The Gift of the Sword
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – Matthew 10:34
It’s difficult to know exactly how to start this sermon; I was asked to talk about Tradition and now I gotta talk about swords.
But first… What sort of family traditions, good, bad or indifferent do you have?
Auburn Traditions: rolling Toomer’s, Hey Day
What role within your family, our culture, do these particular traditions play?
Within the Anglican way of being Christian, Tradition plays a valued role in helping define what it means to be both Christian and Anglican, and, ultimately, what it means to be St. Brendan’s.
Richard Hooker an English Anglican writing in the 17th century wrote about the relationship between Scripture, Tradition and Reason. He argued that Scripture was the primary authority in the Church, but, contra the Puritans, that the reflection and understanding of Scripture necessitated the secondary, but important, input of Reason and Tradition. The primary authority of scripture was best understood via a person’s Reason, understood through the voice of Church.
Tradition, as Hooker and other Anglicans have understood it, was not simply “the way we’ve always done it,” but centuries-long accumulation of beliefs and practices of the historical Church; and for Hooker and the rest of the Anglican Divines of the 16th and 17th century, this meant a particular emphasis on the early, undivided Church. Tradition is the voice of the Church Militant and Triumphant, speaking its understanding of the primary authority of Scripture.
I’d like to call this the Great Tradition, with a capital G and capital T. These are the practices and beliefs that define what it means to be Christian in the broadest possible terms: Examples: the Creeds. The Trinity, the shape of our liturgy, the three-fold ministry of Bishops, priest and deacons. The necessity of bread and wine and water. The Five lesser sacraments.
Indeed, even the collection of of books and letters we call the Bible has its roots in what was commonly recognized and used by the early church. The recognition of whatwe call “Scripture” today was not simply handed to us on a silver plate from above, but the formation of conflicting tradition within the early Church that was resolved over time.
To put it very simply, the gospel is this: Jesus is Lord. The Great Tradition is that good news put into practice, and informs what we do and what we say. It helps us communicate the Gospel in a way that would be understood by a Christian in Rome or in Vladivostok or in Bangalore or in La Paz. The Great Tradition provides us with a Rosetta stone of understanding what it means to be Christian across the communions: When we say Jesus, we mean Jesus. It has survived wars and invasions, schisms, Reformations, colonial conquest, synods and assemblies, aberrant bishops and a secular culture. It’s longevity gives us a faithful witness to say, “When we say Jesus, we mean Jesus.” We depart from it with great peril.
We would then move, I think, to a much broader category of Tradition, which I might refer to as just capital-T Tradition, or Anglican Tradition. The practices and beliefs that define what it means to be Anglican. Examples?
Prayerbook. A model of pastoral care. Evensong. Distinctive practices that make up a “culture” of Anglican worship and thought. “All things necessary to salvation.” The Cathedral and Diocese as a focus point of mission.
The practices and beliefs that we engage in, we do so because they continue to speak the Gospel in a way that is uniquely formed from the English Reformation. Example: “North end.” How would that position at communion declare the Gospel? What about the Calendar? What else is “distinctively Anglican” that communicates the Gospel?
While not quite as immediately important as the Great Tradition, these give shape to what it means to be Anglican Christian. These are what GK Chesterton called, “the votes of the departed.” We change these with great deliberation, because they change and alter our identity.
Finally, we have what I might call lower-case “t” tradition. Those practices and beliefs that define us as a parish family — St. Brendan’s. In longer-established parishes these might be the sort of things that make up any number of humorous tales, but when changed or altered… Great conflict arises… “My Great-Aunt Bessie gave that painting to the church in 1921 and no one’s gonna see if the rector moves it to that spot under the stairs!” Who always makes the coffee? Who always runs VBS?
I tread dangerous waters here, but I bet we can probably already name some “St. Brendan’s tradition” even with six months under our belt… Does anyone wanna give a go? Great wisdom can be found in these traditions, and the collected memory and wisdom of the people who practice those traditions and act as gatekeepers for those practices must be heard. Woe be to the young curate who mistakenly believes he’s been called to St. Mungo’s on the Pines to “shake things up a little!”
