Handing On The Faith

Saint Paul in Prison, Rembrandt (1627)

Pentecost +20 2019
Rev. Doug Floyd
Jeremiah 14:7–10, 19–22, Psalm 84, 2 Timothy 4:6–18, Luke 18:9–14

In many of the stories of the Old Testament, one of the consistent problems you’ll see is the failure in handing the faith from one generation to the next. Consider Gideon. He faithfully serves the Lord and rescues his people, but after his death one of his sons kills all his other sons save one and leads the people astray. The High Priest Eli serves the Lord, but his sons turn away and bring judgment on themselves and the people. Even Samuel’s sons do not rule justly in the way he has done. King Hezekiah was a godly king, but his son Manasseh ended up becoming one of the most wicked kings in Judah’s history.

At its best tradition is handing down the faith from one generation to another. At its worst tradition can devolve into handing down man-made corruptions of the faith. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we see a picture of handing down the faith. Paul is facing death. His days are limited. He writes a letter of encouragement to one of the young men that he has raised up in the faith.

Paul is a Roman Jew. Timothy is a Greek Gentile. Yet Paul views Timothy as a beloved son. In passing down the tradition from Paul to Timothy, we see a picture of the Gospel not bound by race or cultural observances. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel for all families of the earth.

We don’t know when they first met, but we do know that Paul chose Timothy to accompany him on his second missionary journey (see Acts 16:2-3). Paul sends Timothy on a variety of missions. At one point, he is sent to Thessalonica to strengthen the church and report back to Paul on the state of the community there. Timothy brings questions for Paul from the community, and Paul responds by writing back in 1 Thessalonians.

Timothy serves alongside Paul and Silas by helping build the community at Corinth. It appears that eventually, Timothy came to oversee that church at Ephesus, and Eusebius states that Timothy was the bishop of Ephesus. At the close of the book of Hebrews, we are told that Timothy has been released from prison, so he appears to have suffered for the faith just as Paul did.

In today’s second lesson, Paul is encouraging Timothy to keep the faith even as Paul is soon to die. He writes, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6). His death is imminent, but he wants to make sure the faith continues to be handed down. In fact, he also wants to see his dear friend and asks Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon” (2 Timothy 4:9). Paul wants Timothy to bring John Mark when he comes. Then Paul lists some of the associates in ministry. Some have abandoned him. Others have remained true.

What is amazing about the New Testament story is that this faith is passed down. It does not fade away with the death of the Apostles but continues to flourish and grow. The faith is passed down through friendships and communities. It is passed down through letters and meals and songs and worship. Even as humans build communities and hand down the faith in relationships, the Holy Spirit is quickening hearts and moving across the land to prepare the way for the Gospel to continue to grow and spread like a vine of true life covering the land.

Though many of us came from backgrounds that frowned upon the word “tradition,” we must acknowledge that tradition is simply the handing down from one generation to another. Good and bad traditions can be handed down in families, churches and culture. Ives Congar writes about tradition as an aspect of Roman law: a legal transfer.[1] This could be a transfer of keys to a new homeowner or even the handing on of a baton in a relay race.

He continues by speaking of the work of redemption in light of this idea of handing over. He writes, “God (the Father) then gives his Son to the world; he delivers him to the world. Here, the New Testament uses our verb “to deliver” to show that the Father did not spare his Son but gave him up for us (Rom 8:31–32), to show that the Son “gave himself up for” us (Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2, 25), and finally, to show that he delivered or bestowed his Spirit on John and on Mary, at the foot of the Cross, representing the Church (Jn 19:30).”[2]

This movement of redemption continues across the ages. He continues, “The sending of Christ and of the Spirit is the foundation of the Church, bringing her into existence as an extension of themselves: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.””[3] In its most proper form, tradition is the act of the Spirit handing on the Good News of Jesus Christ into the lives of God’s people from place to place and age to age.

We have received this great tradition of redemption from the hands of many people who were killed for their proclamation or who suffered for their proclamation, and many were lost to the pages of history.

