandon those actions that emerge from our hearts. The spirit of being a disciple, a follower of Jesus is to accept the reality that our hearts must be remade, reformed, so that we may truly follow Jesus. In the Epistle of James, we are encouraged to not be “hearers who forget, but doers who act.” We must not forget that our purpose, our divine calling is to love God, and right alongside that to love neighbor. At the end of the day we need to look back and question just how well we have been faithful to our life purpose. Difficult? Yes. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. Countercultural? Without a doubt? Is this what Jesus did? You can stake your life on it.