Hearing the Voice of God: Tradition
I expect that most of us have never heard God speak directly to us in an audible voice. We’ve never had a burning bush or Damascus Road experience. So, if this is true, then how can we hear God’s voice?
Last Sunday we talked about how God might speak to us through Scripture, but even if it is the Word of God, is it the only voice through which God speaks? Going forward I suggested a couple of other possibilities including Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Having spoken on Scripture, as you might expect from this morning’s anthem, today I’m going to speak on Tradition.
Now, in Mark 7 we find Jesus confronting an angry group of religious leaders who are appalled that Jesus’ disciples hadn’t properly washed their hands before eating. While it may sound like an issue of good hygiene, it was really more a question of following tradition. These leaders didn’t appreciate the disciples’ lack of respect for the way things have always been done. But Jesus responded by saying that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out – and by that he means what we say and what we do.
While they were concerned about certain hand washing traditions, they found all kinds of ways of voiding God’s commandments. For instance, Jesus pointed to the little loophole that some had used to avoid caring for their parents by declaring that their wealth was dedicated to God, despite the fact that the Law requires that we honor our parents.
I don’t think Jesus was against Tradition, but he was aware that sometimes we use Tradition to avoid doing what God would have us do. Perhaps Jaroslav Pelikan said it best by distinguishing between Tradition, which he called the “living faith of the Dead,” and traditionalism, which he called “the dead faith of the Living.” Those religious leaders seem to have been traditionalists in the bad sense of the word, because they let their human “traditions” undermine the Tradition of God.
Although there’s a downside to Tradition, can we still hear God’s voice in Tradition? As we think about that question let’s go back to our anthem and Tevye’s take on Tradition. According to Tevye, Tradition helps keep life balanced, like being a fiddler on the roof:
Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years.
Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything.
How to sleep.How to eat.How to work.How to wear clothes.For instance,we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl.This shows our constant devotion to God.You may ask, how did this tradition get started?I'll tell you. I don't know.But it's a tradition.And because of our traditions,every one of us knows who he isand what God expects him to do.
Isn’t this what we all want to know? Don’t we want to know who we are and what God expects of us? This guidance might not tell us how to sleep, what to eat, or what to wear, but we want to know that there’s a reason for our existence.
The problem is, we can’t always distinguish the human traditions, which keep us from hearing God’s voice, from the ones that reveal God’s voice. Because this is true, we fall into the traditionalism of “this is the way we always do it” or “we’ve never done it that way.” When this happens we get stuck in the past and miss out on what God is doing now and what God is going to do in the future.
Peter had a vision that broke through traditions that guided his life, but which kept him from understanding where God was leading the Jesus movement. You can see how anchored Peter was in the past by how he responded to the vision that came to him as he was praying around noon. In this vision Peter saw a sheet that contained all kinds of unclean animals, and a voice from heaven said: Kill and eat. Peter responded: “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” To which the voice responded: “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” (Acts 10:14-15). With that conversation Peter realized that God was writing Gentiles into the story of the people of God.
So how can we hear God speak to us through Tradition?
We Disciples have always struggled with Tradition. Being born on the frontier Disciples founders like the Campbells and Barton Stone tried to get of rid anything that they believed were “human traditions.” Believing that the way to Christian unity required going back to the New Testament, where they believed God had given clear instructions for the way the church should exist, they decided that if it wasn't in the Bible, then it was a human tradition that wasn't binding on anyone.
So, with fear and trepidation I want to suggest that God can speak to us through Tradition. By Tradition, however, I mean God’s story that starts with creation and continues on to the present. Along the way we see how God not only creates, but God seeks to bring us back into the covenant relationship that we continually forsake. The key moment in this story is the call of Abraham and Sarah, through whom God forms a people so that God can bless the world. The story continues through Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and on toward Jesus, through whom God brings the Gentile world into the story. We call this “salvation history.” But we could also call it Tradition, and the story continues on beyond the New Testament, to our day, when our story gets added to this unfolding Tradition.
According to Paul our names get added to the story as we embrace the message he considered of first importance – that “Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.” (1 Cor. 15:3-4 CEB).
Moving on beyond the New Testament, as we consider the ongoing history of the church, we see pictures of the way in which Christians have heard this news and have tried to live it out. By paying attention to Tradition, we see how our predecessors have tried to live this faith that we’ve embraced. As is true with scripture, not all of these pictures are flattering. They don’t always show us at our best, but they continually remind us that God is faithful.
This story begins in the world of a hostile Roman Empire and extends to the far points of the globe. We see the church face persecution and then the embrace of an empire that brought security at a price. There are stories of corruption and reform; stories of unity and division. Of course, as any genealogist will tell you, we all have skeletons in our closets, and Tradition has a habit of revealing them. But again, even in our own unfaithfulness, we see the faithfulness of God revealed.
Although we Disciples might not like to admit it, we have our own Traditions. These include the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, baptism by immersion on confession of faith, a commitment to Christian unity, and a valuing of freedom to interpret and apply the biblical message to our lives.
Central Woodward has also some traditions that express God’s vision – and like all communities we have a bit of traditionalism as well that can keep us stuck in the past and unable to embrace the present and the future! But, staying positive, I’ll point to the way in which we value our involvement with the regional and general church. It’s seen in our commitment to ecumenical partnerships. This tradition of engagement beyond the congregation goes back to the founding of the church on Woodward Avenue. Back then we had active partnerships with many other congregations, including Metropolitan United Methodist Church, which now hosts Motown Mission, as well as Temple Beth El, the Jewish synagogue across the street from old Central Woodward. Edgar Dewitt Jones served as president of the predecessor to the National Council of Churches.
Each of us also have traditions that tell the story of how God is present in our own lives. A few weeks back, I spoke of how my own spiritual journey led me from my roots in the Episcopal Church to finding a home among the Disciples. Even if, like Tevye, we don’t know exactly how all our Traditions began, they help give some balance to our lives and reveal to us the purpose of God.
You may have noticed that many of the songs and hymns that we’re singing today speak of the Lord’s Supper. That’s because the Lord’s Supper is the primary carrier of this tradition that Paul considered to be of first importance. Each week as we hear the Words of Institution, we are told: “Do this in Remembrance of Me.”
As we participate in this meal, we are reminded of Jesus’ life, his death, and his resurrection, which according to Matthew’s version of the story brings with it forgiveness of sins. Therefore, as we gather at the Table in a few moments, may we listen for the voice of God speaking to us through this story we call “salvation history” or Tradition.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Third Sunday of Lent
March 11, 2011