What Place Does Tradition Have?

The Lord be with you

The appointed readings for this coming Sunday most naturally lend themselves to a sermon on the function of tradition. However, three years ago I did that sermon. Instead, I’m using the Psalm for our text. Nonetheless, understanding the roll of tradition with its use and misuse, is important. So, below, is the sermon I preached three years ago.

Blessings in Christ,

Pentecost 14 (Proper 16B)
August 26, 2018

Lections: Isaiah 29:11–19; Ephesians 5:22–33; Mark 7:1–13

Sermon: What Place Does Tradition Have?
Text: Mark 7:8

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:8)

Who doesn’t love a good tradition? Our lives are full of them. Who doesn’t love a good fireworks show on the fourth of July, at least in America? Speaking of America, traditionally we have a seventh inning stretch in baseball games, or the ceremonial throwing out of the first pitch of the season. Traditionally children get a summer vacation from school. How many adults fondly those carefree days? According to tradition, men open doors for women, women can wear hats indoors, but men can’t, and you eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

Not only do we have generally accepted national traditions, but we also have personal traditions. On more than one occasion, I’ve received phone calls from people wondering if we have a mid-night Christmas Eve worship service. These people may never go to a worship service the entire year, but on Christmas Eve it is their personal tradition to attend a service. Some families have a tradition of vacationing at the same place every year. Maybe you are a bowler and you always tap the foul line before you actually deliver the bowling ball. Whatever the tradition might be, and some may call them superstitions, we all seem to have them.

This is true all over the world, though their traditions might be very different from ours. In fact, this is so common that no society or culture, either current or in the past, has ever been discovered that does not have traditions. Who knows, perhaps it is part of the very nature of being human. I know that it is a very powerful force, for good or ill, in our lives.

Religion, in general, and Christianity as well, certainly has not avoided traditions. Traditionally we do catechism classes in the seventh and eighth grades. Traditionally we have our worship services on Sunday. Traditionally we have Wednesday worship services during Advent and Lent. Traditionally our pastors were robes on Sunday. Traditionally we adorn our worship areas with the best art we can. Traditionally, in our church, we sing chorales. Other denominations, traditionally, sing in other styles. The list goes on and on.

Individual churches also develop local traditions. Traditionally we do our announcements at the beginning of our worship services. In the church I came from in South Carolina, traditionally they did their announcements following the worship service. Traditionally we end our time together by me saying: “Go in peace to serve the Lord.” The congregation responds with: “Thanks be to God.” We didn’t do that in South Carolina. There are all sorts of traditions that we observe, either as a local congregation or as a denomination. They tend to enhance our time together and so serve a beneficial function.

The Jews in Jesus’ day were no different. They also had traditions, lots of them. They had traditional holidays. I’m not talking about the ones outlined in the Old Testament, like Passover, but non-biblical ones like Hanukkah. Of course the biblical ones could also be called traditional. Those Jews also had traditional clothing, traditional food, traditional greetings, traditional activities, and just about anything else where we have traditions today.

But something had gone wrong in reference to their traditions, and by their example we might be able to see how our traditions can go wrong and help us keep them in their place.

Jesus addresses how a Jewish tradition had supplanted the word of God. However, the tradition had been founded on the Word of God. We all know the first commandment: “Thou shall have no other God’s before me.” We have all heard the warnings that anything can supplant God, even the love of family. The first commandment is first, not simply because some commandment had to be numbered first, but because all commandments flow from it. So to break any commandment is to break the first commandment. This is the very line of reasoning the scribes used for the tradition Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel lesson.

If, they argued, something had been dedicated to God, you cannot reverse that dedication in order to do something else, even something as important as caring for your parents. God is first, they reasoned. However they forgot that God has not commanded us to dedicate this, that or the other thing to him. He has commanded us to honor our father and mother. So, if it comes to a choice between helping the church recover the pews or making sure your parents have a roof over their heads, even if you have pledged to give to the pew fund, you take care of your parents first. That is how you keep God first. Then, if God grants you even more money, you can give to the pew fund. The scribes had it the other way around.

People, being what they are, that is fallen sinners, made it even worse. They would put the temple in their wills, and then refuse to care for their parents under the pretense that the money had been dedicated to God. Sadly, the scribes supported this understanding, I guess because it brought more money into the temple treasury. So both the scribes and the people twisted the word of God to their own advantage and the disadvantage of their neighbor.

