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Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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Lenten Preaching Series: A Framework for Freedom

SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter 3: “Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition” 

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living within you (2 Timothy 1:14)

In the center of London, just off the Strand, lie the ancient Inns of Court where English lawyers or barristers live and work.  One of the Inns of Court is called the Middle Temple and one Christmas, centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth I presented the barristers with a Christmas pudding “made with our royal hands.”  Because this pudding had actually touched the royal hands, they decided to save a bit of it and add it to the mixture for the next year’s pudding.  Then, a spoonful of that pudding was saved for the following year.  And so it has gone on through the centuries until today.  A sort of culinary apostolic succession!

This evening’s sermon, in our Lenten preaching series, takes its title from Chapter Three of our Rule:  “Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition.”  Tradition – from the Latin verb tradere – means literally to hand on, from one person to another, from one generation to another.

That story of the Christmas pudding is probably a source of fun to those lawyers today, but it says something of how important tradition is in our lives.  It gives us our roots and it helps us establish our identity.  We love to touch, to hold, to see, to feel, things from our past.  There’s a church near here where, on the table in the sacristy, there is a chunk of creamy stone.  I picked it up, and a label on the back said “a piece of Canterbury Cathedral!”  I don’t know who managed to dig it out of the wall, but it was brought back 80 years ago to this country as a kind of relic – a physical, tactile contact with the mother church of our Anglican tradition.

Have you had the experience of discovering some old family photographs, maybe of your great-grandparents, sitting formally, looking at the camera – and staring out from the sepia across the centuries?  They are my family.  They are part of me.  I wonder what they were like, what they were thinking.  Holding those photographs is so precious.  We treasure them.

In this country, where so many are from a rich mixture of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, there is often a profound need to get in touch with the past – our roots.  To actually go to Ireland or Germany or England or Italy – and find the village, or even the house, from which that courageous journey to the New World was made all those years ago.  The grace of tradition: that which has been passed on to us, and helped make us who we are.  It is so precious.

The New Testament writers also knew the importance of passing on a precious treasure to future generations.  The treasure to be passed on was the Gospel.  In Matthew’s gospel today we read, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.”(Matt 13:44)  In antiquity, keeping money or treasure safe was a challenge.  There were no banks or safety deposit boxes, so people often buried valuables to keep them safe.  Or, they could deposit the treasure in a temple, to be guarded by the protection of a deity.  Hopefully thieves would be deterred from stealing from a sacred place.  This deposit could only be handed on to certain designated, reliable people.

St. Paul is the only New Testament writer who actually uses the word “deposit” (parathēkē) in his Letter to Timothy.  Paul, as Christ’s apostle, has placed into Timothy’s care a precious deposit – the Gospel – and it must be guarded.  “Guard the good treasure (deposit) entrusted to you.”(2 Tim 1:14)  And then in the next chapter he tells him to pass on (tradere) this treasure to others.  Just as Paul was passed the Gospel by others, so Timothy is to transmit the Gospel by teaching the Gospel to “reliable people” and depositing it into their care.

On their own these words might suggest that the Gospel is delicate and fragile, like fine china or crystal, things that have to be carefully protected and guarded.  That is not the Gospel that I know.  No!  “The word of God is living and active,” says the Letter to the Hebrews, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit.  It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”(Heb 4:12)

I believe one of the greatest theological challenges facing our church today – and it’s the same one which has challenged every generation – is how to remain faithful to the deposit – the parathēkē – the treasure of the Gospel which has been faithfully handed down to us, and which we must hand on faithfully to the next generation, and at the same time be faithful to those words in John 16 – “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.”

In Chapter Three of our Rule it says, “Faithfulness to tradition does not mean mere perpetuation or copying of ways from the past, but a creative recovery of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance in our faithfulness to God’s future, the coming reign of God.”  Those, I think, are really helpful words.  They recall those words from our Gospel today: “The one trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”(Matt 13:51)

The Gospel is not an antique piece of literature – a closed book to be guarded and protected.  We should read the gospels with fear and trembling, because they are alive with the Spirit, leading us into all truth.  If we are to allow the written word to lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ, we need to be open to the Spirit’s activity in all of our life.  The truth we are being led into by the Spirit can be recognized and grasped in many different ways, which complement our study of Scripture.

Again, our Rule says, “God speaks to us in many ways: through the Scriptures and Christian tradition, through men and women of the Spirit of different ages and cultures, through our own experience, and through contemporary voices that engage us with the challenges of our own time.”  In our Anglican tradition, we recognize all these as potential sources of revelation.  The Spirit can use them all to lead us into all truth.

