II Timothy 1:3-14
“Hand Me Down Wor(l)d”
May 13, 2007 - Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Bible and Tradition
“Tradition” has a bad reputation today. In most areas of life we value innovation and creativity over slavish adherence to “the same old thing.” We constantly look for something new, whether it is food, film, sport, education, management practice, or faith. We expect young people to rebel against the ideas and practices of previous generations. We imagine that our own time’s “new” ideas are advances upon those of previous centuries.
Yet it is impossible to live human life without living within traditions of all kinds. We may form or use new words, slang or technical terms. Yet without remaining for the most part within the tradition of language we have inherited we would be incomprehensible to each other. We chafe against and choose between various political traditions handed down to us, but almost all of us as Americans cannot imagine living outside the democratic tradition handed down to us from our country’s founders and ultimately from Greek civilization. And no matter how much one might rebel against one’s family history and tradition, family traits and habits and ways of life continue to shape who we are.
As the work of Alasdair McIntyre has argued, all the various actions of human life only have meaning, only make sense, if they occur in the context of a narrative, a story in which they have some significance. Even rebellious, tradition-breaking actions only acquire meaning in relation to the tradition they challenge. Green hair, body-piercing or obscene rap lyrics have one kind of meaning if most people do not do these things, and quite another if they become the normal practice of the majority culture.
No one, therefore, completely ignores or rejects tradition. It is impossible generally in human life and it is impossible in Christian faith. Just to believe that God has created this world, that we are His creatures and that He cares about us, is to enter into a tradition which believes and participates in a specific narrative about life and faith.
So the claim of some Christians to have no tradition is simply mistaken. It is based in a good desire to avoid false beliefs that have become accepted over time. But rejecting all tradition will lead to missing a great deal of important truth. Tradition is the way which God has given us to preserve and hold onto those convictions which are central to our lives.
The process of carrying on tradition appears constantly in Scripture. As Moses and Joshua lead the children of Israel, they remind them to pass on the story of what is happening to future generations. Several Psalms sing of one generation telling another about the Lord. In I Corinthians 11:23 and again in 15:3, Paul speaks of handing on what he has received. The Bible is the result and deposit of tradition. And tradition is the context in which the Bible is handed on to further generations. Church tradition is not equal to the Bible, which as God’s Word stands above all tradition. But the Bible cannot be understood or explained accurately outside of the Christian story, the Christian tradition.
Don’t give me no hand me down shoes
Don’t give me no hand me down love
Don’t give me no hand me down world
That was The Guess Who (remember “American Woman?”) back in 1970. They sang “Don’t give me no hand me down world,” then they bellowed out the last line of the chorus,
I got one already!
In case you didn’t, like, get the idea, the song ends with that phrase:
(Don’t give me no hand me down world)
repeated about twelve times, each time followed by variations on words like,
I don’t really need it and I’m not gonna take it
A-don’t give it to me ‘cause I really don’t want it
I don’t wanna take it and I really don’t need it, no
Somewhere around the eleventh repetition, as the song is fading out, we get to:
Gimme no, gimme no, no-no no-no-no
(Don’t give me no hand me down world)
Yeah. Well the verses make even less sense. But the whole song communicates a feeling pretty well: “We’re young, we’re tired of this world that’s been handed down to us, with its poverty and its wars and all its problems. Don’t give us the same old thing. Give us something new, something better, something we choose for ourselves. We want our world, not your ‘hand me down’ world.”
That feeling, which the Guess Who expressed so “eloquently,” is pretty much still the voice of our age. For the most part, most of us don’t care much for “hand me downs.” The phrase conjures up images of ill-fitting, out-of-date clothing with pant cuffs that hit us above the ankle or hem-lines landing at ridiculous levels. Threads dangle from worn-out edges and leather pinches our feet in all the wrong places. Hand me downs should go to Goodwill or the church garage sale, not be worn to school or work.
That “Don’t give me no hand me downs” spirit shows up in us in all sorts of ways. It’s fundamentally American. It’s what we said to England in the Revolutionary War. Keep your old-fashioned government, your hand me down king, your system of taxes that’s got nothing to do with us. We don’t want it, we’ll make our own.
So whether it’s clothes or cars or music or technology or even food, each generation of us more or less strikes out on our own, trying to break from the past, from our parents’ way of doing things. We want to be and have something brand new. Even when young people go “retro” and wear styles from decades ago or tune to KOOL 99.1 and listen to “oldies,” the point is often just to be different, to reject and not do what everybody else, especially the previous generation, is doing right now. No hand me downs. I’ll find what I like, what I want, for myself.
