A Sermon delivered to St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Charleston, WV on November 10, 2013, and based on 2 Thessalonians 2:15.
I spent my teen years in Minnesota, in a little village called Mahtomedi. It was the land of 10,000 lakes - and as many Lutherans. We had Swedish Lutherans, Norwegian Lutherans, German Lutherans - and we had troubles.
The late sixties and seventies were a tumultuous time, what with the hippie revolution, the anti-war movement, bomb threats in the schools - and drug use creeping up everywhere. Almost as bad as today! Very precarious times...
With all the problems, you might ask, how did we keep our balance?
that I can tell you - in a word: tradition!
Because of our traditions, we were able to keep our balance for many years. We had traditions for everything: (Slides accompanied the sermon)
traditions for what to eat (picture of “Salad”: Jello mold)
traditions for what kind of clothes to wear… (pic snowmobile suit)
traditions for how to put the dock in the lake (Picture of dock being installed)
and traditions for watching the Vikings lose the Superbowl every year... (picture of Bud Grant and the Vikings)
How did all this get started?....
I don’t know - but it’s tradition!
“Because of our traditions, every one of us knew who we were and what God expected”…
Well, maybe you recognize this little spiel from the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof. And maybe it worked for Tevya and the little village of Antevka, but in modern American culture, tradition gets a bad rap mostly.
We are, in our cultural and spirtual DNA, essentially anti-traditional and anti-authoritarian. We Americans stand squarely in the Free Church ‘tradition’ that views traditions and hierarchies with distrust.
But Tevya was on to something. Without traditions, we lose our way and forget who we are and what God expects from us.
Regarding the latter, we forget the essence of the Christian message. This is what the Apostle Paul was warning about in 2 Thessalonians 2: 15, where he says “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter…”
But the traditions that Paul was talking about are not the traditions practiced by Tevya or by those who put in the dock each spring in Mathomedi. No, we could accurately place a capital T in front of Paul’s ‘Tradition’ and say that what he was describing is really more like a Vikings football game…
The Quarterback takes the snap from the Center and then hands off to a runner, who takes the ball, intact, to the end zone - hopefully without getting tackled or fumbling along the way. The ball is received, transported and deposited at the goal unchanged in its essential form.
It’s just like what Paul says in I Cor. 11:23 as he introduces the words of institution: ”For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you… “
Capital T tradition is about receiving something, preserving it and passing it along to the next generation - so that we remember who we are and what God expects of us.
“The very Latin word traditio means a transmission from one party to another, an exchange of some sort, implying living subjects” (DH Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, pg 35)
“Traditio is as much a verb as a noun - it’s an active process of handing something over.” Again, think of the football analogy.
But here’s a caution: the word 'traditor' is where we get the English word ‘Treason'! In the early church it applied to one who had handed over copies of the Scriptures to the authorities in times of persecution! (Williams, pg 35)
Unless we preserve and hand on the Tradition accurately we run the risk of becoming Traitors to the Gospel!
Without the Capitol T tradition, a culture erodes and we cease to be who we really are.
So today, we’re going to talk about that Capitol T traditon - what it is and what it does for us - what we must do to preserve it and what we must avoid to prevent it from degrading. To get warmed up a little, let’s have a couple of Quiz questions to test your knowledge...
Q: How many years was it from the time that Jesus died until the list of New Testament books was officially recognized?
a) 0 - they just used the King James Version that Jesus used.
b) 33 - the same number of years as Jesus lived
c) 1980 - it’s still being settled
d) 292 - it was decided at the Council of Nicea
A: d) It was officially decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD
The Council was called by Emperor Constantine. The list was proposed by a man named Athanasius and voted upon by 220 Bishops from across the church - mostly the East
Q: How did the Council of Nicea decide which books to include in the New Testament?
a) they looked it up on the Internet
b) the authors all argued for their own books in open forum
- they used the Hebrew technique of drawing lots
- they only recognized books that were written by the Apostles or their close associates
A: d) they only recognized books that were written by the Apostles or their close associates.
Think of the Gospels -which were written by the disciples Matthew, Mark and John, of Luke, who was a close associate of Paul, and who had personally interviewed Mary and others, and, of course, Paul, who had also seen the Lord and whose letters comprise the bulk of the New Testament.
