The Challenge of Tradition

Scripture Lessons:

Acts 9:1-20

John 21:1-14

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Our Scripture lessons today depict two kinds of people. The disciples represent the first kind, people who do things a certain way and fail at achieving their goal. Despite their failure, these people continue to do things the same way because they do not know a better way. They are stuck. Saul represents the second kind, people who do things a certain way yet fail to understand what their true goal really is. Saul wanted to please God. He believed his actions were right and justified by his understanding of faith and God. Yet he missed the mark because he did not really know where the mark was.

Thinking about that first kind of people, represented by the disciples, reminded me of playing video games with my brother when we were kids. Who is better at video games than a kid is? Yet it was excruciatingly frustrating to watch him play. He would try the same moves again and again, yet his character would never do what he wanted it to do. He seemed stuck on accomplishing something that was impossible. I always wanted to rip the control from his hand and do it myself. He just didn’t know the right way.

My brother’s lack of gaming skills reminds me of these fishermen. Simon Peter and the other disciples return fishing. This was their vocation before Jesus called them as followers. They return to the most familiar thing in their lives before Jesus interrupted them, but they were not successful. They repeatedly cast their nets over the same side of the boat, as if they were stuck in some pattern. They caught nothing after fishing all night. It must have been frustrating to watch them repeatedly try, and fail. They just did not know the right way. Thankfully, Jesus tells them the right way, and, amazingly, they listen. They change their strategy based on what Jesus tells them to do. Sometimes stuck people just need a little guidance.

As I thought about Saul, I remembered a story that I once heard. One afternoon a woman was preparing a roast. Her daughter noticed that her mother cut off both ends of the roast before putting it in the pan, and she asked her mother why she did that. “Because your grandmother always cut off the ends of her roasts,” she replied. The daughter wanted to know why grandma did it, so the mother called the grandmother. After hearing the question, the grandmother was silent for a moment. Then she replied, “Because the roast never fit in my pan.”

This poor mother is, in a sense, like Saul. Sometimes we do things the way we have always done them because we think that is the right way. However, doing things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it may yield to disastrous consequences, like wasting perfectly good roast, or, in Saul’s case, killing Christians.

Saul felt perfectly justified in what he was doing. For him, it was a matter of obeying the law, and not just his own reading of it – he was raised and educated in the tradition of his learned predecessors, and even had the blessing of the high priest. He describes himself this way in Galatians: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (1:13-14). His tradition affirmed his actions, even though God did not.

Now there is nothing wrong with tradition, per se. However, tradition for Saul functioned like blinders on a horse. His traditions were a good guide, but they prevented him from seeing what God was doing on the periphery. Jesus literally had to blind him completely in order to make him see how his particular interpretation and application of tradition was leading him astray.

We may recognize ourselves in one of these types. The disciples stuck on the wrong side of the boat. The zealot who thinks he is right when really he is not. I think, however, today’s message is for the church.

The church is often in danger of doing things that don’t work because we do not know a better way. Many churches, facing a changing religious landscape in America, hear Jesus call them to cast their nets in a different place. Some churches are selling their property and embarking on new adventures as a church with no sanctuary. Other churches are demolishing their buildings, and constructing new, multi-use structures that incorporate worship space with affordable housing and centers for community gatherings. Other churches are reaching out to build new relationships with other Christian churches, religious groups, and community groups in their area to focus on addressing problems that are killing their neighbors – unemployment, inadequate public education, substance abuse, or substandard housing options. Their church members spend more time serving together in the community than sitting in a pew.

Sadly, however, there are churches that too often follow the example of Saul. They become so wrapped up in their own righteousness that they are blind to what God is doing in their midst. In the name of religion, they breathe out murderous threats against a world that is already dying on its own. Their understanding of tradition prevents them from even entertaining questions about why the tradition emerged in the first place, and whether it is time to honor the tradition by giving it new life and new interpretation. Not discounting it, but not making it an idol, either. Some of these churches are bold in their assertions, picketing funerals or barring their doors against people they do not want in their midst. Others can be much more subtle, which I believe makes them more dangerous. They may offer acceptance, but not full communion. They make their love conditional, which is something not even God does. The apostle Paul understood how unconditional God’s love really is when he prayed that the believers in Ephesus, “being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that [they] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:17b-19 NIV). Paul summed it up even better when he declared that, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8). God’s love always trumps tradition.

As a church, we have a strong faith. Built on the foundation of Scripture, we believe our faith is reasoned and articulate. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we believe a rich tradition continues to refine our faith. We believe that we are the church reformed, always reforming. We strive to listen to the voice of Jesus calling us to try new things when the same old things are not accomplishing his mission to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey the gospel. We also endeavor to check our actions and the patterns of our life together according to Jesus, so that our traditions do not become idols that supplant Christ in his own church.

So what should you and I do, as individuals and as a church family, to ensure that we are not getting stuck or straying from our mission? We need to hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for our actions. We need to know our Bibles so that we can recognize the voice of Jesus when we hear him calling us. We need to know our spiritual past so that we can recognize the pitfalls and quagmires our ancestors navigated so we do not end up stuck in the same places. And we need to be humble. Trying something new can be challenging, especially to our faith. It means we have to acknowledge that we were wrong. It means that we need to take a step into the unknown. Yet, in this season of Easter, when God did the ultimate “new thing” by raising Jesus from the dead, we can rest assured that no matter where Jesus calls us, he will be walking right by our side.