Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sept 2, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Inside or Outside? Ephesians 6:10-20 and Mark 7:14-23
Inside, or outside? Which are we supposed to be worrying about, threats that come from outside of us, or threats that come from within us? Inside, or outside? You might be a bit confused on this particular question this morning, after hearing St. Paul in our reading from Ephesians, and then Jesus in our reading from St. Mark. Inside, or outside, from whence cometh our dangers?
From Jesus, and from our bulletin cover, we are led to focus on our insides. Some pitiful young man sits, handcuffed and miserable, and Jesus says “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,” etc. “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” declares our Lord, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him." Defilement means dirtiness, sinfulness, un-holiness. Defilement leads to death, for defilement cuts you off from God, and Jesus says it comes from within, from your heart.
Later, when questioned by his confused disciples about this surprising teaching, Jesus is even more emphatic. "Then are you also without understanding?” he asks them. “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?" "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. Coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” The problem is your insides, your heart, which is sinful, and leads you to actual sins. You may look at the sad young man in cuffs on our bulletin and think, well, at least I’m better than Him. But Jesus says if your heart is sinful, you are just as much a prisoner, only you are handcuffed to Satan.
Paul today sounds much more hopeful than Jesus, for he seems to suggest we have a fighting chance, exhorting us to put on the full armor of God, to get ready to withstand the evil day, and the assaults of Satan, extinguishing with our shield the darts of the old evil foe. This really makes it sound like the dangers we face come from outside of us, out there, threats against which we need to keep alert, enemies against which we, as good soldiers of God, must fight the good fight.
So which is it? Paul says put on the full armor of God to fend off attacks, perhaps making us think that we are competent fighters in God’s army. Jesus says defilement comes not from the outside in, but from the inside out, which would mean we are of no value in the fight, that we are in fact traitors to the cause of Godliness. Are the dangers to our life with God found on the outside, evil things and the evil one, wicked agents who seek to attack us? Or are the real dangers welling up from within us? It would seem important to know the answer, so that we can know where to focus our concern.
Jesus says defilement comes from within, from the evil thoughts, words and deeds that spring from our hearts. Sometimes our hearts lead us to only to think of sinning, other times to actually commit the deeds we have pondered. But committed or not, we are defiled because these things rise from our hearts. And, sadly, they always do. Jesus is diagnosing our natural condition, since the Fall into sin, and, in our flesh, even after conversion. We are sinful, and naturally from our sinful hearts come ideas and desires to sin, along with the completion of those evil desires. Jesus gives us quite a list of sins, but they are in the end simply the symptoms of our sinful hearts, our sinful natures, and this is our root problem, our real problem.
The Jews of Jesus’ day, led by the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, were all about appearing to be clean, appearing to be sinless, tightly regulating the outward, visible life, in order to appear holy, and to convince themselves they were holy. It pleases the sinful heart to think that you are making yourself righteous, pleasing to God, because you pray every day, and don’t eat pig meat, and never eat anything at all with unwashed hands. You observe all the appointed religious festivals, and give a percentage of your income to support the Temple. You think you’re pleasing to God because you go to Church, hold down a job, dress decently, aren’t a thief, don’t swear, (not around your church friends, at least), and you give to your Church and favorite charities.
None of these outward works can cleanse the inward sinful nature. None of our works, whether commanded by God or self-chosen, can create new and holy hearts. Our problem with sin comes from the inside out, long before the world and Satan ever attack us. No amount of human effort can ever remove the stain and the guilt and the just punishment of human sinfulness. This is why the Psalmist cries out to God, begging the Lord to take away his sin: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Only God can fix our hearts. Only the Lord can undo the curse of original sin. Nothing we can do will solve the problem.
Which is of course, what Paul says too, as in Romans 3, where he declares the crushing verdict: "There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one." We can control our outward words and actions, to a certain extent, and, especially for the sake of our neighbor, we should. But you do not think pure thoughts. You do not love your neighbor from your heart, all the time. Your desires and your thoughts, and all too often your words and your deeds, reveal the evil that lurks within you. And within me.
Jesus says it. Paul says it. Our lives and consciences confirm it. The devil and the world may tempt and try to lead us astray, but our first and foremost problem is that we are conceived and born in sin, and so naturally from our hearts arise wicked, selfish thoughts, which lead to words and deeds that bear witness to our sinfulness. So then, why does Paul say put on the full armor of God? What does it help to be ready to fend off Satan’s darts, if we are already cursed and defiled from within? For that matter, why does Jesus drive home the point that our defilement rises from our own hearts, if we can’t do anything about it?
