The Flame of a Living Tradition

October 27, 2019

Bible Text: PSALM 16: 5-11, I Corinthians 15: 1-7 |

Reformation Sunday is a celebration of the beginning of the Protestant Church.  This day brings images to mind of the fiery Martin Luther courageously nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Door, protesting the abuses of a church that had become mired in centuries of corruption.  We can see in our mind’s eye Luther, this defender of individual conscience in matters of faith, waving his fist at the ecclesiastical power of his day as he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”  He stood up for the radical priority of God’s grace and for the primary role of the Scriptures being superior to human traditions.

The Protestant movement caught fire not only in Luther’s Germany but also in Ulrich Zwingli’s Switzerland.  Then a generation later John Calvin would remake the entire city of Geneva into a thorough going Protestant city.  Queen Elizabeth dubbed Calvin’s branch of the Protestant reformation, the Reformed movement.  She described them as more reformed than the other Protestants because of their emphasis on simplicity of worship and their understanding of faith relating to the totality of life.  What happened next made for an explosive combination.  John Knox, a Scot, came to Geneva and studied under Calvin and became his most famous student.  Knox was captured by the English and made to serve as a ship galley slave for several years until he escaped.  He returned to Scotland where the theological intensity of the early reformers was mixed with the fiery temperament of the Scots – and the sparks were flying.

Something new was happening.  Something traditional was being recovered.  A Reformed ethos of Protestant Christian faith was developing and those traveling Scots would bring it to the colonies of the new world.  In the American colonies the Scotch Irish immigrants were most often Presbyterian.  Even today the largest centers of American Presbyterianism are in the two cities that had the most Scottish immigrants – Charlotte, North Carolina and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Today, Reformation Sunday, as we celebrate this history and heritage, we are enjoying all things Scottish, from bag pipers to carrying tartans to my new Buchanan tartan socks that I special ordered for this day.   Perhaps for the covered dish meal that we will share after worship, someone has brought shortbread, colcannon, haggis or maybe single malt.  But the truth is that on Reformation Sunday we could just as well be enjoying German bratwurst and sauerkraut, or Swiss chocolate or we could cover the sanctuary with Dutch tulips.  There are a whole host of different peoples who have been a part of the Protestant tradition.  Remarkably, today the country that boasts the fastest growing population of Presbyterian Christians is actually South Korea.  Maybe next year we could enjoy a little Kimchi during fellowship time.

American Presbyterians live in the land of the melting pot and so we have blended together people of different countries and races into our churches.  We don’t have a national church like many of the European countries.  So sometimes American Protestants wonder if it is an important thing to think about the history and heritage of the church.  Is it important to remember the way that Scots influenced the Protestant church in our country as well as our national history?  We could recall the influence of the Scottish enlightenment and thinkers like Francis Hutcheson, or Thomas Reid who founded Scottish Common Sense philosophy that resonated with colonial leaders – so much so that Thomas Paine would write his fiery, influential work entitled Common Sense.  We might remember that the founding president of the College of New Jersey, which would become Princeton College, was a Scottish immigrant named John Witherspoon.  The college originated as a school to train Presbyterian ministers.   Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister who taught Aaron Burr and James Madison and was the only clergy person to sign the Declaration of Independence.    Should we know how the framers of the American constitution turned to Scottish Presbyterian church polity as a model of representative government for an American political system?  How important is understanding the past for living into the future?  In other words - is it important to lift up and reflect upon a church tradition?  ………………….   Is tradition a good word or a bad word?   ……….

Do you remember Tevya, the great big man of faith in Fiddler on the Roof?  At the beginning of the play he claims, “We are all like a fiddler on the roof trying to eke out a tune without breaking our necks.  How do we keep our balance?”  You can hear his answer, can’t you?  Of course he sang the song entitled TRADITION.  Was Tevya right?  Is tradition important?  As a people moving so rapidly through an ever-changing technological age, should tradition be left behind with the baggage of days gone by?  Or should we listen and attend to the experiences of those who have gone before us?

You can probably guess how I am going to answer that question.  I wouldn’t be saying no to this on the same day we are filling up the sanctuary with bagpipe music.  By the way - What’s the difference between a lawn mower and a bagpipe?  You can tune a lawnmower.  ………    But to be fair, and to be honest, I am going to give the negative argument about tradition first.  Because there are some reasons to be cautious about tradition.  According to sociologists the generations since the builder generation have either an aversion to the word tradition or a disconnection with most of what tradition means.  I suspect that most people would be suspicious of a traditionalism that demanded rigid conformity.  Many traditions come and go.

