Commandments Versus Traditions

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

The Sacrament of Holy Communion
Pentecost XIV – 2 September 2012

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8

From the Book of Deuteronomy:
And now, O Israel, give heed to the statues and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them…You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it…make them known to your children and our children’s children….

From the Letter of St. James:
The brother of our Lord admonished the congregations with these words, Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

And From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Challenged by the Pharisees regarding religious traditions, Jesus returned the challenge saying, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. You leave the commandments of God and hold fast to the traditions of men.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

In packing up some of my books, in anticipation of my eventual move to Florida, I came across my father’s Bible – one he bought in 1937 – a King James Version – which he kept on the shelf near his chair for most of the time that I can remember. It didn’t just rest on the shelf. He used it- often.

Thumbing through the pages, I came across several bits and pieces of paper with various notations written on them. What surprised me was the number of the notes that I found in the Letter of James.

The letter itself is only about four pages long – in Bible size pages. His notation sheet listed several versus not the least of which is the most famous from this letter, Faith without works is dead and the second most famous, Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

His interest in St. James’ letter comes as no real surprise to me. My dad was a practical man – an engineer. He liked straightforward speaking, clear messages – nothing nuanced or open to interpretation according to how one might feel. Open to interpretation usually meant open to deception.

He saw – and I think properly perceived – that so much of what passes as interpretation is actual distortion – deception – in an effort to make the passage mean what you want it to mean. Dad often said, Mean what you say and say what you mean. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. And, A man’s word is his bond. Words were important to him – and deeds just as important – or even more so.

I would guess that St. James was that kind of man – a man for whom actions always spoke louder than words but also a man for whom words were sacred – not to be necessarily poetic, but to communicate truth – the Truth entrusted to him – as well as to the other apostles – that his brother, Jesus, was the Son of God and the crucified and risen Savior of all mankind. Believe that and your life will change. Believe that and show it not only in how you speak but also in what you do. Jesus died for you. The least that you can do is live for him.

I think that these words would be a fair summary of St. James’ message. Hear it. Believe it. Do it. Simple as that.

St. James was an interesting man. He is distinguished from the three other James of the Gospels being identified as the brother of our Lord – meaning that Mary was their mother as many Protestants would have it, but Joseph only was father to James – hence, half brothers; or that James was Joseph’s son from a previous marriage, making them step brothers; or that they were more like cousins rather than brothers or half brothers or step brothers. Various traditions. Various doctrines.

Whatever the case, this St. James is also known as St. James the Less. The apostle James, brother to St. John the beloved disciple is known as St. James the Great. Tradition tells us that St. James the great journeyed to Spain where he converted thousands. So successful had been his missionary effort – and so wealthy was the Spanish church – that St. Paul planned to travel to Spain to collect money to support the failing, troubled and severely impoverish Jerusalem church of which – yes – St. James the Less was Pastor – in fact, he held the title of Bishop of Jerusalem.

Furthermore, St. James the Less often called St. James the Just. He enjoyed tremendous respect for his keen discernment, his integrity in both speech and deed, and for his devotion to the Christ. You may recall references to James as not believing in his brother early on in our Lord’s ministry. But after the resurrection Jesus appeared to him and he believed. From that moment on, James proclaimed Jesus as the crucified and risen savior.

He presided over the Jerusalem Council in AD 50 in which the key issues related to what was God’s law versus what was man’s tradition were discussed. Perhaps this is when he became known as James the Just. Gentile converts to Christianity were required to undergo circumcision – an abomination to them as much as it was a requirement for the Hebrews. Otherwise faithful and fully devoted gentile men refused complete conversion.

Knowing that some of these devoted men had been martyred for their faith, St. James led the Council to the decision that gentile Christians did not have to undergo the procedure. Other Jewish traditions were abandoned as well. Hence, his wise and just leadership discerned between a commandment of God – which must be obeyed – and a tradition of man which can be set aside – just as the Lord had said when He spoke of those who honor God with their lips but not with their hearts – who hold fast to the traditions of men while they ignore the commandments of God.

