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The Tradition Behind our Tradition
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Week 5
Adam White

Traditions, we all have them—the understandings, practices, events, and so on that can be passed down from generation to generation. Maybe you have a tradition of singing certain songs with your family around Christmas time. Perhaps you have a tradition of eating specific dishes that have been handed down from your family. Or, it could be that you are in the process of creating your own traditions , like taking a trip with friends someplace new every year. 

Traditions have an important place in shaping who we are and serve to help us identify with the group of people with whom we commonly share that tradition. Like practicing Communion in a local church or hosting a weekly community meal at a neo-monastic community. Both of these traditions, relate to a tradition behind a tradition.

Christ did not create an over-structured pattern for faith communities to observe having Communion together, but rather, encouraged people to gather together as one body to eat and drink in remembrance of him. The tradition behind the traditions.

The Early Church recognized Communion by partaking in what was called the Agape Meal or a Love Feast. Both of these meals involved gathering food resources from within a local community then turning around and sharing a meal with others— specifically including the most impoverished and vulnerable persons in the area to come and take part as one body.

Our modern Communion services and neo-monastic community meals, both serve to point us to the tradition behind these traditions.

St. Paul gives another example. In a majority of his epistle to the Galatians, Paul argues for the tradition behind his Hebrew tradition. The love of Christ has captured his heart. He has surrendered to Christ’s authority. As a result he has given himself completely to God’s mission in the world—a mission to everyone. As he says in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In this, one of the earliest texts in the canon, Paul subsumes his own tradition to the deeper, more ancient tradition of God making all things new.

The tradition behind the tradition begins in Eden with God’s promise of salvation to Adam and Eve. It moves forward with God’s promise after the great flood and on to the calling of Abram and Sarai to be a blessing to the whole earth. All of that happens before the Hebrew tradition exists—long before Moses, the Exodus, or the giving of the Law. The central focus of the Hebrew Bible involves the story of God who is calling forth and creating a people to bless the entire world. Paul has become an apostle for an apostolic God, not by human choice or even his own human desire but by the call and empowerment of God.*

From these examples, and elsewhere throughout Scripture, history, and our current context,  we are encouraged to creatively think about and renew our understandings of our faith traditions. At the same time we are invited to think about how God is calling us to use traditions in ways that bring new life and sustenance to each other. The sacred tension that comes with observing traditions in faith contexts is that we hold them carefully, not too tightly, or to loosely, but carefully enough that God’s Spirit can guide us to reforming and renewing our diverse thoughts, practices, and traditions so that we can indeed find ourselves living together as one body in Christ.

Invitation to Missional Mindfulness:

  • In what ways have you experienced the tradition behind the Christian tradition as explained in the article above?

  • How might God be inviting you to renew and reshape traditions today?

* slightly adapted from: Elaine A. Heath, God Unbound: Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2016).