Q: What did the early Christians use for Scripture on Sundays?
a) The DaVinci Code
b) The Dead Sea Scrolls
c) The Torah
d) Emails and Tweets from the Apostle Paul
A: c) The Torah
The early Christians used the Hebrew Scriptures of the “Old Testament” - However, just as our text from 2 Thessalonians mentions, there were letters (not emails or tweets!) of Paul which were circulated among the churches and read during the worship services. There were also other Gospels and writings which many considered Scripture, but which did not make it into the New Testament.
So, how’d you do? Get most of the answers? Good.
Now imagine with me a moment what it must have been like as a first century Christian. In the very early days, you heard the Gospel from someone who was right there with Jesus, who probably knew him and knew the message he preached. In the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
(Acts 8): The Eunuch heard the message, first by reading the book of Isaiah, and then by having it interpreted for him by Philip. The Eunuch believed the Gospel message, proclaimed, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and was baptized on the spot. (Then the preacher gets whisked off by the Holy Spirit for another preaching gig hundreds of miles away!….)
At first it was sufficient to simply affirm one sentence in order to be baptized into the faith. ”Jesus is Lord’ was one of the most common affirmations. This was in contrast to what Roman Citizens would have said in their worship of the Emperor: “Caesar is Lord”. To say “Jesus is Lord” would have been enough to get you killed, so you didn’t say it unless you really meant it. Death has a way of clarifying your core beliefs!
As time went along and more and more folks believed, there began to be variations in the message that people were hearing and there was conflict about what really was the true kernel of the Gospel message. Heresies arose around key questions:
Was Jesus really God? (Arianism)
Was Jesus really a man - or did he just appear to be a man? (Docetism)
Is the knowledge of God available to all, or is there ‘hidden wisdom’ available only to a few select initiates?(Gnosticism)
There were also questions about the nature of Scripture:
Can we get a true belief from the Old Testament and Scripture alone?
What if people who believe radically different things claim to base their beliefs on Scripture?
These were some of the questions the church began to face and grapple with.
And how did they deal with it? As Paul himself has indicated - by relying not only on written documents – which, after all, could be written by anyone to say anything at all, - but also on the reliable testimony of witnesses who had been with Jesus - people who could be trusted to tell the truth. These witnesses handed on their testimony and teaching to others who felt it was important to preserve it intact.
As questions of doctrine arose, this core teaching the 'Captiol T' Tradition became the basis for shaping the teaching of the church. There was continuity but also change in response to controversy.
An example of this is the concept of the ‘Trinity’. The word itself is not in the Scriptures of the New Testament - but the early church had to figure out a way to describe the nature of God because there were competing explanations about who God was. It was the elders of the church who had to grapple with this and come up with what we now consider part of the Capitol T tradition. Every true Christian believes that God is a Trinity - but it’s not because we found the word in the Bible, it was because the Church - guided by the Holy Spirit, arrived at this understanding by struggling against heresies!
Keep in mind too, that the Gospel was being handed down to generations of disciples and people were worshiping for many, many years - before there was a New Testament! People were living their lives and making ethical decisions based on the Gospel. How did they do it?
…. They had to base their faith on what we are calling ‘Big T ‘Tradition - the core message of the Faith passed on through the reliable testimony of trustworthy witnesses, writings of those who had known Christ or been close associates of those who had known him, - and the shared understanding of how one was to live life in “Imitation of Christ”. In other words, they relied on three key aspects of the Tradition:
The Preaching of the Apostles and their written works
The Worship of the Church
The Ethical Teaching of the Church
As new believers were being baptized and taught the faith, there arose a need for a fuller, but still concise statement of the faith, which the baptismal candidates could proclaim as they were accepted into the church.
