Cleanliness is next to godliness

Once common phrase that didn’t make this sermon series is, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” And like ‘Everything Happens For A Reason’ and the other colloquialisms in this sermon series, “Cleanliness is next to godliness’ is at best, only half true.

We can thank our very own John Wesley, who delivered a 1791 sermon titled “On Dress” in which he says:

“But, before we enter on the subject, let it be observed, that slovenliness is no part of religion; that neither this, nor any text of Scripture, condemns neatness of apparel. Certainly, this is a duty, not a sin. Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness.”

There are others who have helped make this phrase common in our vernacular, but where we might find some half-truth, the statement could come from the purification rituals in Exodus (19:6; 30:17–21; 38:8 40:30–31) or perhaps the priestly codes of Leviticus, where it says, “The person to be cleansed must wash their clothes, shave off all their hair and bathe with water; then they will be ceremonially clean. After this they may come into the camp, but they must stay outside their tent for seven days. On the seventh day they must shave off all their hair; they must shave their head, their beard, their eyebrows and the rest of their hair. They must wash their clothes and bathe themselves with water, and they will be clean” (14:8-9NIV). Maybe we can give some credit to Paul when he wrote to his church at Corinth, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1) Or maybe Jesus set the precedence for cleanliness being next to godliness when he washed his disciples’ feet in John 13.

The trouble with the phrase ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ is that it risks focusing on the outside of a person over and above one’s spiritual condition. Jesus gave this warning in Mark 7:1-23 “So, are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters not the heart but the stomach and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (7:18-23NRSVUE)

In our baptism, we don’t celebrate the sacrament to wash away dirt, dead skin, or disease. I don’t add soap to the baptismal font.  Water is an outward sign of an inward grace of being washed clean of our sin. We offer our prayers of confession at the communion table that we might repent of our sin and receive communion as a means of grace; we don’t require the use of Listerine before partaking in the bread and cup. This is because the kind of cleanliness we’re seeking in our sacraments isn’t hygiene, but spiritual renewal (regeneration is the term Wesley would use). To experience this spiritual cleanliness, we need confession.

Confession is critically important to our spiritual cleanliness. This is why on this first Sunday in October –World Communion Sunday- we will join Christians all around the world in offering our prayers of confession and receiving grace in communion that we might be drawn closer to God. Then we will know the joy of John when he wrote “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9) and the petition of the Psalmist “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

This phrase has been used to judge others (based on hygiene) or as a barrier to receiving grace. We would be better off replacing cleanliness is next to godliness with a prayer of the ages: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

I look forward to sharing in the banquet of grace this Sunday and while the focus of cleanliness is on our spiritual lives, I do promise to wash my hands before serving communion