Working within and around Church Traditions

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Working Within and Around Church Traditions

What is tradition? We know that we have it and use it. Jesus had to battle against tradition because it had locked in patterns of belief and behavior that were antagonistic to God’s plan for humanity. Here is Webster’s definition of tradition: a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time.

Just that definition of tradition leads automatically to something else: prior to any tradition, before that “long time,” there was an earlier tradition. In other words, traditions are moving targets. It’s just like the King James Translation of the Bible begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. In my office is a well-worn, leather bound edition of the King James Bible. Yet, as other translations of the Bible have proliferated, so has the King James translation: a New King James Version was completed in 1982.

What’s the point? There is a tradition in some churches where the original King James Version is still the only Bible used. However, prior to that version, there was another, earlier tradition. And today, in many churches, newer more up to date translations are not only available, but in wide use. Thus, one tradition supplants an older tradition.

The question here is the possibility and advisability of working “in and around” current standing traditions. It is no secret that in Liturgical churches, traditions are flourishing at a stand-still pace. At the same time, as we have seen, these same churches are the ones that are shrinking in membership, influence and viability. We don’t believe that is what the Lord of the Church had in mind. As we have noted, he passed responsibility and authority for his disciples to do something:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

These verses clearly indicate Jesus’ expectation: what the disciples were responsible for would expand geographically and demographically. They also point to a pattern of behavior that would distinguish them as Jesus’ followers: They would “obey everything he had commanded.”

While we have talked about many issues, as you look at the church around you and in which you preach or attend, is Jesus’ command being faithfully carried out? Let’s ask the question somewhat differently: can we improve on carrying out Jesus’ Matthew 28 command in the 21st century? Perhaps that enlarges the net enough to include us all in its grasp.

From a positive and encouraging perspective, we know that current church traditions were not always the traditions of the church. They have changed and been changed, often with good reason.

So today we find ourselves with fewer members, reduced financial support, and perhaps an unrealistic or divided ability to bring about needed change. That includes changes that could revitalize the church, increase its just influence and energize it to fulfill the command Jesus gave his disciples 2,000 years ago. Let’s think about some of those possibilities.

Giving Your Preaching Variety

If you want to do some things differently that you won’t be criticized for on canonical grounds—well, you are free to do some of that already. Check out what you regularly do every time you stand behind your pulpit: you are preaching from the Lectionary.

On Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, you probably preached from a Gospel text. But you could also have preached from several other texts. Here were the options from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL):

Psalm 93, 150; Evening Psalm 136; 117

Exodus 12:1-14

John 1:1-18 or Isaiah 51:9-11

Luke 24:1-12 or John 20:19-23

The following two Sundays, April 27 and May 4, 2014, the RCL had the following selections:

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

Psalm 16

Acts 2:14a,36-41

1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-35

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

From what we see above, preachers could be presenting a series from the book of Psalms, the Pentateuch, I Peter or a worthy thematic series, all done within current church guidelines. This kind of change is perhaps the easiest to make and would create renewed interest in listening to what the Pastor/Rector/ Bishop had to say. And, over time, you could select topics you knew would benefit your parishioners the most.

One of the great benefits within the Anglican/Episcopal church is that most of the Scriptures from the Lectionary are either read or sung each worship service. The service runs a little longer, but it is always profitable to the worshipers. Over time, a preacher/priest could go outside the Lectionary for a series like: The Gifts of the Spirit, The Fruit of the Spirit, Songs from the Psalms, Persons of Interest, etc., if that were the need of your congregation. In great chapters like Hebrews 11, you’ll find enough preaching material to last for a couple of months of sermons.

Putting Conversation Into Your Preaching

In a sense, expanding the textual material for sermons to include other passages is not a change at all. It’s a change in practice, but not in principle. For that reason alone, it is a change that can be managed by one person.

Getting out of the pulpit and into conversational mode represents a hill that’s a little steeper. But if key individuals understand what you are about to do, this should not upset the congregation. As a matter of fact, they may very well welcome the more intimate presentation.

The idea here is to move from an elevated pulpit to standing at almost floor level where you are just a few feet away from the congregation. Try to imagine, for example, Jesus standing behind an elevated pulpit as he taught the disciples or healed people. That idea jars our thinking—it’s not the Jesus we see in Scripture. So this should be a good thing for you and the church—presenting the gospel at eye level.

It will be helpful, though, to make this transition with some prior notice. For example, announce that for a time—say, the first Sunday of each month (or the last)—you will be preaching from a position in front of the altar. This happened accidentally in a church I was attending—on Christmas Sunday. The electricity in the entire area was disrupted. The minister was forced to leave the elevated pulpit and go down to the floor in front of the Altar so that people could hear him. It was a most effective sermon—because it came through conversation.

From personal experience, preaching without a written out sermon and standing in front of and next to parishioners has proven effective. Several of these churches are the largest in their region from those particular denominations. This practice also seems to have attracted a group of younger people with families to worship with them. It is certainly worth a try and if done gradually, you can reduce pushback from any who would say, “We’ve never done it this way before.”

Well, Jesus did it before.

The intention here is not to introduce a new phase of theater presentations. Rather, it is to present the good news in a way that reaches people relationally through personal contact. If the church where you either pastor or attend celebrates the Eucharist or Communion on the first Sunday of each month that is like an open invitation to the pastor: stand in front of the Altar or communion table when you present the homily that Sunday. After all, the Eucharist or Communion is the most personal regular sacrament offered by the church. Being near your people is an effective way to transform your preaching into conversation.