Even today as we honor our mothers, many of us have felt and even said out loud about that beloved parent, “I don’t want to be…” you know how it ends… “like my mother!” We don’t want all the hand me downs. We want to find and make our own lives.
But in our text this morning Paul says to Timothy in verse 5, “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” And in verse 13 he tells Timothy, “What you heard from me, keep…” When it comes to what really matters, when it comes to faith, when it comes to questions about life and about God, Paul says to this young man, “Hold onto the hand me downs. You really do want a hand me down religion.”
The Bible is filled with admonitions to accept and appreciate a hand me down faith. We read together at the beginning of the service from Psalm78. In Deuteronomy 32:7, Moses says, “Remember the days of old, consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will explain it to you.” Over and over we’re told God’s praise and dominion will last “from generation to generation.” Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” He didn’t come to start a new thing, but to complete the old thing. Paul in our memory verses from I Corinthians 15:3 and 4, says the very core of our faith in Jesus, His atoning death and resurrection, was “received” from those who came before him and is now “passed on” to those after him.
We are talking about the part of theology known as tradition. Tradition in Christianity is belief and practice that has been handed down. It’s not a hand me down world, but a hand me down word. What I would like us to grapple with is that the Bible itself is a hand me down, the hand me down Word of God. Scripture is the product of and lives in a tradition which still needs to keep being handed down.
Now those of us who are Christians in the Protestant tradition (note that Protestantism is itself a tradition), have often been taught to believe tradition is something different from the Bible, that the Bible is the only good and trustworthy source of God’s truth. We apply the good American rule about no hand me downs to our faith. Tradition is something added on, something invented by human beings, something unnecessary and often false and misleading. We should forget tradition and just read the Bible.
But when Paul wrote to Timothy in verse 5 about the sincere Christian faith of his grandmother and mother, he couldn’t have been talking about what they’d read about Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Those precious Gospel books hadn’t been written yet when Lois became a Christian. Paul’s letters weren’t collected into a book when Lois shared her faith with her daughter Eunice. When Timothy first heard about Jesus it wasn’t from the Bible. It was from the lips of his mother, passing on tradition, which she had heard from her mother, which she had heard from the apostles, who heard it from Jesus Himself. A hand me down Word.
The whole point of writing the books of the Bible, was to preserve the tradition, to preserve what people knew and heard about God and about His Son Jesus Christ. They didn’t reject tradition. They wrote it down so they could keep it straight, so it wouldn’t get lost or mixed up, so they could hand it down, generation after generation. They wrote down the tradition to do what Paul says to Timothy in verse 14, “Guard the good deposit which was entrusted to you.” Receive the tradition, the true story about Jesus, guard it, pass it on.
“Well, sure,” you say, “that’s fine for the Bible, but what about all the other stuff, all the other traditions and teachings handed down by Christians and the Church through the centuries? Isn’t that all just extra, just human-constructed fluff and nonsense? Don’t we have God’s Word now, all of it, right here in the Bible? Isn’t Scripture all the tradition we need?” Well, yes and no.
God had the Bible written down to keep everything straight. The Holy Spirit inspired writers to put down in ink the exact words God wanted preserved through the ages. It’s all there, everything you and I need to know and believe about ourselves and about God. So in the Covenant church we confess that “The Bible, the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.” Yes, ultimately this book is the only place from which our faith comes. But we still have to read and understand it.
This week I talked with another pastor named Carlo. He told me about conversations with a friend who knows nothing about Christian faith. Carlo got his friend to agree to read the Bible. So he started with Genesis. And as his friend read he came to all the wrong conclusions. Who’s the hero of the opening chapters of the Bible? Carlo’s friend said it was the serpent, the devil. The snake brought knowledge to Adam and Eve, like the Greek god Prometheus bringing fire down to human beings. That’s what Carlo’s friend thought when he read the Bible. Now Carlo has to explain how there’s another way to look at it, a different tradition which sees that story in a completely different light.
You see, the Bible can be read by someone alone and every once in awhile that’s enough. She just reads it all and gets it, believes in Jesus and becomes a Christian. But much more often there needs to be explanation, there needs to be context, there needs to be someone who has received that story and sorted it out in her own heart and mind and can pass it on, can hand down the tradition. Like Philip came alongside the chariot in Acts 8 and explained to the Ethiopian riding there the Scripture he was reading.