Hippolytus was a Roman believer who wrote a work called the Apostolic Tradition around the year 215 AD. In it we find an early formulation of a baptismal confession, written in Q and A Format. Listen to this and see if it seems familiar:
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God,
who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate,
and died (and was buried)
and rose the third day living from the dead,
and ascended into heaven,
and sat down at the right hand of the Father,
and will come to judge the living and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh? ( Apostolic Tradition XXI. 12-18)
If it sounds like the Apostle’s Creed- it should, because this statement was the forerunner of something called the Old Roman Creed, which in turn was an ancestor of the Apostle’s Creed. This and the later Nicene Creed were the result of the Church reflecting upon false teachings and trying to state clearly what was the True teaching of the Gospel.
Even with all this, however, people still tried to distort the Scripture and the Creeds, using them to justify alternate beliefs. Ironically, early Church leaders such as Tertullian had to appeal to something besides the Scriptures in order to arrive at the true faith - precisely because Scripture itself was a point of contention, Tertullian came to the conclusion that:
“ ...only where the true Christian teaching and faith are evident, will be the true Scriptures, the true interpretations, and all the true Christian traditions be found.,” (Tertullian, On Prescription of Heretics, 19)
We recognize the true Scripture where the true Christian faith is taught and practiced!
Let’s bring it down to today:
Q: How do we know that Marriage is properly defined as a Covenant between one man and one woman?
A: Because the Scripture teaches it - and because the Church has taught and practiced it that way for 2000 years.
Q: How do we know that Human Life begins at conception and the Abortion is properly understood as the taking of an innocent life?
A: Because the Scripture teaches it and because the Church has taught and practiced it that way for 2000 years.
Q: Why do we stand against the ordination of practicing homosexuals?
A: Because the Scripture teaches it- and because the Church has taught and practiced it that way for 2000 years.
Well, you might say, “The Church is a stick in the mud and needs to get with the program! It needs to change with the times or die!”
And to that we reply, We “stand firm and hold to the traditions that [we] were taught by ...the Apostle’s spoken word or by [their] letter[s]…”
and by the consistent teaching of the church over the centuries.
Or suppose someone might object that Martin Luther himself posted his 95 theses against tradition?
The answer to that is that Luther was calling for re-formation of the Church - going back to the Capitol T tradition because the Church of his day had strayed! His was an appeal to stand firm to the tradition he had been taught by the Scriptures and the teaching of the church through 15 centuries. Luther stood on the shoulders of Augustine, who stood on the shoulders of Tertullian, who stood on the shoulders of Irenaeus and Polycarp and the Apostle John in a great succession of faith and practice.
Then again, this whole discussion may bore you to tears. You might want to throw up your hands and ask, “What difference does it make to me right here and now?”
And to that I would reply:
It matters because the Truth is important and Amazing!
It matters because people’s eternal destiny depends upon it.
It matters because Jesus has entrusted us with his message and his work.
Think of it. GOD, the Creator of everything, the almighty, all knowing and all loving GOD chose to take on human flesh! He lived among us an allowed us, his creation to nail him to the Cross so He could die for US!
This is not a boring message! It’s an earth-shattering message - the BEST message possible. If it’s TRUE we have to respond to it in some way. Nobody just ignores Jesus! Everybody has an opinion about Him.
And that’s only right because everyone will have to deal with Him sooner or later!
Jesus claimed that he came to give us Life and that Abundant - good measure , tamped down and overflowing. - He also claimed that believing in Him was the only way to have eternal life. The state of your soul depends on how you answer the question “Who is Jesus?
Will you answer, “My Lord and my God!” or will you say, “He was a good teacher” or “He was a misfit who managed to survive crucifixion by the Romans, escaped to run away with Mary Magdalene and opened a convenience store in Brooklyn, where he started the Knights Templar and plotted to take over the world…”
Friends, we believe that Jesus is Lord and that he entrusted us, his church with the Life - Giving message of Salvation. We believe that he will come back one day and ask for an accounting of what we have done with his message. It will be very important to give a good report - to say to him that we have taken good care of the message and that it has not been distorted. When he comes back we want him to find Faith on the earth.
We want to be found faithful and we want Him to say to us , “Well gone, thou good and faithful servant”, enter into the joy of your master!
In the trials of these days and the trials that are sure to come, let us summon the courage to Stand Firm and to Hold Fast to the teaching that has been faithfully handed down to us, preserving it and passing it on whole to all generations until Jesus comes or calls.
AMEN and again, AMEN.