Toorak Uniting Church

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The New Purity

Mark 7: 1 – 23
Rev. Glennis Johnston
2 September 2012

Isn’t it funny how some things come full circle? Many centuries ago in Jesus’ culture a person’s level of holiness was measured by their observance of purity laws which included regulations about ritual cleansing, about keeping a distance from anyone considered unclean and about eating only acceptable foods.

The concept of God underpinning this worldview was of a holy God, spotless, untouched by the messiness of humanity, unable to relate closely with the imperfection of the created order.

Purifying ourselves was necessary if we were to approach this God at all even to worship. Some people were unable to purify themselves, especially those who were not perfect in body – the handicapped, women, anyone with bodily emissions or diseases, or anyone who came in contact with animals considered unclean.

Then, in the Christian era, Westerners did away with the purity laws and the regulations about food, declaring all foods acceptable. Christians, still, are unusual amongst the world religions for having no specific food requirements.

But human beings have a tendency to want some kind of regulations to classify other human beings into levels of acceptability. Christians are no different. And it’s always the people with power who set the rules, so the dominant morality of the day, the one practiced by the ‘respectable’ and powerful in society is given the stamp of purity, of holiness and used to set the benchmark to which others must conform. Thus the concept of purity came to be associated more with sexual relationships on the one hand and with following church practices on the other.

One purified oneself through church attendance and regular commitment to religious rituals, through confession, through adopting acceptable patterns of behavior and relationships. Women and disabled people could participate up to a level, but women still were kept on the outer regarding full acceptability for centuries. (- perhaps because of the lingering influence of the discarded ancient purity laws, but perhaps also because it worked for the men who made the rules. And of course Scripture texts could be found to back up the status quo which legitimated the prejudice.)

So, coming into the last 100 years, the "Christian" West has continued to associate purity with ‘normal’ sexual expression absolutely and only within the bounds of marriage and hidden where no questions can be asked. It is only in recent years, for instance, that the law has grappled with the criminality of rape within marriage.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." We can all quote it. But the intention of the heart has never really been given a serious place in the morality of our societies and even our faith communities until recent years. But, Thank God, that is changing.

The Uniting Church came into sharp focus publically quite a few years ago over its "resolution 84" of the Assembly regarding the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in ministry. This hit at the heart of so many of our faithful members because it touched upon this very issue of how we interpret purity and the strong association of sexuality with levels of holiness.

It’s been a difficult ride for our church. But I applaud the Uniting Church for at least having the courage to enter the field with honest and robust debate. That’s healthy. However, I long for us to search deeper into the spirituality of genuine holiness and purity and to examine our concept of God which underpins it all.

But before I go further into that, I began by saying that some things come full circle. Well, purity and food has done just that. With the demolition of Christendom and the establishment of the sexual revolution, the prevalent ‘Christian’ view of purity and morality has largely disappeared in the West. It’s come full circle, because, as many social analysts have commented in recent years, "Food is the new morality."

It’s a different take on food and purity from the ancient Jewish laws, but it’s quite strong. Trans fats aren't just unhealthy, they are BAD and WRONG. Sugar isn't just simple carbs, it's OMG Sugar! Do you know what you’re eating! Thinness is the new righteousness. Exercise is the new church attendance. Obesity is the new depravity. Food is the new morality.

I don’t actually mean to be harsh about the new morality. I certainly find myself challenged by it, given my own addiction to sweet creamy foods. And I do agree that over-indulgence may well be related to lack of spiritual health. But have you noticed that, just as under the old sexually defined purity system, those who feel self-righteous have a tendency to judge those who struggle?

Whatever system of purity or morality we accept and live within we will always be tempted to judge others.

So how to move to purity of heart?

Listening deeply to the text from Mark, we are told that it isn’t what we eat or what external regulations we practice, whether they be religious or health oriented, it’s not these externals that matter in the end – it’s what’s in our hearts, our intentions, our motives, our hopes and desires for ourselves and others.

I heard recently of a woman who was very ill and tried all sorts of nutrition regimes to find a cure. Finally she went to Italy and lived in a monastery for a while and learned to meditate and to deal with her negative feelings towards family members. She came home a well woman. It’s only one story and I’m not saying it applies to all. But I do like her conclusion good health is not about what you eat but about what is eating you.

I think we are having to learn a similar lesson about purity and spirituality. Genuine spirituality isn’t about peripherals but about the centre.

It’s not about how diligently we keep religious laws, or how closely we follow the stipulations of our church or temple or mosque or synagogue, or about how nutritionally pure our diet is. It’s not even about how green our houses are or whether we have the lowest carbon footprint in our circle of friends, or even about how respectably or successfully we manage our relationships and sexuality. All these matters have an important place in the balance of our lives for sure, but they do not dictate our acceptability as human beings before our God.
They do not define our purity of heart.

As I contemplated this text and topic for today I found myself reminded of another text in the New Testament where we are told "Our God is a consuming fire." It’s always felt like a harsh, judgmental view of God. But I found myself appreciating that image in a new way. A fiercely hot fire refines metals like gold. Enough heat will burn away the impurities, leaving the pure essence of the thing.

The image of a consuming, incredibly hot fire is an image of energy. Hot flames are associated with the passion and energy of love. Could it be that as we allow the passionate love of God for us as human beings to burn away the peripherals of the ego and our lesser desires that in our hearts is revealed the core, the essence of who we really are?

To live a life of purity is to live out of the essence of our true selves. All pretence, all false images, all pretentions of the ego fall away and we delight in being who we were made to be. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

So who is this God at the centre of such a worldview? Is God really the distant one who cannot be approached by unacceptable human beings? Does God need to be protected from defiled people?

Or do we, with our contradictions, our less than perfect diets and relationships and messy humanity have to be protected from a holy God?

Or could it be that this God, with an all-consuming love, invites us and draws us into an embrace that touches our souls at the point of our unspoken need. Could it be that this God with a passionate and refining love reaches and cleanses deep within our hearts and declares us to be good?

Could it be that God is not defiled by our messiness?
that God is not even afraid of our messiness?

Could it be that God is experienced primarily within our own humanity in all its imperfections, earthiness and glory?

© Rev. Glennis Johnston, 2012

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