Jesus said (quoting Isaiah),
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men… (Mark 7:8)
For a long time, I thought that Jesus meant that everyone who sings hymns from hymnals and stands (or sits) perfectly still during worship
was just as guilty of abandoning the commands of God in favor of human traditions as the Pharisees were.
It’s not as if I was the first to ever think this way. In fact, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in many ways simply being a good . By taking the words of Jesus seriously and using them as the plumb line for corporate worship, I was attempting to do what had been done time and again before me.
Through a long and painful process, however, I have come to realize that I was wrong. Not about using Jesus’ words as a plumb line, but wrong about how I had interpreted him.
I’ve come to believe that there is both helpful and harmful tradition.
Harmful tradition is idolatrous. This is tradition for its own sake and is a hollow, empty shell. This includes going to church merely out of a sense of duty. Taking communion because it just happens to be the Sunday your church is doing it. Mouthing the words of worship without actually meaning them. Leaving everything to do with Jesus and his gospel behind when you drive out of the parking lot.
On the other hand, there is helpful tradition. Tradition helps us when ritual, routine, and practice intersect with heart-felt faith. In Paul’s words, traditions benefits us when form and power come together. This happens when Christians attend weekly worship because they want to join with others in worship and be spurred to good works by the teaching of the Gospel. When Christians take communion in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice and to be more fully transformed into his image. When church isn’t just a building full of individuals but an organic, living movement who works to establish God’s king on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and …
I’ve been revisiting some of these thoughts recently, because Easter is quickly approaching, and I am currently attending a church that doesn’t pay much attention to tradition. Just so I’m clear, I don’t necessarily think that’s a good or bad thing — it’s mostly neutral.
But, when it comes to the church calendar — especially an event as important as Easter — I find myself hungering for some healthy church tradition. By taking part in some of those ancient traditions, I feel more connected to the historic church — the millions of Christians who have lived and died in our 2,000 year history.
As an example of what I mean, let me share the most meaningful Easter tradition I’ve ever taken part in.
While in seminary, I attended a sunrise service at an Episcopal church. It began while it was still dark, and we processed together from outside the church into the cathedral together. This dark journey is meant to symbolize Jesus’ own journey from life to death — from the light of life to the darkness of death in a tomb. The service itself was highly ritualized, but I found deep meaning in those rituals. At the conclusion of the service, we processed together to where our journey began — back outside the church where the sun was just rising. Our short journey from the dark cathedral back outside where the sun was just rising was meant to mirror Christ’s resurrection, or his passing from darkness back to light. Once outside, the priest ceremonially sprinkled water over us to remind us of our baptism and our covenant with God as God’s children.
Left that service more aware of the importance of Jesus’ resurrection than I had ever been in my life. And I found my own faith revitalized as I considered my own baptism and the journey of faith that has followed it. And I felt reconnected to the church, to the millions who have come before me, the millions who joined me in worship that day, and the millions who will worship together one day when Jesus returns.
I don’t know what this Easter will hold. I do know that the worship service I will attend won’t look anything like the one I just described. But that’s okay, because ultimately, I’m not an experience seeker, and my faith doesn’t depend on replicating that type of emotional experience.
But I do hope that as this monumental day approaches that you and I are able to recapture the importance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and our connectedness to his church — past, present, and future.