So it is good and right that our own understanding of God and God’s purposes should change and develop.  Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote very powerfully on this in his workThe Development of Doctrine.  He believed that the Spirit helps us to approach the original revealed truth of Scripture in such a way as to draw out consequences that were not obvious at first.  The Christian life is not frozen in aspic, but is a dynamic way, and we are called to the challenge of walking that way in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.

Being faithful to the Gospel and guarding the precious deposit handed on to us – andbeing faithful to the Spirit.  That is the challenge facing our church at this time.  But it is also the challenge facing each one of us in our spiritual lives.  This season of Lent is a good time to pose these two questions to ourselves.  First, what are the deep truths about yourself that you absolutely know to be true – the bedrock, the deposit, the precious treasure which is most profoundly true – and which you abandon or forget at your own peril?  What is at the core of your God given identity?  How does God know you?  Who did God create when he created you and called you by name?  And what do you need to do to guard and protect your truest self in order to live a life that is authentic?

But then, the second question.  How can you also be faithful to the Spirit challenging you now to grow?  What needs to change?  What needs to die so that your truest self may live?  We don’t like to die – and we don’t like to change, especially as we grow older.  But in Cardinal Newman’s famous words, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  So where is the Spirit calling you now to change and to grow?

The grace of tradition is a wonderful gift for it helps us to remember who we are.  But the Spirit also urges us to remember whose we are, and urges us on, day-by-day, stretching forward to the heavenly call in Christ.  So, “guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living within you.”

Amen.

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8 Comments

  1. CHRISTINA on July 11, 2016 at 09:34

    Thank you for your response. It brought to mind a favourite poem attributed to Sir Francis Drake:
    ‘Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves…….’
    As a sailor – you may like to read it. It can be found on http://www.worldprayers.org
    Twenty years your senior, I believe that WE have to know that the winds of change must be encompassed in the things of the past. It is the only way. You know that you have to be alert for that puff of wind – always conscious that it cannot be ignored. Again. Thank you.

  2. Rhode on July 10, 2016 at 08:35

    I am 62 and just started sailing lessons. The first thing is to know the rudimentary workings of the boat then fix in mind and eye where you want to end up and then try to sail to it by minor corrections and recorrections. Right. Learning to judge where the wind is coming from is harder than it seems, as on our river there are opposing strong currents. Puffs of wind pop up from nowhere and cause the need to constantly trim the sail to stay true. Lucky for me, sailors have passed on good ways to deal with certain situations. By now you get my drift, pun intended. Tradition must serve a true purpose or get corrected…. Jesus wants followers to serve in Spirit and truth. Does truth change? or do our applications of truth? To be called a Christian these days need not become a pejorative if our heading is love, our calling is love, our purpose is love. Scripture trims our sails …read the many puffs of wind everyone before us dealt with. By the time Jesus arrived the leaders of the Jewish faith were dealing with sects and form and minutaie as well as true faith and apostasy …much like today. If traditions could save …Jesus need not have to be born. Adjusting the sails is something we must do everyday, a major course corrector like Martin Luther, flawed as he was, opened eyes to some heading for rocks. Now we have thousands of churches sailing in many directions. All need to be filled with the Spirit of God who is committed to leading us into all truth. Our generation lacks trust writ large. Some of us have become bitter with other Christians. But, He has given to us Jesus! who breathed new life into old Scriptures. Today He will blow puffs of wind into my life for correction and re-correction. I can handle them in traditional form or find my own way to windward. But I believe in God -the Alpha and Omega. I hope to err on the side of love and hope He will correct and help me re-correct.

  3. Michael on October 10, 2015 at 13:40

    The idea of Tradition is more important than the concept or ideal that is passed on. To examine what has been given to us is valuable, but to simply accept tradition as unchanageable is simply adherence. God gave us hearts and minds and expects us to to use them to help create a better world. If this means that some traditions are changed, reversed, or abandoned after careful consideration then we must have the courage and conviction to make the changes necessary. Tradiiton helps to identify where we have come from and the idea we carry with us, but it is not meant to prevent change or denegrate those that may advocate for a departure from the past.

