From the vicarage June 2010

Jesus and church traditions

The Church of England seems to be suffering something of an crisis of identity today. Who are we? What is the church? What is our role in a multi-cultural society? What has happened to the traditions we knew and loved as part of the settled way of life in England? This question has great emotional weight. With so much change in society the church at times felt like an anchor in a storm, with its familiar settings, music, prayers and dress codes and yet even these things seem to be changing. Terms like “fresh expressions”, “network churches”, “church planting” and “missional communities” indicate the emergence of something other than the traditions we are used to and these influences affect the life of the whole church. What are we to make of this at Holy Trinity?

In our sermon series on Colossians we have come to the Apostle Paul’s teaching on Jesus verses religious tradition:

Colossians 2:13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins…Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.

In short, the church only exists because of the great miracle God has done in uniting dead sinners by making us alive together in Jesus. And so, whatever we do, we must hold onto Jesus. All that we do at Holy Trinity must help people to grow in their knowledge and love of him or to meet with him for the first time as he walks off the pages of the bible and into our hearts by the work of Holy Spirit.

There are clearly some aspects of our tradition which we must hold onto: historic creeds, prayers, confessions and so on which build us up in the knowledge and love of Christ; the 39 Articles of Faith in the Prayer Book, which lay out the core beliefs of the Anglican Church; there are classic hymns which have been passed down the ages because people have found them a great help in their faith; we have a building which should, if looked after, last for many years to come. These are parts of the past which we carry with us.

On other matters of tradition, there are things which do not help people to come to know Christ and to grow in him. They should be sacrificed for the sake of making Jesus clearly visible. This little poem by English author Steve Turner illustrates how traditions can mask the real Jesus:

How to hide Jesus

There are people after Jesus.
They have seen the signs.
Quick, let’s hide Him.

Let’s think; carpenter,
fishermen’s friend,
disturber of religious comfort.
Let’s award Him a degree in theology,
a purple cassock
and a position of respect.
They’ll never think of looking here.

Let’s think;
His dialect may betray Him,
His tongue is of the masses.
Let’s teach Him Latin
and seventeenth century English,
they’ll never think of listening in.

Let’s think;
Man of Sorrows,
nowhere to lay His head.
We’ll build a house for Him,
somewhere away from the poor.
We’ll fill it with brass and silence.
It’s sure to throw them off.

There are people after Jesus.
Quick, let’s hide Him.

It’s easy to hide Jesus by making up slightly weird religious traditions. Yet, the changes which have taken place in society mean we need to think like missionaries not curators of a museum. We need to ask “How will this song, this prayer, this reading, this talk, this interview or this testimony help people see Jesus clearly?” We must seek to love our neighbours and alter our traditions to reveal Christ to them. This is how the church has always worked where she has been mission minded.

When we change the way we do things there is a loss, a grieving, some pain. Yet, as Christians we should suffer the pain of change gladly for the sake of making Jesus as visible as we can to our community. As Christ gladly suffered for us so we suffer gladly for others.

Some people might not like a church where the vicar does not wear purple, use old seventeenth century English or have brass and total silence and, as Paul writes, we’ll no doubt be judged for it. When he says “don’t let anyone judge you” Paul doesn’t mean try and stop them from judging you but rather “don’t be influenced by them.”

So what about our crisis of identity? We shouldn’t have one as long as Jesus Christ is our identity. We have all the riches of the wisdom of God when we are alive in Christ and are rooted and built up in him (Col 2:6-7).

Imagine the church has two hands. In one hand we have Jesus and the other our traditions. Some churches cling with both hands to Jesus and to tradition. You know those churches which are faithful but stuck in the 1950s or 1970s so lack relevance. Other churches let go of tradition and become contemporary, modern, engaged with culture but they let go of Jesus and their hand is empty, their message powerless to bring dead sinners to life. We want to hold on tight to Jesus in one hand and let go of unhelpful traditions in the other.

With love

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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