II Thessalonians 3:6-13
I’m the oldest of seven siblings. The one who’s closest to me in age is my brother Phil. Phil is a prankster. He loves to play practical jokes. And he discovered very early that his older brother is a really easy mark. When I was in college, and he still in high school, Phil had me on the phone to an auto parts store inquiring about the price of a quart of “piston slap.” His biggest offense, for which it took me a long while to forgive him, was when he coaxed me to put my high school class ring into a length of pipe that he presented to me, on the pretense of “show[ing me] something,” and then going outside and tossing the ring around with a friend of his until it fell into a flower bed. I have to think it might still be in that flower bed, because we never found it.
It’s no fun to be tricked, no fun to be deceived, is it? I occasionally look at the comic strip Close to Home. Recently it depicted a drug store pharmacist holding up a bottle and saying to a customer, “The bad news is, it costs $700 and your insurance won’t cover it. The good news is, it will absolutely cure you of being gullible.” I have to admit, I had a moment or two of identifying with that poor customer! In the Great Litany, which we will pray at the beginning of Mass a couple of weeks from today, there’s a petition on behalf of “all such as have erred, and are deceived.” It’s not only not fun to be deceived, taken, swindled, conned, led down the primrose path; sometimes it can be dangerous, and downright deadly.
Today we are with Jesus in the last few days before his passion. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph, and now he’s with his disciples in the temple. A couple of years ago, I walked in that same area. There’s only one wall of that temple still standing, and that was impressive enough. But I did get to see a large scale model of the way in looked in Jesus’ day, and it was stunning. It had a ground footprint, and took up an amount of airspace, comparable to a major professional sports stadium today. It was massive. Somebody remarks to Jesus about how beautiful it is, and Jesus immediately predicts its destruction. So they ask, in effect, “When? How are we going to know that this is about to happen?” And Jesus says—and, again, I’m paraphrasing—“Watch out! People are going to try to con you. People are going to try to tell you that they speak for me, or are me. People are going to give you all kinds of ‘evidence’ and try to get you to go along with them. Don’t do it!”
Apparently, it didn’t take too long for people in the earliest Christian communities to illustrate exactly what Jesus was talking about. St Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians are probably the earliest written documents in the New Testament; we’re talking barely twenty years after Jesus walked on the earth. Already there are those who are laboring under the impression—or not laboring, actually, which is the point—the impression that Jesus has already returned to this world and inaugurated God’s heavenly reign. So there’s no need to work. It’s time to just kick back and let God run the show. “Not so fast!” says Paul. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Got it?” He actually had to be a little stern with them. Some of the Thessalonian Christians had been deceived—led astray, hoodwinked—by false teaching. They had allowed to happen to them what Jesus warned against that day in the temple.
What makes this so difficult—at least for gullible people like me—is that it’s pretty darn easy to be deceived. I’m a terrible liar, and I’m terrible at spotting liars. How can I know that I’m not being taken for a ride—especially when it comes to what’s true about Ultimate Reality, about God? How do I avoid ending up like those poor Thessalonian slackers that St Paul was yelling at? I suspect that many of you have had moments when you’ve asked yourself the same question.
So what I need to do now, I’m afraid, is talk some serious theology with you. In his message to the Thessalonians, Paul tells them—commands them, actually; quite strong language—to “keep away from any brother or sister who is living in idleness, and not in accord with the tradition that you have received from us.”
Not in accord with the tradition that you have received from us.
Here’s the clue we’re looking for, I think; the cure for gullibility. Only it won’t cost us $700 a bottle. The word “tradition” might be a little scary at first. It might call to mind frozen attitudes, antiquated ideas and procedures, or something that is of human rather than divine origin. Some of us would walk over glass in bare feet before hearing ourselves labeled as “traditionalists”! So I offer you this image: Think of a relay race at a track meet. A team of runners participates in this event, but they don’t all run at the same time. At designated points during the race, one runner passes a baton to another runner on his or her team. In order to prepare for this exchange, the new runner starts out and picks up speed so that the handoff of the baton can take place without breaking stride. For a little while, both teammates are running side by side. Then, after passing the baton, the first runner drops away and the second runner continues the race.
The New Testament Greek word that gets translated as “tradition” literally means “handing along.” It refers to precisely what takes place in a relay race when the baton is passed. Possession of the baton is the outward sign, the guarantee, that the race is being run in an orderly fashion. The holder of the baton is the legitimate representative of his or her team. And you don’t get to hold the baton unless you hang out with the team, unless you participate in the community that is the team. If you don’t operate as part of the team, you’re not in the right place at the right time, and you miss the handoff of the baton.
My friends, the Catholic Church is the team. (Sadly, it’s still necessary to qualify a statement like that: I’m not speaking of the Roman Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church of the creeds, the body of which Christ is the Head and all baptized persons are the members, the visible body of which we, as Anglican Christians, are a part.) And the content of our faith—our tradition—is the baton. Possession of the baton is the outward sign that we’re running the race in an orderly fashion, that we have received the faith from the previous generation, and they from the one before theirs, and so on back to the generation of Paul and the Thessalonians.
And what is this “baton” that we have received, and which we will hopefully pass on, made up of? There are many ways we could answer that question, but here’s one that is probably as good as any other. Back in the 1886, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Chicago, adopted a statement of principles on which this church would base its conversations with other Christian bodies. A couple of years later, this statement was adopted, with minor modifications, by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world. It became known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, because it has these four points:
1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
3. The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, using the words and elements ordained by Christ himself.
4. The Historic Episcopate—that is, the line of succession of bishops, a visible sign of continuity that can be followed back to Christ and the apostles.
There is certainly more that we would want to say about the content of our faith, about the “baton” that we are presently holding as we run our leg of the journey, but these four points give us a base from which to operate in our relations with other Christians. I would suggest that they also give us a base from which to insulate ourselves from the danger of deception. If we don’t every stray too far from the scriptures, the creeds, the sacraments, and the ministers of the sacraments, it’s hard for me to imagine that we would fall victim to false teachers or false prophets or just garden variety sloppy theology.
The “baton” of sacred tradition has been handed off to us from previous generations. Some of us are just now getting up to speed to receive the baton. Some of us are in the midst of the race. Some of us are approaching the handoff point and are looking for the next runner. Together, we are all awaiting the appearing of our Savior, not resting from our labors until we hear him call our name, and greet his return, not with shame or fear, but with great joy. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.