First week of the new college year; I preached a sermon on the theme of tradition and traditioning, at our first Tuesday chapel service.
Here are some parts of the sermon:
The scripture readings, for a communion service, were: Mark 7. 1 – 8, and 1st Corinthians 11. 23 – 32.
When I studied linguistic philosophy at the University, they used to talk about the function of words we use to praise things, and other words we use to disapprove of things, as ‘Boo’ words and ‘hurrah’ words.
I think you can get the idea. Boo words and hurrah words.
Right now I think one of the Boo words in Australia is ‘politician’.
In some places the word ‘Canberra’, just by itself is a Boo word.
Put the two together—Canberra Politician—and you have a very loud boo!
And for many Australians, the word ‘tradition’ is also a Boo word.
Yet in our reading, Paul uses this word very positively: he says that he handed on to the Corinthians what he received from the Lord: this handing on is the original ‘tradition’ of the Church.
But the Lord himself, from whom Paul got this tradition, had a bit of a problem with traditions.
If you and I, as Australians, and Baptists, think that we resist the fossilizing tendencies of church traditions, well, that puts us in good company—as we read in Mark 7: Jesus had a bit of a tussle with the Pharisees over rules about washing hands, and what you people should eat, and at other times about what you may do on the Sabbath—all of which is described as the tradition of the elders—very heavy term—but Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah to challenge them: what does it really mean to worship God, and do they really care about the ways of God: and his judgment is that they have place the traditions of men,—and it really is men, not women, who have created all these rules,— the traditions of men above the commandments of God. What God wills from them is a different kind of worship, a worship that involves integrity, and mercy, and grace, not these traditions of sacrifice, duty, and nit-picking laws.
The question about tradition is inherent in the very life of the church.
When I was a young boy growing up in a Baptist church, I was told that one of the great things about being a Baptist was that we had a free form of worship. Unlike the Catholics and the Anglicans, we did not have a fixed order of service or set words that had to be said …
Except that in actual fact the service was exactly the same every week: everything in the same order, right down to the way the Church Secretary, and it was only the Church Secretary, gave the notices and announced the offering, which always came immediately after the notices. Every week, year after year, these words were used, even if we had a change of church secretary: ‘Your tithes and offerings for the Lord’s work in this place will now be received.’
We didn’t have a tradition, we just did things the same every week!
There are traditions and there are traditions. Jaroslav Pelikan was an American theologian who wrote a very important work on The Christian Tradition—explaining that the word ‘tradition’ can mean this whole stream of Christian life, beginning with the gospel stories handed on orally, right through to the formation of many denominations and now into the life of local churches all over the world. Each of these denominations has something that is its own tradition, within the wider tradition, and then again within each local church there are traditions as well, such as the words that must be said by the Church secretary to announce the offering.
The Christian Tradition includes all these forms of traditions and traditioning. We do it all the time!
So does this mean that we too will run into the same criticism, the same faults, that Jesus articulates, in our Gospel reading? Maybe it does.
It depends, Pelikan says, on whether we are about traditioning, or traditionalism.
At the heart of his book is this wonderful sentence: Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.
That’s a wonderful truth: there is a living faith, handed on to us from the Lord himself and from all those who have gone before us.
And there can be a dead faith, held onto by those who are living.
And here we come to the great challenge which you have and I have as pastors and leaders: will we lead our people into the living faith of the dead or will we hand them, not bread but a stone, the dead faith of the living? What tradition will we hand on to them?
In this semester, we are inviting you to engage with some chapters from a book by Diana Butler Bass called Christianity for the rest of us.
Her title reflects a struggle that is going on in the church scene in the United States, where for several decades now the so-called Christian Lobby, the Christian Right, some of it claiming to be the Evangelicals (when in fact they are the white evangelicals, who number only a third of all Evangelicals)—but anyway this group has presented itself as if they are the church, the whole church, or at least the living church, the church of the future, replacing the old, traditional churches—who are said to be in terminal decline, if not already dead.
And in some ways this has been true.
But in other ways it is not: and this book presents the results of a three year study of fifty so-called mainline churches, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, which are lively and growing, in exciting ways: and it describes what they are doing.
The first thing Butler Bass says about them is they have discovered that their traditions are not dead: their traditions are not a set of doctrines to be held onto, or a set of procedures, this is how you have to do it always and forever: no, that is not what defines their life: rather, the living tradition that has given life to their church and will give life to the their church is a person: a person called Jesus Christ, a living Spirit: the tradition is what the very first Christians called the Way.
And when Jesus Christ is placed at the centre, and people relate to him and discover him in their work and their leisure, in their art and their play, in their homes and their neighbourhoods, the traditions of their church, handed on through scripture and the activities we call ‘church’, are suddenly found to be a living faith, the living faith of the dead: a life to live into, a faith that brings life.
Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life: that’s the meaning of all this traditioning.
And that’s the meaning of all that we will aim to do as a college community together this year.
In our study, in our efforts to learn skills and develop personal, spiritual and moral disciplines, we are reaching out for this Way, this truth, this life: to participate in the living bread, the wine of life, the way of Jesus Christ.
Tradition may be for us something negative and unhelpful, until we take it up as an active verb. This is about traditioning: engaging in and passing on that living faith, that way of life. Our tradition is nothing other than Jesus Christ, the living Lord.
So in this semester we are going to be looking at what Butler Bass and a number of other writers call ‘practices’: these are spiritual habits and activities evident in these 50 living and growing churches she studied:
Interestingly, some of them go back to things we knew in our youth, and which seem to have died out in many of our churches, like the custom of people giving testimony to the things God is doing in their lives right now: so we are going to look at these practices—and I know that some of you have already been re-discovering some of these things already, and we want to share this—such as hospitality, such as healing, and deep contemplation, such as working for justice, or inviting people to study and reflect on their faith.
None of this is new, and neither is this a magic formula, the latest thing from the US of A.
No, these are the living traditions of the church, the living faith of the dead: and at the heart of them all is this living tradition: breaking bread, sharing wine: the encounter with the living Jesus.
Some of you have heard me say in class how sad it is when this meal has been turned into a kind of funeral for Jesus.
How often it is simply trite: often without the essential reminders of what it is about: the words of institution, the calling upon the gathered company to pray, pray for the presence and gift of the Spirit, to forgive our sins, to make the bread and wine effective signs, symbols of grace for us: this is a tradition we need to know and learn to love, constantly love into life. Of course we can do it in different ways, but in ways that bring forth what it is really all about: the living presence of the living Lord.
This is about re-membering: being made again and again members of the body of Christ.
This is traditioning: the living faith of the dead and the living.
This is the meaning of all that we will do, in our study and our life together.
This is the tradition which we received from the Lord himself: and we engage with it at his invitation, as his body, for the sake of his people and his mission, until he comes.