Traditions! Tradition!

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David Bahn-Reflections Podcast 

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 
14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 [ESV]

Great White Egret in Flight [Multi Frame Exposure] | South Padre Island, TX | September 2022

I love Tevye’s song in Fiddler on the Roof, Tradition! He’s convinced that tradition is what keeps the village going. Wikipedia summarizes the song this way:

“Tradition” is the opening number for the 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. In the song, the main character, Tevye, explains the roles of each social class (fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters) in the village of Anatevka, and how the traditional roles of people like the matchmaker, the beggar, and the rabbi contribute to the village. The song also mentions the constable, the priest, and the other non-Jews with whom they rarely interact… Overall, the song sets up the major theme of the villagers trying to continue their traditions and keep their society running as the world around them changes.

Years ago, however, I heard an excellent explanation of the difference between tradition and traditionalism. Tradition is a good thing. It holds society together. Traditionalism gets in the way of true and free life. Tradition is what Jesus observed. Traditionalism is the religion of the Pharisees which he condemned. So the saying goes:

Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead.

Generalizations easily become overstatements. And that’s true of this one. But since Paul appeals to tradition here in this letter, it seems proper to look carefully at this word and concept. In Colossians 2:8, Paul says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Jesus condemns the traditions of men, saying, “You [the Pharisees] have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, Honor your father and your mother’; and, Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do” (Mark 7:9-13).

Martin Luther railed against the traditions of the church in his day that got in the way of the truth of God’s word and obscured the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He believed that traditions can be helpful. But he also knew that they can also easily become more important than the very things they are supposed to uphold. The sale of indulgences, unquestionable Papal authority, relegating the laity of the church to inferior status are just a few examples of harmful traditions in Luther’s day.

Some good traditions remain today. Kneeling or standing for prayer, coming to the altar rail for communion, standing when the gospel is read in church are all excellent traditions. But if the standing or kneeling become more important than the act of prayer, the gifts of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, or the gospel message itself we have a grave problem.

We are in a sermon series at St. John with a clever motto: Keeping it Real: It’s about the heart. Not about playing a part. This is Paul’s message here. The traditions he is pointing to are all about the heart. They are those truths, teachings, and practices that center our hearts in Jesus Christ. His love, mercy, grace, goodness, and truth are the focus of every good tradition.

True traditions are not just about making the village work. True traditions anchor us to Jesus. They fill our hearts and souls with life and joy.

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