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3 Tips to Better Christianity

9/5/21

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3 Tips to Better Christianity

Outdoor magazines started putting banners across the corners of their covers advertising the number of tips, skills, or pointers for better fishing or hunting in that issue. See on the bulletin cover the banner “3 Tips to Better Christianity”.

First, beware of pettifoggers. A pettifogger is someone given to quibbling over trifles. For example, even within the handwashing tradition of the Jewish elders there was a debate about whether the hands were to be held up or down. Whether it was adequate to have the water run off the palms alone or did the water have run down the palms, on to wrists, and down the forearms? Beware of pettifoggers and know that the answer to uncleanliness before God isn’t pettifogging lawyers. Pettifoggers can be found in the church in liturgy and prayer. In liturgy, the pettifoggers will tell you that you must bow here, cross yourselves here, kneel here, stand there, and hold your hands just so…or else. Yes all things are to be done reverently, but the spirit of pettifoggery puts a damper on what should be a joyful service. That spirit can also lead to not praying when it leaves the impression that the time, place, manner and very words of an acceptable prayer are all dictated. 

You might not get this joke unless you’ve fished some. When you’re out with others and everyone is catching fish but you’re not, invariably, one of the guys says, “You must not be holding your lips right.” Hint: how you hold you lips has nothing to do with catching fish. It’s pettifogging to say it does. And it’s pettifogging to think anything you do can deal with what streams out of your sinful fallen heart. Jesus says, “From within …come sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” Jesus doesn’t say they could come, might come, will come but do come. Jesus captures them all by at first calling them not “evil thoughts” but “base, worthless” ones, and then ends by calling them “actively evil things.” Nope, you can’t deal with them by saying this prayer, doing this liturgical gesture, reciting the Lord’s Prayer 5 times or holding your lips just so.

First tip, beware of pettifoggery. Second, have more than the Bible for a creed. For fear of making the traditions of men a doctrine of God, among some Protestants it’s no creed but the Bible. At first blush, that sounds good, but what does it mean? What you believe the Bible means is your creed, and everyone has one. Even those who claim to have no creed but the Bible have a creed. They teach something about creation, the Fall, redemption, and how the redemption, justification, salvation Jesus did in 30 A.D. gets down to us in 2021. The issue is does your creed accurately confess what the Bible means? The creedal statement, “I believe in God the Father almighty Maker of heaven and earth” confesses what the Bible says. The confession I believe God created the heavens and earth by evolution conflicts with Ex. 20:11, “For in 6 days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the 7th day.” The creedal statement, “I believe in one Baptism for the remission of sins,” correctly confesses Acts 2:38, “Be baptized, every one of you…for the forgiveness of your sins.” Teaching Baptism doesn’t forgive sins conflicts with this.

A creed, a faith is judged not how sincerely, certainly, or joyfully a person holds it, says it, shares it. A creed, a faith, a confession, a belief is judged the same way any substance is. A substance is either edible or inedible objectively. No matter how sincerely, certainly, or joyfully you take poison, it’s still poison. The problem is most people don’t know what their confession of faith is. Luther called this coal miner’s faith. You ask a coal miner what he believed and he says, “I believe what the church believes”. You ask him what the church believes and he says, “The church believes what I believe.” You know for all my shortcomings as a pastor, if you don’t know what this church believes, teaches, and confesses, it’s all on you not at all on me. Let me put this starkly: When you kneel at this altar before the Lord Jesus, you’re confessing to believe in a particular Jesus. The same is true at whatever altar people worship at. A particular Jesus is confessed, taught, and believed at that altar. You’re responsible for knowing which Jesus it is and is it the Jesus revealed in the Bible.

“3 Tips to a Better Christianity” says the banner. #1 Beware of pettifoggers; #2 Have more than the Bible for a creed. #3 Get to the Heart of the Matter. Jesus named all the worthless, actively wicked things pouring out of men’s hearts. The picture is the bats pouring out of the Congress Avenue Bridge. I’ll give you an even more disgusting image. We came home after flooding waters had subsided in Louisiana. It was night. The headlights hit the brick of the house. It was moving with hundreds of cockroaches having fled the flooded sewer. Go ahead; shudder, but realize pettifogging dampens, deadens, lessens the disgust. This word dates to 1564. It’s a compound word meaning petty as in small-minded and “fogger” which they think comes from the German merchants and bankers the Fugger’s (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pettifogger. Accessed 8/31/21). I prefer thinking of ‘fogger’ as foggy. Like in Revelation when hell is opened; so much smoke billows out the sun is blotted out. Pettifogging tries to get you to focus on this or that thing, sin, or action as if doing so addresses the mass of smoke boiling out of hell.

