I wonder how you feel about traditions? Are there traditions you love and cherish? Are there traditions which drive you up the wall, and you could very happily do without? Is it important to you to be part of a particular tradition? Do you think of yourself as a traditional sort of person?
In our first reading today, we heard about the institution of the great Jewish tradition of Passover. It is, many thousands of years later, still a rite of enormous significance to Jews. It is also a rite in which our own practice of Communion has its roots. When we speak of Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, it is this Passover ritual we are recalling.
Passover is among the most long-held traditions in any human culture but, like any tradition, it has not remained unchanged. For example, some people have recently started to include fair-trade chocolate as part of their Passover meal, as a reminder that, though the Jewish people escaped slavery in Egypt, many people around the world still suffer in conditions of slavery or forced labour.
Moses describes the Passover rite as a “perpetual ordinance” – that is, a rite which will endure forever. But what does that mean? And what does it mean for us, as twenty-first century Christian worshippers, to consider the idea that God has given to us as “perpetual ordinance”?
One thing it doesn’t mean is that our worship has to stay the same forever. If Moses were to turn up here this evening, he would see very little that he would recognise as belonging to the same continuum as the worship of his time! And indeed Thomas Cranmer himself, when he wrote the beautiful BCP liturgy which we still use and cherish today, was innovating. Driven by a desire to make worship more accessible to ordinary people, he was taking the best of the tradition he had inherited, and recasting it in new ways to fit the times he lived in.
For every generation, there is a tension between handing on the traditions we have received, and finding ways to “proclaim the gospel afresh” to the generations that come after us. Interestingly, there is plenty of research to suggest that Evensong is growing in popularity among millennials, drawn by stillness, contemplation and the timeless beauty of Cranmer’s language. I sometimes wonder what Cranmer – that great liturgical reformer and advocate of contemporary language – would make of that!
The traditions we have are important, but not for their own sake. They are important because of the ways in which they point people towards God, the ways in which they draw all of us closer to God. “Let your light shine before others”, says Jesus. We need to worship, to inhabit our traditions, in ways which enable us to be salt and light in the world, transforming the world we inhabit more and more into the likeness of God’s kingdom, as we ourselves are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.
When Jesus says “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,” he is making two things very clear. The first is that he is not turning his back on what he has inherited. What he is doing and saying in his earthly ministry is deeply steeped in the tradition he has received. Even when he criticises the religious authorities of his day, as he often does, it is not an attempt to move them away from the traditions they hold dear, but to call them back to the root from which those traditions proceed, the root from which all our traditions, all worship (and indeed all life) proceeds – the living God.
So Jesus does not come to abolish what has gone before. But the second half of the sentence is equally important – “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil.” And the implication here is that the law and the prophets have not yet been fulfilled. There is more to do. Jesus has come to do a new thing, not in opposition to the tradition he has inherited, but in fulfilment of it. He has come to live out, and to enable others to live out, more fully the faith handed down to them through the generations, from Moses and the other patriarchs and matriarchs onwards.
It would perhaps be tempting to suggest that this fulfilling of the law, this progress towards something closer to the kingdom of God, begins and ends with Jesus. That after Jesus came “not to abolish but to fulfil”, that was that – fulfilment achieved, job done. But the sweep of the Biblical narrative, of human history in the two thousand years since, and of the history of the church, make it fairly clear that is not the case.
Jesus himself speaks of “the Holy Spirit who will lead you into all truth”, and that leading into all truth, that fulfilment of the law, that drawing near to the kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven – is very much an ongoing process. Always the church is being called to re-examine ourselves, as a community and as individuals, to see what of our tradition, what of the things we have and the things we do, enables us to shine a light in the dark corners of this world, and what does not. And that continual re-examination will, and should, give us cause to recalibrate, to adjust our course, in ways that draw us ever closer into the way of Christ.
In our own diocese, we are currently in a period of re-examining, re-imagining, what it means to be church in this context. Bishop Steven has led this process by encouraging everyone in the diocese to reconsider the Beatitudes, which we heard tonight. From this very familiar passage, the Bishop along with others has come to a sense that God is calling us to be a church which is compassionate, contemplative and courageous. Contemplative: “blessed are the poor in spirit”, “blessed are the pure in heart”. Compassionate: “blessed are those who mourn”, “blessed are the meek”, “blessed are the merciful”. Courageous: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness”, “blessed are the peacemakers”, “blessed are those who are persecuted”.
In encouraging us to be more contemplative, compassionate and courageous, Bishop Steven is not, of course, suggesting that we should abandon all that has gone before, or that we need to let go of the traditions we hold dear. What he is encouraging is that we should look at what we do and what we value through this particular lens, and consider how those things enable us to be a more compassionate, contemplative courageous – in short, a more Christ-like – presence, letting our light shine in ways that enable the world to see the glory of God.
As we grow in Christ-likeness, in compassion and courage rooted in the contemplation of who God is and who God calls us to be, we too will be playing our part in Christ’s work of fulfilling the law and the prophets. As we seek to be salt and light, to make known the glory of God, we will discover and go on discovering our purpose in Christ. This is the true “perpetual ordinance” – not a set of immutable words or actions, but a faithful commitment to worship which enables us to know more of God, and to live in ways which make God known.