Ceremonies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 7:1-13

Dear reverent worshipers: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is good and important that we have ceremonies. Ceremonies serve good order and help to teach. Bowing your head to pray is a good ceremony, because it is a posture of humility before God and helps you not to be distracted by what is around you. Kneeling takes that even further and puts you on your knees before God, acknowledging your status as a humble beggar before God. We do after all approach God not based on our own merits, but the merits of Christ.

Certainly, the Divine Service is full of ceremony. The pastor faces you when he speaks God’s Word to you and faces the altar when speaking to God. Thus, he faces the altar to confess his sins along with the congregation and turns to face the congregation to speak absolution to the people in Christ’s stead and by His command.

Ceremony ensures that our worship is pious, ordered, careful, solemn, reverent, and liturgical. This is because we believe that Jesus is telling the truth when He tells us that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, there He is (Matt. 18:20). We believe that Jesus is telling the truth when He says, “This is my body… this is my blood… do this in remembrance of me.” (Matt. 26:26,28; Luke 22:19) Jesus is here, so we behave like He is here.

Our ceremonies reflect what we believe. We believe that the Word of God and the sacraments are the greatest gifts of God to us, because through them He gives us the forgiveness of sins. We thus treat them with reverence and respect and don’t turn our worship into chaos and disorder or have an attitude of irreverence or indifference. We treat holy things as holy.

Yet ceremony is just ceremony. You do not get the forgiveness of sins from ceremony. You can go through the motions of ceremony without believing or caring one way or the other. Let us not forget that Scripture tells us the antichrist sits in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4). The wolf puts on sheep’s clothing. Luther’s great Reformation hymn talks of the heretics and false teachers who parade with outward show and lead people to and fro, in errors maze astounded (O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold TLH 260).

This was the case with the scribes who criticized Jesus’ disciples for not following their ceremonial washing of hands. This hand-washing was not for reasons of hygiene. It was a ceremony that was supposed to remind them of the need to be cleansed by God, to receive forgiveness, and to remind them that their food and sustenance came from God (from Rev. David Petersen). But they had become superstitious. They departed from following God’s Word and held to empty ceremonies they themselves invented. They abandoned God’s commandments and replaced them with their own made-up commandments

Jesus said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Jesus uses the example of the Fourth Commandment. The Fourth Commandment commands you to honour your father and mother. This includes honouring “them by your actions, that is, with your body and possessions, serving them, helping them, and caring for them when they are old, sick, feeble, or poor; all this you should do not only cheerfully, but also with humility and reverence, doing it as if for God.” (LC IV.111)

However, the scribes had invented a special offering, called Corban. Instead of supporting their elderly parents and taking care of them, they would give this special offering and not help their parents. It was a sham. They pretended to be piously giving God extra offerings (no doubt with lots of nice attendant ceremony), but it was all a ruse to break the Fourth Commandment and not fulfil their obligations to honour and support their parents. Their made-up commandments and ceremonies made void the Word of God and taught people to break God’s Law and follow the commandments of men.

The chief thing here is to avoid confusing the Commandments of God and the commandments of men. It is thus important to know and study what exactly it is that God commands and to question everything that man commands.

It is also important to understand the importance of ceremonies, why we do them, and how they provide reverence, piety, and solemnity to the Divine Service and to our daily devotional lives. Those who do not understand them are quick to dispose of ceremonies that the church has done for two thousand years.

What we must remember is that ceremonies are just ceremonies. Ceremonies do not save or give us the forgiveness of sins. The Word of God saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. Baptism saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. The Lord’s Supper saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. Ceremonies don’t even help God’s Word and sacraments save and forgive sins. Rather, ceremonies serve to prevent distraction and prevent your attention being drawn away from the Word and sacraments.

For instance, I use the ceremony of holding up the body and blood of Christ for the congregation to see after the consecration while saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” Whether or not I do this, you receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. However, the ceremony draws your attention to the body and blood of Christ just consecrated. Here it is. This is for you. It is concrete and real. Christ has His promises attached to this bread and this wine, for they are His body and blood.

This goes together with the words, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” How is it that you get peace? Through the body and blood of Christ you are about to receive. Christ gives you peace that the world cannot give.

Christ showed His pierced but resurrected hands to His disciples, the hands with which He earned them peace and said, “Peace be with you”. So, the pastor stands in the stead of Christ and holds the body and blood of Jesus with which He earned you peace, and says the same to you.

Christ’s body and blood give you peace with God because Christ died for you. He gave His body to be beaten and crucified and He gave His blood to be shed for the forgiveness of sins. He gives you that forgiveness in His body and blood.

You don’t need some hand-washing ceremony that points to purification and cleaning. You receive Jesus’ body and blood which purify you and cleanse you of every stain of sin. You receive Jesus’ body that strengthens you to life everlasting. You receive Jesus’ blood which washes away your sin. Through eating and drinking His body and blood, Jesus will grant you to partake of the greatest ceremonies of all in the feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[A note for readers: Beginning in Advent, we will begin using the One-Year Lectionary.]