Tension Harnessed

I want to begin with some questions, which as this unfolds you may be left initially bemused by. But stay with me and I trust all will become clear.

  • Are you a rule keeper or a rule breaker?
  • Do you value time honored traditions and rely on them as a guide in new situations, or do you recognize that new situations might need completely new responses?
  • Are you and extravert or are you an introvert?

The answer to these questions will indicate your likely approach to the tension created when tradition meets new challenges in how to be Christians in the contemporary world.

The collect for Pentecost 3 tells us that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus himself as the chief corner stone. This collect is particularly associated with the Sunday closest to June 29th, because June 29th is the day in the calendar when we celebrate the holy apostles Peter and Paul.

Both Peter and Paul have their own special day in the calendar, but June 29th is when the Church remembers them as two sides of the same coin. If as the collect says Christ is the chief corner stone, then to change the metaphor slightly, Peter and Paul are the towering pillars of the Christian Tradition.

The durability of custom and tradition and whether these are fit to meet the challenges of the times occupies us as a nation as we head into the 2020 elections. We are also grappling with his tensionit as we undertake the first major restoration of St Martin’s in 40 years. Someone asked me if I thought Jesus was interested in stones? I guess not in the sense of preserving them against the priorities of the coming of the kingdom. Buildings versus kingdom – no in that sense I don’t think God is interested in our stones.

Yet, buildings express something about the nature of human aspiration. What and who does our building inspire us to be in the world? In this sense it’s nothing more than a metaphor for the spiritual temple of Christ’s people at the corner of Orchard Ave and Orchard place.

In the O.T. reading on Pentecost 3, as Elijah’s mantle falls upon the shoulders of his servant Elisha – we can see the power of tradition being passed on. Authority and responsibility have fallen upon us to ensure that our children and their children (metaphorically speaking) will find a spiritual home under the shelter of this roof and within the protection of these walls. In this way, authority and responsibility, two indivisible concepts, pass from one generation to the next.

So back to my opening questions.

Each question highlights two approaches to life. There are two kinds of human temperament and we see this played out in the tension between Peter and Paul. By bringing them together in this combined commemoration on June 29th each year Christian tradition recognizes that we must navigate the tension between two different ways of looking at the world – each represented in Peter and Paul.

In its wisdom, the Church recognized that Peter and Paul are the two sides of the one coin; harnessing the energy of difference in the service of the wider community of the church.

When we are able to navigate the tension between old and new wine, the church remains true to the mission of Christ in the world.

Peter is the expansive, passionate, and loving extravert. He’s the life and soul of the party. He burns hot and fast; a man whose energy requires harnessing within the boundaries of customs and traditions. Peter means rock. He is indeed the rock upon which the Church’s tradition is founded.

Paul is likewise an expansive and passionate man but he’s the charismatic introvert. He’s not an easy kind of guy to get along with and it’s easy to fall out with Paul. His passion is a passion of the curious and the questioning. He burns cool and slow until his energy, kept well in check suddenly blazes with a searing heat burning everyone in the room. When faced with the conflict between following custom and doing something new, Paul’s answer is always why not do the new thing – maybe thinking of Jesus parable saying new wine needs new wine skins.

Peter is the uneducated Galilean country bumpkin, a fisherman by trade who speaks before he thinks. Paul is the cosmopolitan product of the strictest religious faction; a pharisee of pharisees. But it’s Peter who shelters within the well fenced pastures of the Jewish Law, while Paul breaks out into unchartered territory among those hitherto considered as outside Israel’s promise.

There is a curious incident recorded in Galatians 2 when Peter comes up to visit Paul in Antioch, an incident that stimulates reading between the lines.

On entering the gentile Christian community in Antioch, Peter seems to have enjoyed the greater freedom from the strictures of Jewish law. But when the heavy hitters arrive from James, the head of the Jerusalem community, Peter runs for cover as the shit hits the fan over issues of food and circumcision.

Paul is incandescent with rage and confronts Peter to his face accusing him of being two faced. He says to Peter: you enjoyed fraternizing with non-Jews and eating non-kosher foods until these conservatives arrived from Jerusalem, when upon you pulled back and ran for the cover putting as much distance between you and your hitherto non-Jewish friends. If you a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your Jerusalem cronies?

We sit in a period of time when the demographic shift in church membership reflects a generational transition that at the moment does not look good for the future of institutional religion as we have known it. I imagine earlier commentators have said much the same in times of uncertainty and change, only to be proved wrong. In times of uncertainty, when the Christian tradition as we inherit it, seems inadequate to meet the needs of a new age, it’s important to remember that the pivotal points of change in have also given rise to the next great awakening.

It is misleading to view the future as a choice between being faithful to Tradition and reinventing the wheel. The incident reported in Galatians, reflects the enduring tension between fidelity to the tradition as the source of wisdom and experience of new challenges as boundaries expand.

The question is not how does the new replace the old, but how does tradition become renewed in the encounter with new challenges.

In the Episcopal church we deliberately position ourselves in that place of tension. Unlike the current iteration of Catholic authority, we do not seek to impose the tradition upon changing circumstances in the face of new challenges. It’s not an effective response to batten down the hatches of tradition because it does such violence to us as we struggle to live the lives we live. Also, it’s worth noting that what conservatives see as unalterable tradition is only the interpretation of tradition our grandparents handed on. Neither as liberal Protestantism has tended towards do we throw out the baby with the bathwater and invent the wheel all over again.

The Episcopal church remains faithful to the tradition we receive from the past because it’s our task to reinterpret to meet the needs of the times in which we live.

I think both Peter and Paul would agree with me when I say tradition is a poor cudgel, but a brilliant searchlight, illumining new pathways into the future.

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