Now the controversy regarding what are true commandments and what constitutes mere human tradition continues in the church to this day. Even the importance of commandments – such obvious commandments and the Ten Commandments – remains variable. In some churches, God’s saving grace is so heavily emphasized that people ignore the commandments almost entirely – seeing them as recommendations only.

Hence, the admonition from Deuteronomy has little or no meaning for them – not to add or take away a word from them so as not to distort their meaning ands to teach them to future generations. In face, interpretation of the wrong sort is precisely what they do.

Jesus said, If you love me you will keep my commandments. And in the Great Commission charges us with these words, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you… No ambiguity here – a direct commandment worthy of obedience.

Our Lord does give us a frame of reference for understanding – He sets as a priority the first and Great Commandment – Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. And then He adds, And a second is like unto it – thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself – on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Yet, although Jesus gives us the priority for understanding, we still interpret according to our own wills rather than to the will of God. The same applies to traditions as well. Until He comes again, the problem will continue. But all of us need to do our best to discern His will and avoid self-serving interpretations.

This morning, we share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Generally in congregational churches, we pass the elements from one to another to emphasize the priesthood of all believers. That’s part of our tradition.

In other parts of the church, only the priest himself is even allowed to touch the elements and only the bread is given to the communicant who comes forward to receive it. Some stand – others kneel. Some denominations give both the bread and the wine – and offer only wine – no grape juice – for the sake of complete authenticity. Many use grape juice for the sake of those who do not drink wine.

And in most cases, unleavened bread is used because the Sacrament recreates the Last Supper, a Passover meal. But our tradition uses risen bread to symbolize the resurrection.

All varieties of traditions – taken as doctrine – continue. Sadly these traditions have separated believers rather than united them in Christ. Sometimes, to keep the sacramental tradition, churches have even violated the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Indeed, battles have been fought over the various traditions of interpretation. Blood has been shed over the shed Blood of Christ.

But just because something is a tradition – rather than a commandment – does not mean that the tradition is necessarily bad. Sometimes, one tradition is as good as another and sometimes different traditions bear witness to different angle of the same great Truth.

Jesus was challenged for His failure to wash His hands before eating. But just because, on this occasion Jesus did not wash His hands, on most occasions He and His disciples did. The issue here is that keeping the tradition is not required for salvation – but keeping the commandments is most certainly a part of salvation.

And when I say a part of salvation, I do not mean a works righteousness. We are saved by God’s grace operating through our faith. But manifesting that grace and that faith in good works is necessary to show the world what God has done. So that they will believe us in our claim to be Christian.

But I do want to conclude this message with an emphasis on the importance of keeping the Commandments. Deuteronomy instructs us to keep them for the sake of the nation – that by keeping the commandments, the nation will prosper.

There’s truth in that. Surly as the Ten Commandments have been abused – even ridiculed – in this nation, the very quality of life that we once enjoyed in this country has diminished.

Breaking God’s commandments has consequences. Keeping them brings the blessing of a better, more peaceful and prosperous life – with the possibility for the achievement of excellence in all human endeavors. Without the Ten Commandments, we slowly but surely sink into pagan barbarism. We have already seen this happen.

Our Lord commanded us to make disciples of all nations, baptize them in His name and teach them all that he has commanded. To the extent that we do this – and such obedience requires that we abandon all belief in the deceptions of spiritual equivalence between world religions – and abandon the erroneous celebration of spiritual diversity – to the extent that we faithfully obey our Lord and do what He has commanded, well to that extent all that’s good and right and true will prosper. If we fail, all that’s bad and wrong and deceptive will rule the day – and the nation.

As we keep the commandment and the tradition of this most sacred Sacrament, we must recommit ourselves to obedience – that taking His broken body and shed blood nurture us in ever increasing faithfulness so that we can – and will – be better people as we serve as His disciples, keeping His commandments.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us and all who claim your name with the desire to obey you on all things. Deliver us from the popular deceptions of this world and keep us in your perfect Truth. And make of us we pray, instruments of your grace, your mercy and your peace that we may always honor and glorify your name –
the most holy name of your Son,
our only savior, Jesus Christ the Lord,

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