This example is a strong warning to us to not twist the Word of God, which is easy for us to do. Everyone, pastors included, need to be on guard against this. But the misuse of traditions does not have to be so blatantly greedy. Anytime a tradition is use as a higher standard than the word of God, it is being misused. I remember one circuit event I attended when I was down south. I was standing in the back while the announcements were being made during the worship service. A layman casually told me that he would never be able to attend this particular church because the announcements were being done wrong. “Right,” of course, was how the announcements were handled in his home congregation. I doubt he was happy with my response.

The simple fact is, he had elevated a local practice above unity in doctrine. He valued, though he didn’t realize it, how announcements were handled more than he valued the atoning death of Jesus and the people Jesus died for. We could go on with any traditional element, especially Sunday worship traditions. To insist that candles, or pews, or how an offering is taken up, or what type of musical instruments are used, or music in general, or how the pastor dresses, or what sort of decorations adorn the worship site, if any, or require a certain dress code of the laity, or get in a huff over whether or not a person makes the sign of the cross, or if people stand or kneel at communion, or if you immerse or pour during baptism, or whether you use individual or a common cup during communion, or if you recognize saint days, or even if your main weekly worship service is on Sunday, is to elevate tradition above the word of God, to elevate tradition above the neighbor we are charged to love, in deed, to elevate tradition above unity in the Gospel and Christ himself.

This is what our Confessions say on the topic: “We believe, teach and confess that the community of God in every locality and every age has the authority to change such ceremonies and practices, according to circumstances, as it may be most profitable and edifying to the community of God” (Epitome, Formula of Concord, Article X, Church Usages, Thesis 2). In the same article we also hear, “churches will not condemn each other because of a difference in ceremonies, when in Christian liberty one uses fewer or more of them, as long as they are otherwise agreed in doctrine and all its articles … according to the well-known axiom, ‘Disagreement in fasting should not destroy agreement in faith.’”

Our unity is based on agreement in doctrine and not uniformity in traditions. That is why, when the Missouri Synod first formed, we had a half-dozen or so different hymnals in most churches. Unity relies in sharing our one faith, not on one hymnal. That is why we can have Missouri Synod congregations that speak English, German, Slovakian, Spanish, and so forth. Our unity is in Christ, not in our language. And that is why we can have Missouri Synod congregations that use contemporary pop style music, or even jazz style music. Our unity is not based on our taste in music, but in the God who we worship. St. Paul had it right when he wrote, “4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:4-7). Paul does not mention one governing church structure, one Sunday morning liturgy, and so forth. Such things don’t come close to being in the picture Paul presents.

So, when tradition gets in the way of our unity in Christ and his word, it is tradition that should give way. The scribes had forgotten that and let their traditions supplant Christ and his word.

All that being said, traditions are a good thing when kept in their place. We have the tradition of worshiping on Sundays because we recognize that, ever since the first century, Sundays have been the day Christians worship. We choose this day because it is a way we honor Christ. It was on a Sunday Jesus rose from the dead. It was a Sunday when Christ sent the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost. I might also point out that Creation began on a Sunday so we remember our creation and re-creation with Sunday worship. We do this freely. Not by way of commandment. If a person can’t worship on Sunday, and their church offers Wednesday services, or services on some other day, that is fine. As long as we agree in the Gospel, we extend the right hand of fellowship.

We use both ancient and modern chorale tunes and texts, not because they are the only proper form of music for worship but because we recognize that Christians have used this form for centuries, that it is an excellent way to communicate our one faith in our one Lord and because to dispose of them is to turn our back on a great treasure of wisdom and truth handed down to us.

We recognize saints, not because we are commanded to but because they can be a great inspiration for us in our day to day life. We observe the Church Year, again by choice and not by compulsion. We see in it a way to tie into the one Church that extends back through time, not only to Jesus but actually back to Adam and Eve. It provides us with a way to order our days in light of the redemptive work of Jesus. It lifts up the one faith, the one church, the one Lord, and that we value.

We use the hymnal, not because it is the only true way to worship, but because we recognize that it is a great way to worship. Its liturgies have been refined through the ages and carry pure gold.

Our Christian Tradition is a great gift and shapes us in a Christ-like way. But our traditions are never to replace Christ or his word. Because we are who we are, that is human beings, we will have traditions. We choose to make use of the wealth of the Christian tradition, not because we are mandated to but because we see the value in using it. That is the proper place of tradition, as servant, as teacher, as messenger, but not as Lord. That honor belongs to Jesus alone. Amen.