Traditions of First Importance: Twelfth Sunday of Matthew/after Pentecost

1 Cor 15:1-11; Daniel 12; Genesis 49; Exodus 1; Ezekiel 47-48.

This week I had a spirited interchange with a former student and dear friend who reposted a meme that declared, “Religious tradition produces bondage; the Holy Spirit produces liberty.”  At one of my not-so-tactful moments, I responded that this was “Balderdash!”  Good thing that he and I have a long history, and love each other!

Orthodox, of course, would be startled to see the stark contrast of the Holy Spirit with Tradition.  After all, the Holy Spirit Himself is “traditioned” to believers when Jesus dies on the cross (“He gave over—paradidomi in Greek—the Spirit,” (John 19:30) As the well-known Church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan puts it, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” To this we would hasten to add that, because of Jesus’ resurrection, those who are asleep in the Lord and who had a living faith, still have it, and are alive to Him.  What they have passed on to us we must keep as dear treasures.

Our epistle reading for this Sunday, 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11, indeed speaks about key traditions of the Church as of “first importance:”

Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the preach and so you believed Then He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

What a beautiful description of the unified faith of the Church.  Here St. Paul uses two rather technical words that are used whenever Holy Tradition is mentioned in the New Testament:  the Greek word paradidomi, and the Greek word paralambano.  The first refers to the passing on of Holy Tradition, and is often translated as “deliver,” “transmit,” or “give over.”  It is made up of the same roots of the word in Greek that we translate as “tradition,” paradosis. Indeed, our English word for tradition is based on the Latin equivalent!  And paralambano is the receiving word that matches the giving word:  Someone gives over from their side something that we receive on our side! It is like the passing on of a torch in a relay race, and is a potent sign that we are one body. (Anybody interested in more thought about what the Bible has to say about tradition, and why Protestants are nervous about it, might be interested in my little volume Scripture and Tradition: What the Bible Really Says about it, available easily on Amazon).

So Paul says that he “traditions” to his brothers and sisters what was “traditioned” to him and they have received it.  And what traditions these are!  They are the holy wisdom about the saving death and resurrection of our Lord.  And along with the words about the crucifixion and resurrection—foretold in the Old Testament Scriptures—come present-day witnesses to these truths.  Peter, the twelve, 500 hundred, and all the apostles (those ambassadors who had known Jesus in the flesh) saw the risen Lord.  The wording of our English versions, which invariably use the word “appear” makes these sound like vague shadowy “sightings,” or even “apparitions.”  But the word used here is simply that of the word “to see”, and in the form that it appears, it means literally, “He made himself visible to….”  The resurrected Jesus, after all, had the ability to open or close the eyes of people to His spectacularly real presence and glory!  He is no shadowy phantom, but more solid and real than we are currently in this “tent” that will die.

Here is the point.  These traditions of the crucifixion and resurrection, which are of first importance, are witnessed to both before they occur, by the Old Testament prophets, and afterwards, by the New covenant apostles.  They are the deep, solid center of our faith!  Paul himself is amazed that he can be included within the company of the apostles, though he was manifestly unprepared for the appearance of Jesus to him, and had to both repent and do catch-up afterwards!  Though Jesus spoke to him directly, he also was informed of the traditions by Ananias, and no doubt also by James and Peter, with whom he eventually met when he went up to Jerusalem.

We hear, then, that Jesus’ death for our sins, and his resurrection as a sign of our new life, is of first importance.  Without these, there is no gospel.  Moreover, our own reception of Holy Tradition is part of the package.  St. Paul reminds us that “you are being saved, if you hold fast” to what you have received.  We are sent back to the parables of Jesus, in which He reminded His listeners that the Word can be crowded out, the soil “receiving” it in vain, if we do not do our part.  Our present salvation is through the gospel, and it is ongoing.  St. Paul says, “through which you are being saved”, not “through which you have been saved.”  It is something ongoing and vibrant!  Day-by-day, we are called to obediently receive God’s word, to give our lives to him, to repent when out of step, to believe the good news, with all that it entails. This may be unnerving, but it is exhilarating, too, and it honors us as co-laborers with God: at every step, He looks for our enthusiasm and our openness to what He is doing.

But other things are also of first importance—that is, that we are part of a body of the faithful that stretches back to the prophets and the faithful of Israel, and includes the apostles.  St. Paul mentions “the twelve” as though this were an institution well known to the Corinthians, and with some reverence, since he does not want to glibly count himself among their number.  (Of course, in hindsight, we know that this is exactly where he belongs, and iconographers even depict him as one of the twelve when they present Pentecost to us!)  But “twelve” is important, and it is not by accident that Jesus called twelve to be with him: they are representative of the renewed church, like the twelve tribes surrounding Moses, who were the foundation of God’s ancient people.  This twelve-ness as representative of the whole is seen when the high priest presents himself to God in the Temple, wearing gems on his ephod, each gem for one tribe, to represent the people.  This twelve-ness is poetically celebrated by their father, Jacob, in the final chapters of Genesis, and repeated as the story of the Exodus begins. This twelve-ness is handled in detail by Ezekiel, who names all the tribes, and where their promised holding of land will be in the renewed Israel: “This is the land that you shall allot as an inheritance among the tribes of Israel, and these are their portions, declares the Lord GOD” (Ez 48:29).  And this twelve-ness is retained in the final book of the Bible, where the seer John sees the New Jerusalem, with twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes, and a wall with the names of twelve apostles:

It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Rev 21:12-14)

So much could be said about the resurrection as a first-thing event, though it is, of course, an event of the eschaton, of the last days.  Daniel 12 speaks clearly in the Old Testament about those who will arise, and about how the wise shall shine “like the stars.”  But for us Christians, the last days have already come in Jesus: He is the first-born from the dead, and our mother, the Theotokos, has followed Him in her dormition and translation. We have the words of the prophet Daniel made more sure, for we have seen the resurrection and the light!  We have seen Him as a body, together, even if all of us have not actually seen a vision of the LORD.  We are one with the twelve, with the 500, with St. Paul, with St. Peter, with St. James—and with the women whom St. Paul does not mention in this chapter, St. Mary Magdalene and the other myrrh-bearers.  Together we have seen the true light, and together we have received the heavenly Spirit. So they all have preached, and so we believe! This is hardly dry, dusty traditionalism, but the vibrancy of what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do in our midst, received from our dear brothers and sisters in faith, and always fresh to be passed on to those who come into our midst.

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