Lenten Preaching Series: A Framework for Freedom
Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living within you (2 Timothy 1:14)
In the center of London, just off the Strand, lie the ancient Inns of Court where English lawyers or barristers live and work. One of the Inns of Court is called the Middle Temple and one Christmas, centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth I presented the barristers with a Christmas pudding “made with our royal hands.” Because this pudding had actually touched the royal hands, they decided to save a bit of it and add it to the mixture for the next year’s pudding. Then, a spoonful of that pudding was saved for the following year. And so it has gone on through the centuries until today. A sort of culinary apostolic succession!
This evening’s sermon, in our Lenten preaching series, takes its title from Chapter Three of our Rule: “Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition.” Tradition – from the Latin verb tradere – means literally to hand on, from one person to another, from one generation to another.
That story of the Christmas pudding is probably a source of fun to those lawyers today, but it says something of how important tradition is in our lives. It gives us our roots and it helps us establish our identity. We love to touch, to hold, to see, to feel, things from our past. There’s a church near here where, on the table in the sacristy, there is a chunk of creamy stone. I picked it up, and a label on the back said “a piece of Canterbury Cathedral!” I don’t know who managed to dig it out of the wall, but it was brought back 80 years ago to this country as a kind of relic – a physical, tactile contact with the mother church of our Anglican tradition.
Have you had the experience of discovering some old family photographs, maybe of your great-grandparents, sitting formally, looking at the camera – and staring out from the sepia across the centuries? They are my family. They are part of me. I wonder what they were like, what they were thinking. Holding those photographs is so precious. We treasure them.
In this country, where so many are from a rich mixture of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, there is often a profound need to get in touch with the past – our roots. To actually go to Ireland or Germany or England or Italy – and find the village, or even the house, from which that courageous journey to the New World was made all those years ago. The grace of tradition: that which has been passed on to us, and helped make us who we are. It is so precious.
The New Testament writers also knew the importance of passing on a precious treasure to future generations. The treasure to be passed on was the Gospel. In Matthew’s gospel today we read, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.”(Matt 13:44) In antiquity, keeping money or treasure safe was a challenge. There were no banks or safety deposit boxes, so people often buried valuables to keep them safe. Or, they could deposit the treasure in a temple, to be guarded by the protection of a deity. Hopefully thieves would be deterred from stealing from a sacred place. This deposit could only be handed on to certain designated, reliable people.
St. Paul is the only New Testament writer who actually uses the word “deposit” (parathēkē) in his Letter to Timothy. Paul, as Christ’s apostle, has placed into Timothy’s care a precious deposit – the Gospel – and it must be guarded. “Guard the good treasure (deposit) entrusted to you.”(2 Tim 1:14) And then in the next chapter he tells him to pass on (tradere) this treasure to others. Just as Paul was passed the Gospel by others, so Timothy is to transmit the Gospel by teaching the Gospel to “reliable people” and depositing it into their care.
On their own these words might suggest that the Gospel is delicate and fragile, like fine china or crystal, things that have to be carefully protected and guarded. That is not the Gospel that I know. No! “The word of God is living and active,” says the Letter to the Hebrews, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”(Heb 4:12)
I believe one of the greatest theological challenges facing our church today – and it’s the same one which has challenged every generation – is how to remain faithful to the deposit – the parathēkē – the treasure of the Gospel which has been faithfully handed down to us, and which we must hand on faithfully to the next generation, and at the same time be faithful to those words in John 16 – “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.”
In Chapter Three of our Rule it says, “Faithfulness to tradition does not mean mere perpetuation or copying of ways from the past, but a creative recovery of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance in our faithfulness to God’s future, the coming reign of God.” Those, I think, are really helpful words. They recall those words from our Gospel today: “The one trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”(Matt 13:51)
The Gospel is not an antique piece of literature – a closed book to be guarded and protected. We should read the gospels with fear and trembling, because they are alive with the Spirit, leading us into all truth. If we are to allow the written word to lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ, we need to be open to the Spirit’s activity in all of our life. The truth we are being led into by the Spirit can be recognized and grasped in many different ways, which complement our study of Scripture.
Again, our Rule says, “God speaks to us in many ways: through the Scriptures and Christian tradition, through men and women of the Spirit of different ages and cultures, through our own experience, and through contemporary voices that engage us with the challenges of our own time.” In our Anglican tradition, we recognize all these as potential sources of revelation. The Spirit can use them all to lead us into all truth.
So it is good and right that our own understanding of God and God’s purposes should change and develop. Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote very powerfully on this in his workThe Development of Doctrine. He believed that the Spirit helps us to approach the original revealed truth of Scripture in such a way as to draw out consequences that were not obvious at first. The Christian life is not frozen in aspic, but is a dynamic way, and we are called to the challenge of walking that way in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.
Being faithful to the Gospel and guarding the precious deposit handed on to us – andbeing faithful to the Spirit. That is the challenge facing our church at this time. But it is also the challenge facing each one of us in our spiritual lives. This season of Lent is a good time to pose these two questions to ourselves. First, what are the deep truths about yourself that you absolutely know to be true – the bedrock, the deposit, the precious treasure which is most profoundly true – and which you abandon or forget at your own peril? What is at the core of your God given identity? How does God know you? Who did God create when he created you and called you by name? And what do you need to do to guard and protect your truest self in order to live a life that is authentic?
But then, the second question. How can you also be faithful to the Spirit challenging you now to grow? What needs to change? What needs to die so that your truest self may live? We don’t like to die – and we don’t like to change, especially as we grow older. But in Cardinal Newman’s famous words, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” So where is the Spirit calling you now to change and to grow?
The grace of tradition is a wonderful gift for it helps us to remember who we are. But the Spirit also urges us to remember whose we are, and urges us on, day-by-day, stretching forward to the heavenly call in Christ. So, “guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living within you.”