Reaffirming Baptism as an Adult Choice

Returning to our earlier discussion on baptism, it would appear that through the apostolic period and into the second century, baptism was for adults. The one reference used to support infant baptism is from Acts 16. In that chapter, the jailor in Philippi becomes a believer after a violent earthquake broke open his prison, freeing the prisoners that included the Apostle Paul and Silas. This is a time where good hermeneutics should be used—if “household” means “family,” how does the rest of the New Testament look at baptism?

Today, most Protestant churches practice adult baptism. That does not make it the correct or only method to be used. What any pastor/priest is confronted with is a tradition that is centuries old—whether adult or infant baptism. Nonetheless, even where infant baptism is observed, so is adult baptism. But switching entirely to the adult mode for baptism will not be easy. In preparation, the parish should receive additional teaching about baptism and its original meaning, as a transformational act of standing up with God and his kingdom work.

There are two reasons for the difficulty in reinstating adult baptism as the preferred mode: denominational teaching has wrapped itself around the benefits of infant baptism—the inclusion into a community covenant and into a church. Secondly, the parishioners’ desire to assure their infant is prepared to enter heaven should any unthinkable tragedy occur. Neither position stands theologically, but they have strong emotional and organizational support.

Since baptism was portrayed as a transformational act through the first two centuries of Church history, should it not emphasize its transformational character today? Thus, including a personal profession of faith by the person being baptized would add significance for the individual and the congregation.

Without doubt, in liturgical churches at this time, most people will request baptism for their infants. That request should be honored as it is made as a result of a history of teaching and practice. However, the option of “child dedication” could be explained and offered. Most Protestant churches have such a service. During the dedication, the difference between “baptism” and “dedication” is often explained.

As a matter of fact, as this is being written, the author and his wife will attend a church service in four days where three of our grandchildren will be dedicated. It is an important step for the children’s family. Later in life, each child as an adult can choose to be baptized. That will be a more important decision for them. It will be their affirmative choice, somewhat like Moses choosing to be counted with God’s people (Hebrews 11: 24-26). Adult baptism emphasizes and affirms a personal commitment to be Jesus’ disciple.

Showing Scripture’s Authority

On a scale of difficulties,  going against the grain of theological training and practice may rank near the top. Yes, a preacher/minister/priest may easily use another text from the Lectionary to prepare his or her sermons. But where do you place the value of the Scripture text itself? It is a question that needs to be answered if the church is going to be invigorated.

In most Liturgical churches, after reading of the principle or gospel text for the service, the reader of the text says, “This is the Word of the Lord.” And the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” Now, what does that exchange mean? Is it kind of the polite thing to do? Is it just a tradition? Or, do those words carry a deeper meaning?

What is being put forward here is the belief that God has spoken. He has done so in an amazing variety of ways. In the Old Testament, we see humankind frequently looking at God’s actions as if he were human. Thus there is much anthropomorphic language—expressing activities from a human perspective. In many ways, God is seen as having human emotions and reactions to human behavior. In the New Testament, we see God in the person of Jesus—face to face.

The Apostle Paul gives us some insight on this in I Corinthians 13, verse 12. He describes the principle we are examining like this:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

In this thumbnail sketch, Paul is detailing and explaining progressive revelation.

From the moment of creation, God has been revealing himself to humanity—and in the Old Testament it was like seeing a reflection in a mirror. Jesus’ life gave us the full exposure. But, Paul says, there is still a final disclosure in store when we will all see God face to face.

Let’s take that perspective and place it over the Old Testament. Yes, there is often language we don’t understand and some that seems shocking to our culturally attuned ears. These may be difficult for a preacher to explain. But you don’t have to. For example, would God be God if we could easily understand everything about him? There are passages we can’t and don’t have to understand. Perhaps this was implied in Deuteronomy 29:29 

 The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.

However, what can happen when we don’t understand or don’t “like” the God we find in Scripture, we create a god that pleases us. That’s a non-starter to faith. In trying to create a god in our own image or as we want, we end up with a god that is smaller than we are. If we create our own god, it has to be weaker, smaller and more deficient than our personal characteristics. We can’t create a god bigger and better than we ourselves are. So rather than going back to the “drawing board,” we can return to the God of creation, the One who created the heavens and the earth.

We are not in business to invent a new religion. Christianity is not about invention, but about revelation. It is not about what we must do but what God has already done. It’s not about our trying to be a better person, but accepting God’s grace and invitation to be in God’s family—to be and live as his daughters and sons.

What is important to understand about God? He has demonstrated his love for us through creation (he gave us life); through revelation (he has revealed himself to us); through redemption (he sent us Jesus to live, die, rise and ascend to heaven, waiting to welcome us home). Do you or I understand everything God has done? Well, no one does! But as Paul told some people in Rome, you can trust God:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:31-34).

You see, trusting God means accepting his unconditional love for us.

As you think back to your own reading, did Abraham understand everything about God? No, and neither did Adam or Noah, David, Ruth or Sarah, Isaiah or Jeremiah, Daniel or Deborah, or all the others from Old Testament times have a full picture of God. But they trusted what God said and ultimately, that is all God expected from them.  Scripture states, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.  That conclusion is repeated again in Galatians 3:6 and James 2:2, 3. So the response God is waiting for is simple: do you trust what I have said? That is God’s requirement for acceptance (see Hebrews chapter 11).

Accordingly, we can go into the Old Testament with full confidence that we won’t know or understand it all, but we can realize that God loves us like he did the saints of old. And when those saints meet his Son Jesus face to face, they will recognize him. As the Apostle Paul wrote, we’ll see it all, face to face. That is called having faith in the God of the Old and the New and forever.

This perception may cut across the teaching or tradition within your church so perhaps it’s time for a review of why we are where we are. One denominational writer has placed some thoughts on the Internet that might be of interest to readers:

Rethinking the “Three-Legged Stool” from the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.

Next: Steps toward Renewal