Mark 2:18-22 (8 Epiphany B)

He’s cast out demons. Healed an old woman’s fever. Cleansed a leper. Raised a paralytic. Preached up a storm. And now it’s time for Jesus to cast out the demon of religion.

Jesus seems to go out of his way to run roughshod over religion. His disciples pick grain on the sabbath, right under the nose of the watchful Pharisees. And He has this habit of healing on the sabbath. Why couldn’t he wait until Sunday? Or get it in before sunset on Friday? Why does he do things that deliberately provoke the religious with their oh-so-righteous traditions?

In this morning’s Gospel, the issue isn’t sabbath keeping but fasting. John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Jesus and his disciples weren’t. The religious were quick to point the finger. What’s with them? Why weren’t they fasting? It’s like not hanging up Christmas lights at Christmas. Or not giving up chocolates and Alleluias for Lent.

There was only one prescribed fast in the OT – Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On that day all Israel went hungry from sunrise to sundown. They fasted in mourning and grief over their sin. And that was the only required fast in the Old Testament. All other fasts were individual and voluntary. Fasts were usually associated with disaster – hard economic times or times of bereavement or national calamity. Who can eat? In the book of Jonah, the entire city of Nineveh fasted in repentance, including the animals.

After the exile, the Jews added four fast days to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem. You celebrate victory with feasting, defeat with fasting. Later Judaism added two weekly fasts on Mondays and Thursdays. If a little is good, more must be better. The Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday. So did the Essenes. That’s probably what John’s disciples and the Pharisees were up to.

The only time we hear of Jesus fasting was when He fasted forty days in the wilderness after His Baptism, echoing Moses on Sinai and Israel in the wilderness. That was more than enough fasting. We presume He kept the Yom Kippur fast with the rest of Israel, though none of the Gospel writers tells us that He did. Jesus didn’t have much to say on the subject. He presumed His disciples would fast, pious Jews that they were. He told them, “When you fast, wash your face, comb your hair, and like prayer and charity, keep it to yourself, between you and your Father in heaven.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with fasting. The small catechism calls it “fine, outward discipline” and that it is. I’ve said it before from this pulpit, and I’ll say it again here. I think a healthy rhythm of fast and feast would go a long way to putting our disordered eating in order and putting the religion of dieting out business.

Yes, you heard right. Dieting has become a religion in our culture. A gnostic religion run by high priests possessing secret nutritional knowledge, demanding our sacrifices ($20 hardcover, $10 paperback), holding out the ever-elusive promise that you too can have perfection at a price. That’s religion. And all you get out of it is guilt. Guilt is the fuel of religion. You eat a slice of chocolate cake and then feel guilty about it. So you make confession: “I shouldn’t be eating this. I’m bad.” You do penance: “I’ll eat a salad tomorrow.” You engage in cultic rituals: “I’ll go to the gym this afternoon.” It’s a religion. And you see what happens? The religion of dieting and nutrition robs you of the holy joy of that slice of cheese, that Bordelaise sauce, that piece of chocolate cake.

We have a pre-school load of little eating disorders in training who can recite the creeds of nutrition better than they can recite the Apostles’ creed, who are more acquainted with the litany of fat grams, sodium content, and calories better than they are of the liturgy of the Word and the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood.

What we need is a fast from our dieting. A true fast, where we say “no” to our bellies long enough to let them know who’s in charge. To fast like free men and women until we come to a healthy sense of our hunger, and then to feast like free men and women without the sliced balony of religion.

Fasting is a fine discipline. It brings order to our eating. You don’t have to eat every time you feel like it. It’s good to know that you are the master of your appetites, not a slave. Not every desire needs to be acted on; not every itch needs to be scratched. Fasting is conducive to prayer. You can’t pray with your mouthful, and you can’t be alert with your belly full.

Fasting is conducive to charity. You have more to give away to those who are hungry not by their own choice. And it’s good to remind yourself of what the hungry feel every day.

Fasting is conducive to confession. You feel like the poor miserable sinner that you are. Hunger is a sign of our impoverishment, our death, like the ashes of Ash Wednesday. Dust you are, and to dust you will return. Fasting is a sign of mourning and grief.

But God doesn’t care whether you fast or not. God could care less whether you eat vegetables or milk-fed veal, broccoli or beef; whether you drink tap water or 20 year old Cabernet, whether you eat chocolate cake or not. Fasting is a discipline for your good, like exercise or reading a good book or taking walks in the woods. But God doesn’t care. God gave us food to be enjoyed in freedom.

So why didn’t Jesus’ disciples fast with John’s disciples and the Pharisees? Well, simply, fasting was incompatible with the presence of Jesus. How can the sons of the bridegroom fast when the Bridegroom is with them? You don’t fast at a wedding. You feast. And being with Jesus is like being at a wedding party that never ends. Where Jesus is, there is joy. Like the wedding at Cana, we’re talking 180 gallons of undiluted joy. He turns mourning into dancing, grief to joy, death to life. He forgives sin and raises the dead. Fasting and Jesus simply don’t go together.