Jesus takes you to the heart of the matter. The Pharisees and teachers of the law, pettifoggers all, want to look outside you, your actions. Jesus points back to the heart. Even if I had gotten out of my car and started swatting roaches, while I would have killed a good many, I would’ve done nothing to the heart of the matter, the sewer where they thrived and multiplied. And you’re fooling yourself if you think any of the things you do actually deal with all worthless, wicked thoughts erupting from your heart. Lady Macbeth scrubs her hands raw and yet still sees the stain of her sin crying, “Out, damned spot!” Or Jenny confronting the sins against her in the past which boil up in her life in sinful ways takes to throwing rocks at the house she grew up in. After she collapses in the dirt, Forrest Gump says, “Sometime, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.” A pettifogger would say, “You just need to throw this one” and,  to Lady Macbeth he’d say, “You just need to scrub this way”.

Get to the heart of the matter is tip 3 and tip 3b is, “Go to Galatians.” Galatians 3:3 says, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now trying to reach the goal by the flesh?” Or another way of saying it is, “Having begun your new spiritual life by the Gospel, do you really think you can finish it by means of the Law?” What is the Promise of the New Testament? The Lord promises to give us a new heart (Ezk. 36:19). Jesus’ heart alone had none of the wicked roaches boiling up and out of it. His heart was clean, never did it have a wicked or worthless thought. But His heart was broken: betrayed by disciples, abandoned by friends, given up on by loved ones, and finally even His heavenly Father left Him alone in hell for 3 eternal hours. In the end, His heart was pierced through and bled blood and water to cover your sins and sinfulness. And for the sake of our sinfully stained hands, His hands were nailed to a cross. And for the sake of your head that runs wild and rampant with uncontrollable worries, fears, lusts, prides, greeds, etc., etc., etc., His holy head was crowned with thorns.

Have you begun in this Gospel and want to end in the Law? Well, go for it. Keep on washing and scrubbing; keep on dotting your ‘i’s’ and crossing your ‘t’s’ and see if you find yourself anywhere but with Lady Macbeth. And go ahead; throw this and that rock. Heck, throw your whole self at the sins against you and your sins against God and others and see if you end up in a better place than Jenny did. Or you can get to the heart of the matter and see that what you really need is your feet washed.

Come to the upper room: where Bread is the Body of Jesus and Wine is His Blood and where foot washing is forgiveness. In John 13, Peter thinks it’s no more than slave work and forbids Jesus to wash his feet. Jesus says that he has no part in Him if he doesn’t. Peter says, “Well then not just my feet but all of me.” Jesus replies: “A person who has bathed only needs his feet washed. You are clean.” Then jump forward to chapter 15. Jesus tells us what makes us clean: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The forgiveness Jesus won by a holy life and unholy death in your place, was applied to you by the Word of Jesus’ forgiveness I spoke to you. In Baptism the visible Word was applied to you for forgiveness, rescue from Death and the Devil and eternal salvation for all who believe. 

Get to the heart of the matter and hear Paul preaching in Acts 13:38, “So, … let it be known to you that through this Jesus forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you; forgiveness from everything from which you could not be justified through the law of Moses” (EHV). You see? No help comes from the Law in the matter of your justification. It exposes your sins and sinfulness. It shows you the roach infested condition of every fallen heart, but it has no answer. In Acts 15, you might think the matter at hand is the law. No, it’s how hearts are cleansed, and Peter declares that for both Jews and non-Jews, the only way anyone’s heart is cleansed is by faith. And now we’re back to hint #2 and having more than the Bible for a creed. Just what are you to believe? Just what faith gives a new heart and rescues me from my own fallen one giving me clean-hands and a rock-free conscience Christianity?

How about the faith Paul confesses in Gal. 2:20? “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” This isn’t better Christianity. It’s the only Christianity. Amen   


Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20210905); Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23