If you’re new to the church, maybe you look around worship and see that people seem to know all kinds of rituals and prayers that you don’t know, and people seem to believe all kinds of things that you aren’t sure you can believe, it might make you wonder: is there a place in this church for me? Or maybe you’ve been here a long time and church isn’t how you remember it, it might make you wonder, is there a place in this church for me?
Well, I’m going to tell you a story that might help explain why the church ought to be full of all different kinds of people.
One day, Jesus was sitting down for dinner. Gathered with him were his disciples, his closest followers, but also with him was a big crowd made up of anybody who wanted to eat with them. They were as different from one another as different could be: some were fishermen from Galilee, some were from the South of the country and dressed like lawyers or scholars. The only thing that bound them together was that they wanted to know if there was something of God shining through this man, Jesus. They came to hear what he said, and see what he did. Sometimes people liked what they saw and followed him. Sometimes people didn’t like what they saw, and arguments would break out.
And on this day, a particularly heated argument broke out. Dinner hadn’t even started yet, people were just sitting down when some of the visitors demanded to know from Jesus why some of Jesus’ disciples had sat down to eat without first washing their hands. And Jesus replied…
Now, I need to pause here for a moment before I get on with the story, because this hand washing thing might not make sense to modern people or—what’s worse—it might make half sense. Washing yourself was a very common practice among Jews at that time, completely immersing themselves in water, a very uncommon practice in the ancient world and very costly habit in the desert. So why was this washing so important?
For Jews, they would need to wash before going to do something holy, because the ordinary stuff of life didn’t mix with the sacred. That’s what sacred means, set apart from the ordinary, the sacred presence of God would just stay away from anything that was too ordinary. Now, walking through the world people are going to accumulate layers of the ordinary: a bit of envy here, a bit of anger there, they clung to a person like dust on a sweaty brow, it can’t be helped. So people would go to ritual baths and immerse themselves in water, emerging washed and ready to encounter the sacred. What does this have to do with sitting down to a meal? For Jews, sitting down to eat dinner—that was a sacred thing, set apart from ordinary life.
People had come to Jesus hoping for sacred encounter, but the first thing they see is some of Jesus’ disciples plop down like pigs at a trough and start cramming food in their mouths without even bothering to wash their hands. It seemed like they didn’t care whether God was present in the breaking of bread.
Sorry, I was telling a story about why the church ought to be full of all different kinds of people. Let’s get back to it.
So Jesus and his disciples are sitting down to eat dinner and most of the people around the table were regular folks from the small towns around there, laborers and fishermen and local women and beggars, those kind of people. But the ones who were starting this fight about the hand washing, they were not from around there. They were men from the big city, from Jerusalem, nor were these travelers passing. They were strictly religious people, and they had evidently come specifically because they wanted to meet Jesus, they were Pharisees. Dinner was just about to start when they ground the whole thing to a halt with and argument about—of all things—why some of his disciples had not washed their hands. Well, Jesus let em have it right away, calling the Pharisees hypocrites and saying that they were replacing the law of God with quibbling little rules of their own devising.
I’m sorry, I need to pause here again before going on with the story the story because it’s kind of important to understand who the Pharisees are. The Pharisees get a bad rap in the gospels and are often thought of as antagonists to Jesus. But originally they were a group of Jews who were trying to reform the religious practice of Israel. The Pharisees felt it was unnecessary to have to go to a priest any time they messed up and sinned a little bit. They believed that ordinary people were able to care for their own spiritual destiny, were able to relate to God directly without any intercessor, all it took was an honest desire to follow the law of God as they understood it. So they would educate people and encourage them to take their spiritual destiny into their own hands. True, the Pharisees earned a reputation for being strict, for being people who cared about the rules. But the rules were how they came to God on their own terms.
So when the Pharisees came to see Jesus, I believe they came to earnestly seek whether he was a sacred leader. But what they found was this man Jesus, he didn’t even make his followers wash their hands in preparation for the sacred encounter with God that comes from breaking bread. He was flaunting all of the traditions that were—for the Pharisees—keys to how they encounter God. How could Jesus throw all that beautiful away just to accommodate these…these…fishermen…these newcomers who admitted they knew nothing of God! The Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat to the only way they knew how to approach the divine.
Sorry, I was telling a story about why the church ought to be full of all different kinds of people.
So Jesus and his disciples were sitting down to eat dinner, but the Pharisees who were there got really upset when they noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands before the meal, and this seemed to threaten their whole way of worshiping God. I’m sorry, I have to stop again, I’m really not getting anywhere in telling this story about the church. Did you hear that? The Pharisees were upset because SOME of Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands? That means that some of Jesus disciples HAD washed their hands before the meal, I’m sorry I REALLY need to stick to the story of why the church is full of all different kinds of people.
The Pharisees wanted to know why some of Jesus’ disciples prepared themselves to encounter the holy by washing their hands and others did not. So what does Jesus do? Does he take that opportunity to chide those who had not washed their hands? No. Does he take that opportunity to chide those who HAD washed their hands? No instead Jesus has a lesson for everyone:
Don’t worry so much about what’s going on outside: food and washing, don’t worry so much about what other people are doing, focus on your own heart. Because it’s the things that come from our own hearts that we need to worry about: envy that leads to lies and slander, slander that leads to conflict and anger, anger that leads to violence or even murder. That’s where the real mortal sins come from. Look out for what’s in your heart, then worry about what’s on your own hands, and don’t bother worrying about what’s on somebody else’s hands. I think that for everyone at that dinner that night—whether they had washed their hands or not—Jesus’ words came as a challenge. I think for everyone in this sanctuary today Jesus’ words come as a challenge.
And I think, in the end, they explain why the church is full of such different people, who believe such different things. To try to grow and better ourselves, to move beyond envy and hatred, to avoid lies and never even be tempted by murder, these are exactly as difficult today as they were in Jesus’ day. And people want teachings that will help them, they want companionship in that work, I think that’s what draws people to the church in the first place, and I think that’s what keeps people members of a church for years.
Why is the church today so filled with different kinds of people? Because that’s the way it always has been. Even among the disciples of Jesus there was a diversity of religious practice about whether to wash their hands or not wash their hands. Because Jesus was calling people to follow him on a path that was not about proper religious ritual, but about deciding between paths that lead to death, and paths that lead to life.
You are welcome in the church, you are welcome if you are new and our practices don’t make sense. So welcome, if you are new, welcome not as someone to be molded into the shape of someone else. But welcome as a co-creator of the beloved reign of God, welcome into a community that wants you to teach what you know. And welcome too, if you are a Pharisee like me, who likes the rules and rituals. Welcome if the practices of this place matter so much to you because they have helped you to find God. Welcome to you who not only loves the doxology but has definite opinions on Old Hundredth vs. Lasst uns Erfreuenn. This is the church as it always has been, as Christ intended. Mixed up, and struggling, and beautiful and searching and rock solid and ever changing, a church made richer because you are here. Amen.