There is good reason to be suspicious of a dead traditionalism that is self-centered and mired in the past.  There is a passage in Mark’s Gospel which has never been picked as the lectionary reading for Reformation Sunday.  In the fiery Scottish spirit of John Knox I share it with you.  Jesus while arguing with the Pharisees exclaimed, “Do you make void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on?”  ……  So for those who might be a little suspicious of a day that celebrates tradition, you’re not in bad company.  A tradition for its own sake has little to commend it.  But there is a very important difference between a dead tradition and a living tradition with fire yet burning in it.

There is a better argument to be made for the importance of a living tradition especially for people today who so often assume that each individual is left alone to their own devices to make a life and understand their world.  The answer to the question should we celebrate the history and tradition of Protestantism on Reformation Sunday deserves a hearty, even fiery – Yes.  When you look up the word tradition in the dictionary you will find several meanings.  Some are what you would expect. 2. A story, belief, custom, proverb handed down from generation to generation.  3.  A long-established custom or practice that has the effect of an unwritten law.  But the first and original meaning of the Latin word traditio is the most powerful 1. A surrender, a delivery.  The original connotation of the word tradition had to do with a surrender, a giving over of oneself.  This is what makes tradition a needed and valuable resource for us today.  Calling upon the history and experience of those who have gone before us helps to pull us out of our own concerns.  Remembering that many others have come and gone before us, that generations have carried on the faith and passed it down, calls us out of self-absorption and self-centeredness.  And it can point us once again and rekindle in us a passion for love of God and neighbor.

Human beings long for the chance to belong to something greater than themselves, to be carried by the weight of a great and worthy cause.  This is really to say that human beings long for God.  Dead traditions or traditionalisms point to themselves.  But a living tradition points beyond itself and points us all to the One who is the Creator and Maker of all.  What makes any church tradition great is not its list of human accomplishments or who’s who list of people that belonged.  Any church tradition from Presbyterian to Methodist to Episcopalian to Roman Catholic finds its greatness not in its accomplishments but in the mighty works of the God of Jesus Christ.  A great church tradition retains some of the fire of that early Pentecost Church that welcomed all people and with passion and energy pointed them to the grace of Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth reminded the Christians there of the tradition that they had inherited.  He wrote, “I remind you of that which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast. ………  That Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised.”  What is passed on is the message of resurrection, the message of life, and vitality that is a gift of God.

One fiery Presbyterian minister who was proud of his Scottish heritage, one of the great Calvin scholars of the last century, who is now in the church triumphant, put it this way.  John Leith wrote, “The Tradition is Jesus Christ and the gospel of God’s salvation in him.”  ……………………..  Different church traditions are the communities who deliver this good news, who surrender themselves to sharing this grace.  What we do is take all that is best in our church tradition and past and make it sing to this grace.  With energy and passion we lift up all of who we are and find and share that God is still the source of our life and future.

……………………….   Finally, let me share with you a story about Blaise Paschal, the genius mathematician and philosopher from the 17th century.  You may remember learning some of his theories when you were in school.  Paschal was very much a part of his faith tradition and church community, the reform movement of the Jansenists.  It shaped him profoundly.  And in his writings it is clear that his faith was the great motivation for a life’s work in mathematics that even nearly 350 years later still influences our learning today.

When Paschal died a servant found a little piece of parchment paper sewn into the lining of his master’s left coat pocket, that kept a note near his heart.  The paper had these words scrawled in Paschal’s own handwriting.  It read.

“In the year of Grace, 1654, On Monday, 23rd of November,

From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve


God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.

Certifude.  Feeling.  Joy.  Peace.  God of Jesus Christ.”


……………..  So this morning should we celebrate the tradition of Protestant mothers and fathers who went before us and left us a rich, spiritual heritage?  You bet we should.  Lift up your hearts.  Remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, because they point us to the living God.  Remember what the Reformers delivered to us, the center of the tradition is the grace that we meet in Jesus Christ.  May the risen Christ fill all of us with faith, love and  ……..  FIRE.

            In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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