Christianity 101:The Basics
John Wesley left his followers some guidance on how to make theological decisions. He never summed it up the way we do now but what he left us with is what we call the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We Methodists love our weird long words but what this means is there are four parts to making a faithful witness. “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” That is basically the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. When we attempt to make sense of issues in our day or how we as United Methodist should react to the world, we go to these four sources for answers, Scripture, tradition, experience and reason. Scripture is the primary sources and stands above all the others. Tradition helps back it up and it is made effective through experience and reason.
We understand experience and reason. We will be using those two personal tools today as we watch those commercials which are only broken up by a football game tonight. As we watch those we will experience them and use our own reason to determine which were effective, funny, or went too far. We understand Scripture too. Okay, we may not understand Scripture completely but we do understand why it is supposed to be the most important thing and why it is set up as our primary source. One that seems to give people a little trouble is tradition. But tradition is one of the basics of faith and without it our faith would seem empty.
Tradition comes from the Latin word trado which means to hand over, to deliver or to bequeath. Tradition is the belief or customs passed down from one generation to the next. Where there are two or more humans gathered together two or more times, there are traditions. Let’s face it, today is an American Tradition. Today is Super Bowl Sunday and millions upon millions of people will watch players who get paid millions upon millions play a game in a stadium that cost millions upon millions and in between we will watch ads from companies that hope after spending millions upon millions they will earn millions upon millions. It is the great American Tradition.
But there are other American traditions out there; barbeques and fireworks on the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving is another huge one. Most communities have their own traditions too. Here we have Everybody’s Day and the Thomasville/East Davidson football game. In Oriental, North Carolina, a little town where the Neuse River meets the Pamlico Sound, they have the Oriental Cup Regatta and the Crocker Festival. In Concord, NC the week before Memorial Day is always busy with something known as Speed Week. It is the week between the NASCAR All Star Race and the Coca Cola 600. Almost every community has some sort of traditions.
Families are the same way. We all have family traditions. Growing up we had to open stockings first, eat breakfast and then open gifts on Christmas morning. When my grandparents still lived in Huron, OH, they had a Backyard Bash every summer and the whole family would go up and all their friends would come over for a huge backyard party that somehow always ended with catching fireflies and drinking way too much orange soda. I am sure I could walk through this sanctuary today and learn about all the great traditions that are out there that you and your family or hometown keep. Traditions are what we pass to the next generation to help them know who they are and where they have come from.
Yet Jesus didn’t always agree with traditions. In the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel Jesus is confronted by some of the Pharisees and other teachers of the law who see Jesus’ disciples eating with unclean hands. They had not gone through the traditional hand cleansing ritual. Jesus looks at them and replies back, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Jesus goes on to rail on them for depending too much on their traditions. Traditions can be huge brick walls within communities to that end up being bigger problems than effective tools of passing down meaning and purpose.
“William Poteet wrote in The Pentecostal Minister how in 1903 the Russian Czar noticed a sentry posted for no apparent reason on the Kremlin grounds. Upon inquiry, he discovered that in 1776 Catherine the Great found there the first flower of spring. "Post a sentry here," she commanded, "so that no one tramples that flower under foot!" For the next 127 years a sentry stood there without question. Some traditions die hard.” We all know those types of traditions, the ones that we always do because that is what has always done. They have lost their purpose and are more done to simply do them than to convey meaning and purpose.
In the book The Vindication of Tradition it says, “Tradition is the living faith of those now. Traditionalism is the dead faith of those still living.” This is what Jesus was angry about when he was confronted by the Pharisees. He was angry that for them, they were holding up dead faith. When we see the word “tradition” in the New Testament it usually “means laws and regulations handed down orally from one generation to another and forming the Oral Law of the Jews, which Jesus frequently denounced when it was against the real law of God.” Jesus has a problem with traditions when they become traditionalism, when they go against God. When the tradition itself becomes more important than the reason for doing it we are in trouble. So we have to walk carefully because there is a small line between a meaningful tradition and a golden calf.
The opening lines to the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof goes, “How do we keep our balance, they can tell you in one word…Tradition! Without traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof.” Tradition brings meaning to life and color to who we are. This is why it is so important. Without traditions the next generations can lose focus on what is really important.
We have great traditions in our Christian tradition. There are things we do in worship that are to build up and teach all of us why we do what we do. We sing hymns that have deep meaning and can bring back vivid memories. As we sing them they dive into our souls and stir us. The first hymn we sang was written by Charles Wesley in 1739 and is a very traditional Methodist hymn. At each Annual Conference, in all the United Methodist Conferences around the world, they start by singing the hymn, “And Are we Yet Alive.” This was a tradition started by John Wesley during annual meetings and is one that continues to this day. For many, our last hymn will resonate deep in our souls because of something from our past or simply the tune itself stirs up meaning of a deeper walk with God.
Beyond singing we also have creeds. Each week we say the Apostle’s Creed. This is said to be taken from what the early apostles were teaching and some believe the earliest time this was actually written down was in 180 AD. In 325 at the Council of Nicaea they took this creed and clarified some of the theological loose ends and created the Nicene Creed. The main purpose of these creeds is to give the theological foundation for our faith. It is the yard stick for our belief and something we can measure things against. It is a place where we can look to and say this is what I believe, what my grandparents believe and what everyone who called themselves Christian has believed. It is a grand tradition passed down to us which we participate in every week when we say it and teach it to our children.
The same thing is true for our sacraments. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. We in the United Methodist Church have two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. There are other denominations that have more. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Traditions have seven sacraments and other denominations have somewhere in between 2-7. But for us it is the sacred rites of Baptism and Communion. Here it is where God bestows on us grace and where we participate in forgiveness, remembrance, and the sacrifice that our Lord did.
In Matthew’s gospel text today Jesus and his disciples were gathered together to eat the traditional Passover meal. Jesus then takes a very traditional meal, one passed down from generations to generations of the Jewish faith to tell the story of their ancestors and transforms it into a tradition for us to remember God’s love for humanity. This is a tradition we participate in traditionally on the first Sunday of every month. We do so to participate in this salvific act of God and to remember who we are and whose we are. This is what a true tradition should do.
Traditions are wonderful when they point to God and teach who we are and whose we are. They become deadly, at least a form of hospice, when we lose sight of that. When traditions are done for the sake of doing them and not for the meaning behind them they are transformed into golden calves. Then our loyal participation is actually an act of idolatry. For a tradition to stand the test of time, it has to start with God and end with God. That is what our sacraments do. That is what our creeds do. That is what our hymns and worship should do. Traditions hold us accountable and give us purpose. They bind us together in community and grant us our identity. Without them we can be lost and alone. Without them we can forget who and whose we truly are.
And all God’s people said…Amen