He says a day is coming when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then His disciples too will fast, referring to that very good Friday when He hung dead on a cross. I don’t think the disciples went out for lunch that day. But in the presence of Jesus, there can be only joy and feasting. That’s why we have Sundays in Lent instead of Sundays of Lent. Sundays are a break from the fast of Lent. Little Easter feasts tucked into the Lenten fast, reminding us that Jesus is about feasting not fasting.

But the issue runs deeper. It has to do with the dark demon called Religion and all the clever ways we cook up to try to get on God’s good side. The human heart is one great big religion factory. It takes a good thing and makes a religion out of it. Fasting is a good thing. And the heart says, “If a little is good, then more is better.” And if more is better, than God will surely be pleased with a lot. And pretty soon, a “fine outward training” becomes something necessary, something you must do in order to please God. And off we go into the wild, blue yonder of religion.

Jesus says, “Look, you don’t patch a hole in an old cloth with a piece of unshrunken new cloth. If you do, the patch will shrink in the first wash and rip a hole bigger than the first. Jesus is not a patch job on the old covenant, a band-aid applied to a few tears in the Law. You can’t stitch Jesus onto the torn rags of religion and have Him stick. He’ll rip the thing to shreds, just as the curtain of the temple was ripped in two from top to bottom on that very good Friday Jesus died.

That’s the day God went out of the religion business once and for all (though He never really traded in the stuff anyway). Jesus Christ, God’s Son, laid down his life to save a world-load of sinners. And in that death God was reconciled to the world, to you and me. So what in the world can you or I do to top that? Or add to it? Go hungry for a day? Yeah, right, that’ll get God’s attention. You can’t sew the new cloth of Jesus on the old cloth of religion.

So what do you do with a torn up piece of cloth when all you have is new cloth? Well, I guess you’ll have to throw the old cloth away, won’t you? And what are you going to do with the old, torn up cloth of religion when the seamless robe of Jesus’ righteousness comes along? Well, I guess you’re going to have to lose your religion and trust Jesus.

Jesus says, “You don’t take new wine that’s still fermenting and pour it into old, stretched out wineskins. If you do, the skins will explode under the pressure and you’ll lose both wine and skins. Trying to squeeze Jesus into religion is like pouring bubbly, fermenting wine into wineskins that are all stretched out from use. They can’t handle the pressure. They burst from the fullness, as Jesus put it. It’s the same word as “fulfill,” as in “I’ve not come to abolish the Torah and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” Jesus literally poured Himself into the old wineskins of the Law and filled them up to overflowing with the new wine of His blood poured out for the life of the world. And it literally exploded with the fullness of Christ.

Jesus is the end of religion, the end of negotiating with God, of deal cutting and bargaining, of commandment keeping as a way to earn God’s favor. God will have none of it. He’s at peace, reconciled to you and to the world in the death of Jesus. That’s the “good news” Christians are supposed to broadcast to the world. Not the bad news of religion, but the good news of the end of religion. Don’t make Christianity into one of the world’s religions. The world’s religions are the record of our misguided attempts to deal with God on our terms. And it’s all a waste of time and energy. God is reconciled, at peace, in the death of His Son Jesus. End of discussion. End of religion.

Unfortunately, the history of the church is also the history of our love affair with religion. We’re always trying to put a patch on the tattered rags of our religions. Carry them around like Linus with his security blanket. We’re always trying to recycle our old wineskins and reuse them. The church has never quite seen it straight that there is no book of Leviticus in the new testament, and that Jesus is the fulfillment of the old. All that’s left after the explosion is Baptism, the word of forgiveness, the Body and Blood of Jesus. Divinely ordained signs of the death and life of Jesus at work in us.

And yet, we aren’t content with those. We want something more. In Paul’s day, it was circumcision. In the second century, the church noted that Jews fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, so it madeWednesday and Friday the Christian fast days. The medieval church went even further and made fasting an olympic sport. And then came the rule that you couldn’t eat the Lord’s Supper unless you were fasting. And we’ve added our own rules and regulations along the way. And you can almost hear the sound of the joy being sucked down the black hole of religion.

Let’s be done with it! Let the demons of religion be silenced! The joy of Christ is the joy of a marriage feast which has no end. The joy of sins forgiven. The joy of resurrection from the dead. The joy of your whole life redeemed, restored, raised up for good. And that joy is yours in Christ. You were baptized into the joy of Jesus’ death. You have been clothed with Christ, covered with the new cloth of His seamless righteousness. Not a patch job stitched on to your old selves, but a whole seamless robe. Don’t try to look in the mirror of the Law to see it; you can’t. You must believe it, this news so good it almost hurts.

You are guests at His feast, the feast of His body and blood. Living Bread come down from heaven. New wine, His life’s blood poured into you like a new wineskin that expands and grows with His life. You are honored guests of the Bridegroom at His feast. Don’t let religion rob you of the joy of Christ.

So, fast if you will. And feast with joy. But do neither religiously, and do both in the joy of Jesus.

In the Name of Jesus,
Amen.

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