As we read through church history, we meet people who have preserved the faith, recovered some aspect of the faith, and even stood for the faith in the midst of dark and difficult days. Next week the church honors one saint who stood faithfully in one of the darkest periods of European history: the 14th century. Wycliffe is born and grows up in an age when the black death is spreading across Europe. France and England are in the midst of a hundred-year war. Famine and wars also lead to the deaths of many people.

He was born in Northern England near Yorkshire and in 1346, while he was still a teenager, Wycliffe entered Oxford. He became one of the leading scholars at Oxford and in all of Europe. He was a philosopher and a theologian, but Scripture played a prominent role in formation and mission. In his inaugural lecture at Oxford, he argued that the interpretation of Scripture must follow the intent of its divine author. And in a series of lectures deliver in 1377 and 78, he defended the authority of Holy Scriptures.

Wycliffe was particularly concerned with the lack of Scriptural knowledge among the clergy. Many monks and clergy had collected wealth without becoming true shepherds of the people. Sadly, many clergy and lay people treated the faith as a series of magic spells for protection and blessing. Many people had no sense of the hope offered in the Gospel.

Wycliffe sought to counter these errors by restoring a knowledge of God’s Holy Word among the preachers and the people. Wycliffe trained many men known as “poor preachers,” because they chose to live simply, study Scripture deeply, and travel the country proclaiming the truth of God’s Word. He was also the first person to translate the Bible in English, the language of the people. The Wycliffe translation of the Bible was made from a Latin language, hand-written manuscript of a translation a thousand years old and before any verse numbers had been assigned.[4]

Wycliffe’s translation not only laid the groundwork for future versions of the English Bible, including the King James Version, but it also helped shape the English dialect. Wycliffe was restoring the simplicity of the Christian faith to the English people by focusing on raising up faithful preachers and preparing a readable Bible for the people.

Wycliffe’s influence on the church and the recovery of Apostolic truth has enriched all of our lives. But even as we remember his story, we remember that he was not isolated but part of the communion. He himself was enriched by Richard Rolle, the Northern English mystic who lived just a generation before him. He was encouraged and strengthened by colleagues at Oxford. He was protected by people in power.

Like Luther who would influence the church 200 hundred years later, Wycliffe had people in powerful positions who helped give him a platform while protecting him from harm. His actions and his outspoken critique of certain superstitious practices made him suspect in Rome. Unlike many later Reformers, Wycliffe was not excommunicated or killed for his faith partly because of the strong support he had from some of the leading nobles of England, including John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and the uncle of king Richard II, and Queen Anne, the wife of the king.

Queen Anne was from Bohemia and married to John of Gaunt’s nephew King Richard II. She encouraged Bohemians to come and study at Oxford. Many of them were influenced by John Wycliffe’s teaching. They took his writings back to Bohemia, and these writings influenced John Huss and the renewal of faith in that land.

At the same time, they preserved his writings because thirty years after Wycliffe’s death, the church banned his writings and around 40 years after his death, his corpse was exhumed, his bones were burnt, and the ashes were cast in the River Swift. Wycliffe’s writing still lived on in Europe because of the Bohemians.

One writer commented, “They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”

Because Wycliffe’s writing were taken to Bohemia, they were preserved for later generations, and though he lived two centuries before the Reformation, Wycliffe is called The Morningstar of the Reformation. In his commitment to Holy Scripture and the proclamation of the Gospel, Wycliffe restored the true tradition, that is the faithful handing down of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Today we rehearse St. Paul’s faithfulness to pass on the truth of Christ to his young followers like Timothy, and John Wycliffe’s faithfulness to recover the Gospel truth revealed in Scripture and to pass this on the common people of his land and of lands far away. As we remember these gifts of faith service, may the Spirit of God also send us out as faithful bearers of the truth of Christ Jesus in this generation.


[1] Congar, Yves. The Meaning of Tradition. Translated by A. N. Woodrow. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.

[2] Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A. N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 10.

[3] Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A. N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 10.

[4] “Did You Know?,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 3: John Wycliffe: Bible Translator (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1983).

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