Diets and Holiness

Mark 7:14-23 / Proper 17B / 2 September 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

Food and religion go together. The pagan feasts and festivals. The OT Passover, Sabbath, and communion sacrifices. The NT Lord’s Supper and the “agape” meals of the ancient church not to mention the potlucks and soup suppers that are synonymous with church basements and parish halls everywhere. When religious people get together, regardless of what they believe, there is usually food involved.

And people can get religious about their food too. Foodies can be, worshipping every delectable morsel as though it were manna from heaven. Dieters are religious about their food as though some cosmic struggle of good versus evil were going on on the plate in front of you. Good carbs and bad carbs. Good fats and bad fats. Depending on the fad diet you’re following, grains are good, grains are bad. Atkins, South Beach, Primal. All promising health, happiness, and long life, at the cost of a book, a program, and, of course, your favorite foods.

Diets are a picture of the law – essentially undoable and never getting you to the holy land of slender health. You just keep on sacrificing, atoning for your sins, promising to do better, and getting worse all the time. And worse still, you don’t enjoy any of your food because you’ve reduced food to calories and fat grams and carb counts and you’re constantly feeling guilty about everything you put into your mouth.

The OT law had a dietary chapter. Chapter 11, to be exact, in what else but the book of Leviticus, God’s big Book of Holiness for his holy people. The forbidden foods list went like this: no mice, bats, or crawling critters. Mammals that both ruminated and had cloven hooves were OK, but one one or the other. The would knock the camel, the rabbit, and of course the pig. Seafood was OK provided it had fins and scales but shellfish was out. A handful of birds you probably wouldn’t want to eat anyway. And insects, though “winged swarming insects” were fine on the menu, as exemplified by John the Baptizer, the Andrew Zimmer of his day.

So to put it in terms we would appreciate: No bacon, spareribs, bratwurst, lobster, shrimp, crap, and all that other good stuff you like to eat. And the reason for this in the book of Leviticus is simply, “Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy.” Did not eating make you holy while eating made you unholy? Not exactly. Holy means set apart, consecrated, devoted. The Israelites of the OT were unique among the nations and peoples of the earth. They were the only nation that could be called “God’s nation.” He invented them. Brought them out of Egypt. Formed them into a people. Gave them a law with lots of rules and even a peculiar diet to follow to separate them from the rest of the nations. They were God’s Israel. Holy, consecrated, set apart for one purpose and only one purpose. To bring forth the Christ in the fulness of time.

So before you start planning your life and your diet around Leviticus 11, or you conclude like Joel Osteen and others that in order to please God you need to give up bacon, lobster, and shrimp, remind yourself that Christ has come in the flesh. The OT laws have served their purpose. Israel has delivered the promised Messiah to the world, that is, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so, in a very real sense, Israel’s fasting has ended, and the feast of salvation has begun, and what was once considered unclean for God’s people is now clean for this simple reason: Christ has come in the flesh.

That gets us to the Gospel reading for this Sunday. Last week we struggled with washing hands, saucers, and couch cushions and how the Pharisees had made a religion out of cleanliness, actually believing that it was next to godliness. This week, Jesus deals with the dietary laws and all the restrictions in view of the same religious types who believed that “you are what you eat” in the sense that if you ate something “unclean” (bacon wrapped scallops, for example) you would be unclean, unholy, and unfit to appear before God.

“Not so,” says Jesus. In fact, it works the other way. “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.” It’s not about what goes in but what comes out. That would have left the people talking and scratching their heads. That wasn’t what momma and the rabbis said. And if that’s true, why have we been giving up the bacon and bratwurst all these years? Shoot, we may as well have gone to eat with the Gentiles. In fact, what’s the difference between Jew and Gentile if you start talking that way?

Even the disciples wondered. You can tell because Jesus berates the after they get into the house by themselves. They’re still asking Jesus about this. Are you serious, Lord? It doesn’t matter what we eat? Really? Old religions die hard. Recall that Peter still didn’t get it when God wanted him to go to the Gentile Cornelius’ house. Peter had to be kicked three times with a vision of unclean animals and the warning, “Don’t you call unclean what I’ve called clean.”

Jesus gives the disciples a bit of a biology lesson. In fact, it’s a rather sophisticated biology lesson for 1st century ears. Don’t you see that whatever goes into a person from the outside can’t defile him because it never touches his heart. It goes from mouth to stomach and out the other end. When you stop and think about it, that’s really profound! Our digestive tract isolates us from our food. It digests and filters out the good stuff the body needs and then eliminates the rest as wasted. We’re like a big long feeding tube when it comes to food. Which is why food cannot defile you. It never touches the heart. And we’re not talking about clogged arteries here. Jesus is talking about the heart as the seat of the will, where we determine what we will think, do, and say. Food doesn’t touch that.

And Mark notes the application, in case you might miss it. “Thus he declared all foods clean.” Leviticus 11 is no longer in force. Christ has come in the flesh. Israel has fulfilled its purpose. So go ahead and have that bacon or lobster or rabbit stew. Or not. It doesn’t matter. It does not defile you, one way or the other.

Here’s what defiles you: what comes out of your heart. Evil thoughts. Ever have one? Sexual immorality. Dare I ask? Theft, murder, adultery, coveting (no problems there, right?), wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy slander, pride, foolishness. That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Anyone dare say that this list doesn’t touch them in some way? And if you did, you know you would be a liar and the truth would not be in you. Where does all the evil in the world come from? Not from foods, from within you. Your heart corrupted to the core by Sin. These are what defile a person. These are what defile you. Fast all you want. Abstain from whatever foods you wish. Food won’t touch the heart. Food won’t get rid of the Sin that has taken over your heart like some alien. Food won’t commend you to God. Food can’t fix the unbelieving heart.

That’s at the heart of it. Unbelief. And the Law won’t help you. The Law says, “Believe,” but it can’t make a believer out of you. The Law says, “Do this and don’t do that” but all your doing and not doing won’t fix that evil-producing heart of yours.

Ezek. 36:25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

Ezek. 36:26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

A new heart is what we need, and what God gives. A heart that beats with the Spirit, a heart that is free from Sin and Death, a heart that is not bent toward evil but toward God, a heart that is not curved inward in itself but is turned to God in faith and the neighbor in love. That’s the heart that Christ died to win for you. That’s the heart you received in Baptism. That’s the heart the is fed by the Word and sustained by the Body and Blood.

Yes, the old of Adam heart is still there. God didn’t do an exchange of heart but a kind of side by side piggyback transplant, putting the new next to the old. “At once sinner and saint, old and new.” That means we have to contend with a bit of Romans 7 tension for a while. We remain what we are and become something more. Good and evil lying close at hand, often in the very same act. It means living under the cross of Christ’s forgiveness. Being God’s chosen and holy people. A washed people. A forgiven people. A holy people. A set apart people for one purpose – to declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Food set the Israelites apart in the OT. Food does even more in the New. There is a food that goes into you and sustains the believing heart. There is a food that makes you holy. There is a food in which it is true, you are what you eat. The food that Christ gives you. The Bread that is His Body. The Cups that is His Blood. That diet actually makes you holy, the way Leviticus with its clean and unclean foods never could.

For those who believe all foods are clean, a gift from God, to be consecrated with the Word of God and prayer and enjoyed. And there is a Food that is holy. Holy by the Word. Holy in the death and life of Jesus. Making you what it is – the Body of Christ. The Feast is ready, prepared at Calvary. The Table is ready, prepared by the Word. The Table is here and now for you to eat and drink and live. Here is a food that makes you holy. Holy communion. Holy church. Holy people.

In the name of Jesus,