  4. Ruth West on October 10, 2015 at 12:55

    Br. Geoffrey, I think you have delivered a rich and powerful homily. I tend to disagree with much of what Charlotte has stated. However, I do see that tradition needs to be handled as a treasure. I think the Episcopal Church, as well as many other Christian bodies, have, in many ways “thrown out the baby with the bath water.” For example, challenging the Biblical and ancient doctrine of God as Father, blurring the lines between male and female in many ways, preaching such all-inclusiveness to the extent that Jesus is not necessarily the Way and the Truth, being somewhat “on the fence” re: sanctity of life at all stages of creation, etc. I know change is not evil, but I firmly believe that tradition in the sense of holding onto the faith of our fathers and, in particular, that of the scriptures is vitally important.
    May God bless you and grant you guidance of the Holy Spirit every day. Thank you.

  5. Charlotte Weaver-Gelzer on October 10, 2015 at 07:48

    I do agree with the previous observation. The veneration of tradition in Churchly behavior is deeply problematic to the life of the Gospel. Even a cursory reading of Diarmaid McCullough’s masterclass of Christian history, Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, is eye opening and heart shocking revelation of the intense control of the story of Christianity’s past. The problem this creates for sermons like the one above, and for ideas like “apostolic succession” for example, is that maintenance of tradition “guarding the faith” or “guarding the Church” is 99.999% an exercise of benefit to those who are in control of position and power in the institution. 99.9 % of those are clergy. It’s hard in this century to put up with this narrow and nearly deathly maintenance of benefit, for the sake of worship in a Christian sanctuary.
    One immediate consequence is the terrible dumbing down of Christian members. Sermons, Bible studies, daily devotion series, vestry leader guides and instructions, Christian Education of all kinds, present ordinary Christians (the daily kind, not the professional kind) with what used to be called ABC gum in my childfljood–Already Bern Chewed. In other words, tradition not only favors the body already at rest in a habit (“Jesus didn’t get married, he didn’t mean priests to marry” and “Jesus didn’t have women disciples, he didn’t mean women to lead” etc etc etc etc). Tradition requires that some special people guard (hoard) the facts and all others receive the wisdom as seems best to the traditional “guards”. The number of people who are bored with God, not to mention finished with the church for this veneration of tradition in place of maturity of life and thought and faith, can be seen in the empty pews all over the western world. The nice feelings about pictures of one’s ancestors or the fascination with the ‘traditional true’ figgy pudding, make for a nice speech that continues the lulling of minds and consciences at a time when the world needs all the treasure out of the ground and the temple vaults, and into the hands and lives of the ordinary Christians, the apostolate (NOT the clergy or the professed orders especially ). The very stones are crying out, for lack of voices raised in praise and recognition. That is the reality of tradition guarded, venerated and maintained.

    Your sermon justifies the preacher , I’m afraid, and does not face any of the current consequences of the same -old same-old. As gentle abd well-meanung as it is, your srrmon and the attitide it reflects across all churchly expression, serves to extinguish the great prayer–“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and Kindle in them the fire of your Spirit. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and You will renew the face of the earth.”
    This treasure of tradition you talk of is moth eaten and rusty. It’s time to find out what treasure has been laid up in heaven, rather than kept in tradition’s hands.

    • Maureen Doyle on October 10, 2015 at 12:49

      I see the sermon as calling us to view tradition as a challenge to newness. Take the Gospels and evolve them. Bring modern science to our beliefs about The Divine.
      Yet, I see, Charlotte, how your interpretation is possible. I found your remarks on the need for control by the elite most informative.
      Yet, having seen terrible harm when loose cannons inflict some form of Christianity on others–especially their families. So I’m uncomfortable with saying “whatever,” but also uncomfortable with “how it’s always been done.”
      I’m reading Ilia Delio’s The Unbearable Wholeness of Being. It’s a Gospel with science–a Gospel of Love, who is God.

  6. Paul on June 22, 2015 at 11:20

    Whenever I see or hear the word “tradition,” I shudder. When I was young, tradition as passed on to me was a blind adherence to “the way we’ve always believed or the way we’ve always done it.” Zero room for questioning or movement of the Spirit. Many older people may identify. A lot of damage has been done, and wars fought, in the name of tradition. A list of examples could fill volumes. Obviously not the kind of tradition so ably described here.

  7. Polly Chatfield on June 22, 2015 at 09:56

    Thank you, dear Geoffrey, for the challenge of these words. Having graduated from the 1928 Prayerbook to Rite 2, I know i long for continuity of words as well as meaning. But i know also that we must finds new words for younger ears and new ways to nourish faith in distractible young hearts. As you head for Convention I am praying that you and all assembled with you may feel the energy of the Spirit in all your work.

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