Simply put, Jesus, and Paul, and all of Scripture hammer home the reality of our sinfulness, so that we despair of saving ourselves. Jesus destroys the hope of making ourselves pure, so that we will be desperate for a Savior. Jesus does this because the most dangerous feature of our original sin is that we naturally despise the righteousness God wants to freely give us. Above all our sinful desires, our sinful hearts desire to be gods, declaring ourselves righteous. We may do this by changing the rules of righteousness, denying that sins are sins, saying adultery or theft or murder is actually acceptable in our case. Or we may pretend to actually keep God’s law. Either way, in our sinful natures we want to save ourselves, and so take pride in our accomplishments before God. God must crush this idea, this sinful lie, in order to save us.
God gave Israel instructions for worship and sacrifice, and some dietary and purity rules, in part to make them know that, as God’s chosen people, they were to be different from all their unbelieving neighbors. But more importantly, God gave these holiness rules so the Israelites would recognize, from their failures, that they were helpless to set themselves free from sin. And most importantly, the special ways and laws the Jews were to follow served to foreshadow the true Holy One from God, who would come to truly and finally cleanse God’s people from their sin, the One who came to create new hearts, by His sinless life of love, lived in our stead, and by His miracles of Crucifixion and Resurrection, by which new hearts are created in all who believe.
But what about Paul’s full armor exhortation? What’s that about?
This Word is only for those people the Holy Spirit has come and cleansed within by forgiveness and conversion. Paul tells Christians to put on the full armor of God, now speaking only to those in whom Christ has created new hearts, by the forgiveness of sins. To Christians, who are a new creation of the Holy Spirit by the Word, Paul gives the encouragement to put on the full armor of God. In Christ you are made new, even made to be a useful soldier in God’s army. But only in so far as God works through you; the battle, inward and outward, still belongs to the Lord. Christians are to battle against sin and Satan, but do not imagine it is up to you to win the outward fight against sin by your own power. To understand this, consider closely the armor Paul speaks of.
Paul says put on the belt of truth, which is the truth God has declared in Scripture and revealed in Jesus Christ, a truth that we can only receive from God, speaking through the words of His pastors and people. We do not find the truth, the truth finds us. Paul says put on the breastplate of righteousness, that is, the righteousness of Christ which is given to all the baptized, His goodness and holiness which covers over our sin and defilement, making us righteous in God’s sight. Paul says wear as your shoes the readiness of the Gospel of peace, which enables you to walk in love, for in Christ you have been loved perfectly by God. Always take up the shield of faith, that word-wrought gift which can extinguish Satan’s darts. Christian faith can do this because Christian faith is the faith in forgiveness won by Christ, who by atoning for the sins of all has taken all of Satan’s power to accuse. Wear the helmet of salvation, that is let your mind be protected by the good news that God Himself has achieved your salvation. Wield the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, because through the Word, recorded in the Bible and proclaimed in His Church, God is at work to sustain your faith and give you peace and confidence.
And so we see that every piece of armor Paul exhorts us to wear is in truth a work of God, a gift of God, the same gifts which He uses to wash us clean and give us new hearts. To be a Christian is to be one rescued by Christ from sin. To be a Christian is to trust in what Jesus has done for you. To be a Christian is to be one who receives the gifts that God promises to give in and through Jesus. And so to put on the full armor of God is nothing more than to receive and revel in the gifts of forgiveness, righteousness, peace, and joy which God gives us through His Word, His Washing and His Supper. When we are covered by the armor of these gifts, then we are ready to face Satan and the world.
So, is it inside, or outside? From whence cometh our dangers? On which should we focus? Well, it is true that danger comes from inside and outside. Our sinful nature clings to us, even after we are Baptized believers, even as we hear His Word and eat His Body and Blood. Without regular tending and correction and absolution by God through His means of grace, our hearts will soon lead us away from God. It is also true that the world and the devil both seek to attack us, because they hate Christ, and so also Christians. Apart from the gifts of God’s armor in Christ, we will soon be overwhelmed.
So, we need to be aware of both threats, from the inside and the outside. However, our focus should be on neither our inside, nor on our outside, but always on Christ. For in Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, we see the heart of God opened, giving His very best to win us back from sin, death and the devil. In Jesus Christ, we see the heart of a real man who is also the true God, pumping out holy, divine blood which poured down from the Cross, washing away the sins of the whole world. And so also, in the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, we see that Satan is powerless to accuse or imprison us, and every person in the world has a Savior about whom we are privileged to tell. Every threat we face, from the inside and the outside, is defeated in Jesus, and so our focus should always be on Him.
God grant that our focus always be on Jesus Christ, the One who cleanses us inside and out, and promises to keep us for eternity, safe within the armor He has won for us. Amen.