Tradition for humankind

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in both the “church up the road,” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 13:10-17.

Who would have thought that an action like this would spark such an argument?  Healing a woman so that she can stand up straight and is not crippled, after many years… that seems like pretty obviously a good thing, doesn’t it?  So why does it end up sparking such a bitter dispute, with Jesus even accusing the leader of the synagogue of being a hypocrite?

I think it’s all about the interplay of tradition and identity.  Jewish identity is so tightly bound up with Jewish tradition that to challenge one is to challenge the other; and really, in our own way, Christians are just the same.  It’s the living fabric of our traditions which clothes us in our distinctive identity.

But that tradition doesn’t come to us as an integrated whole, of a piece as if handed down from heaven (so to speak).  It comes to us as a whole range of different strands, from different times, different cultures, different sources; and at various times parts of tradition have been challenged, re-interpreted, dare I say reformed; and somehow all of that comes to us, and from it we weave together the Christian faith in a way which is authentic as the Anglican Christians in and around these suburbs.

Does that seem abstract?  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When we pray the great thanksgiving, the prayer before we take communion, that prayer is in a structure called “Berakah;” its form goes back to the Jewish thanksgiving prayers over meals.  It is, if you like, an ancient form of grace.  That form of prayer, being familiar as it was to many in the early church, became the model for prayers at communion, and we have records of very early liturgies in ancient Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac and so forth, in which the structures and the responses are very similar to what we use today.

But they haven’t come to us in a straight line.  The earliest English liturgies were a radical departure from what had gone before, as the English reformers sought to remove English practice from what they saw as corrupt Roman Catholic theology and practices; and those of you who remember worshipping regularly with the Book of Common Prayer will remember how different its overall vibe was.  It was only in the twentieth century that Anglicans in many places, with better access to ancient sources and a desire for more options, returned to those ancient forms of prayer, translated them into English, adapted them, and gave us the range of prayers we have today.

One of the things I love about presiding at the Eucharist – or indeed participating while someone else is presiding – is the sense of these words giving us roots which go back millennia in the living church, and yet coming out now in ways which are about life and growth and joy for us, here, now.  (And of course I need not tell you that for many Christians, the most radical change we have made is the fact that in many churches today you will find a woman leading those prayers).

So even when we are using the same or very similar words, our experience of praying these prayers, in another language, with all the baggage of another culture, is very different to what the experience of the very earliest Christians would have been.

Why am I making such a point of this?  Because this is one way of showing you how tradition works.  We inherit something, we adapt it, we make use of it not exactly as it always was but in ways which make sense and work for us, and in turn we hand that on to the next generation of believers.

But… you knew there had to be a but, didn’t you?  We can’t just do anything we like with it.  Whatever we do has to be coherent with the core truths of Christianity and faithful to our relationship with Jesus as Lord.

And that – to come back to the reading – is why Jesus is calling the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite.  Because although there were many Jewish strands of thought bound up in keeping the Sabbath, the way that the synagogue leader was interpreting them wasn’t faithful to the core truths of Judaism and its covenant with the Lord, (at least, as Jesus saw it).

Because it is clear from the gospels that Jesus didn’t have a problem with the Sabbath as a concept.  As a rabbi steeped in the Jewish Scriptures he would have known about and upheld what those Scriptures had to say about the Sabbath, and its importance in Jewish life.  But his issue is with the way this is worked out in his community’s priorities.  In Mark’s gospel Jesus is recorded as having said that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

We could just as easily adapt that saying, and I put it to you that tradition was made for humankind, and not humankind for tradition.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Tradition is important.  It is the living memory of the community of faith, how we know who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.  But just as we cannot live in memory, nor can we allow tradition to become something which stops us from being the face and hands and feet of Jesus in this time and place.  The meaning of the memories needs to be worked out, carried forward, and given new expression, so that we don’t become just as hypocritical as the synagogue leader in this story.

So when we look at our traditions, and whether they ought to be kept as they are, adapted, or discarded, this portion of the gospel gives us something of a yardstick for our thinking.  Jesus defended his healing of the woman as being part of the true meaning of Sabbath; in turn, we can look at aspects of our tradition and ask, “Are they life giving?  Do they express the love of God for each of God’s children?  Do they bring joy?  Or are they actively working against those things?”  Or – and this is so often the case!  – are they not doing any real harm, but not actively resourcing our spiritual lives, either; a sort of ecclesiastical clutter which just gets in the way of what really matters?

And when we’ve worked out the answers to those questions, what action can we then take to bring the deeper meaning of these things into sharper focus for all of us, so that we, too, like the crowds in the gospel, can rejoice at all the wonderful things God is doing in our midst?



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