The brilliance of Hooker’s theology of authority is two fold: one, we understand that traditions need not be the same here as everwhere else, and second, is that it puts Anglicans in a “critical” position to Tradition. To the first, I believe this flexibnility for local communions to define their own worship traditions has allowed the Gospel to flow in places that culturally would’ve rejected it. Historically, the Church has thrived in places where the Gospel is preached and practiced within the receiving culture. A Native American mass using drums and chants outdoors in nature and evocative dancing is acceptable as Anglican chant and the whispy trails of incense reflecting in a medieval stained glass. The ceremonial entry of the Bible in a canoe from the Solomon Islands speaks to the Melanesian. We’ve had to learn the hard way that a Christian in Hawaii doesn’t need to dress like a Christian in Connecticut, but we’re getting there. But we must always be critical: I don’t mean critical as in “being a critic,” but critiquing, always asking ourselves, is this reflective of Scripture? Is this making more holy, stripping off the veneer of sanctimony and actually sanctifying me?
Jesus, of course, is *famously* opposed to the traditions of the Pharisees, particularly when those traditions obscure the fundamental nature of God: Love. For me, this critical approach to scripture boils down to a simple, but very difficult question: If I had followed Jesus around the desert for 3 years, would I believe this practice, this tradition, this painting from Great-Aunt Bessie communicates the gospel: that Jesus is Lord?”
Those little-t traditions that give life and substance to a parish community have a danger that we all know about: they can generate fiefdoms, areas of concentrated power that necessary change for the Gospel becomes impossible or problematic. Gatekeepers, protective of the identity of their parish and the ministries within it, can become Mean Girls and Mean Boys, closing off opportunities for others to share in the ministry of Jesus in the world.
Our Anglican traditions must also fall under the same critical thought: when, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the old evangelicals failed to embrace the poor of the new industrial cities like Birmingham and Manchester, it was the Ritualists in the slum parishes that brought beauty, grace, forgiveness and social reform into the tenements. Traditions changed. The north end was discarded for the east-facing mass, surplice hood and preaching bands kept for Evensong and Matins… The popish chasuble, alb and stole returned, and the poor were lifted into the heavens for communion with God on a equal footing with their bosses and landlords.
Our tradition changed further in the 1970s, when the langauge of the older rites was felt to no longer communicate the Gospel in the way it did for much of the 20th century. Liturgical reform moved the celebrant to face the people, to invite them to be the church, the body of Christ in the world, not lifted out it.
We must even take the critical look to the Great Tradition when it fails to communicate Jesus to a hurting world. When I was in England, I was challenged, deeply challenged, by the number of students whose fathers were absent, abusive, or simply a non-entity. What does “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” mean in that context? If “father” means someone who hurts me… How do I communicate the love of a Holy, Gracious, Loving Father when “father” means the opposite? Again, we must be very gentle and very careful, since language means things…
So now, we talk about swords. If you were a martian and simply dropped here on a Sunday morning, what sort of meaning would you take from what we do? What would you say about Shrove Thursday or a Lenten Fast? Or waving palms around in the air? Or a tradition of self-giving in our community? Or saying “Body of Christ” when it’s clearly a piece of bread? With any luck, you would look at us and say, “These people are unlike any one else I’ve seen!”
When we adhere to the Great Christian Tradition, it means to divorce ourselves from other traditions that keep us from living out that basic Gospel statement: Jesus is Lord. Jesus can’t be lord if we are enslaved to our jobs or to our politics or to a culture that is rapidly attempting to measure the price of everything and the value of nothing. Tradition is the mark the Sword of the Gospel leaves behind when it cleaves us from our sin. It’s another tradition, the Sign of the Cross, the mark our baptism that says, I’ve welcomed Christ. Now let me welcome you.