Otherwise, the Bible is like family photos with nobody to explain them. I have an album of pictures like that. One sad part of my life is that I don’t know my father very well. He left us when I was two years old and it’s just been too hard and painful to ever develop much of a relationship. But when I was about twenty years old, thirty years ago now, he came and handed me this book of pictures from his side of the family. It contains photos of his father and mother, his stepmother, his brother, even I think, his grandparents, as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins. There are shots of places from his boyhood in Europe and maybe some from the family home in Ukraine. He sat down on the couch and went through it all with me back then.
But here’s that album today and I haven’t talked about it with my father since. I open it and can identify almost no one. I’m not even sure who in these photos is my grandfather or grandmother or what their names might have been. It’s all here, all the truth and facts about my father’s family are in these photographs, but they mean nothing to me. I’ve lost the tradition. Unless I one day soon find a way to talk to my father again, I’ll never understand them. I need to hear the context, the tradition again. Otherwise the book won’t do me any good.
That’s why Christians have always had tradition alongside the Bible. That tradition is not equal to the Bible. It’s not by itself God’s Word or God’s truth, but it’s always been necessary, it’s always been part of Christian life and faith. We keep explaining the Bible to each other, down through the generations. We keep the tradition going, so we don’t lose it. We don’t want to forget what this Book really means. We want to do what Paul asked Timothy to do, guard the good deposit entrusted to us.
Part of Christian tradition is the great Creeds of the Church, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed. We say them here in our church. We don’t say them because they are Scripture or somehow equal to God’s Word. We say them because they are tradition which helps us understand God’s Word. They help us keep the story straight, help us explain it to someone who’s never read the Bible before, people like Carlos’ friend and people like our children.
Yes, traditions are human creations. They are not God’s Word. They often get very mistaken and very confused. By itself, tradition can get so far out of whack that you can hardly recognize it as real Christianity anymore. Just like family stories get messed up and confused. Part of a family can become so dysfunctional, like my relationship with my father, that the story’s lost, mixed up with half-truths and legends and just outright mistakes and falsehoods. That happens in Christian tradition all the time. But you can’t fix that by trying to eliminate tradition, by pretending you don’t have one, or by trying to ignore it.
All Christians have a tradition by which they read and understand the Bible and practice their Christian faith. Christians who think they only have the Word of God and no tradition are mistaken. You’re probably aware of the most popular theology among evangelicals about the end times and the Bible books of Daniel and Revelation. It’s the theology found in the Left Behind books and movies. But that whole view of Scripture comes out of a tradition, a tradition of interpreting the Bible that’s only about 150 years old, invented by a man named John Nelson Darby in the middle of the 19th century.
Now Darby’s theology may be right. It may be exactly what the Bible says. But you can’t really know if it’s true unless you realize his way is just one little tradition. There is other tradition, other ways of looking at those parts of Scripture which have been around a lot longer than Darby. To really understand what the Bible says about the end times, we need to think about what all Christians have thought and said about those passages down through the centuries. We can’t just believe a few people who think they don’t need to pay attention to the tradition that came before them.
But I’ve taken us pretty deep. Some of you may just be wondering what any of this has to do with you or your family or your own spiritual life. You might be wondering if the Bible is even worth reading, whether you want this old, old, hand me down Book at all.
All I can do is invite you to consider joining the family, consider entering into the tradition that’s been handed down from Paul to Timothy, from Lois to Eunice to Timothy, and through generation after generation to us. We admit it. The Bible is not going to make a lot of sense outside the tradition, outside the Christian family. But come into it and you will find what Paul talks to Timothy about in the middle of our text, in verse 9. You will find grace. You will find grace that brings you a new start, that new thing in life which you’ve been trying to find by rejecting the past, breaking away from your parents, ignoring tradition.
In tradition, in Christian tradition which opens up the Bible and makes it clear, you will find all the newness of life you could hope for. Paul says in verse 10, “but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Life and immortality, as new and fresh and exciting as anyone could want.
And if you are already in the tradition, in the family, if you are a mother, a parent, a Christian parent, then Paul gives you here what may be your highest calling. Guard that good deposit you have received and hand it down. Open up the Bible with your son or daughter, with a friend. Read it with them and explain the tradition, the tradition of grace, the tradition of Jesus. Speak traditional words that tie it all together and make it plain, words like the Creeds, words like “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
Hand it down. It’s a hand me down Word. It’s a beautiful Word, a story of grace and new life. It’s worth handing down, handing down to your children, to your grandchildren, to your friends and neighbors. Guard it. Hand it down. Guard it and hand it down, as Paul says in verse 14, “with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” This tradition is very old, but the grace of Jesus which it passes on is always new.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj