Out with the Old?

Acts 2:1-13

Well, as they say:  out with the old, in with the new!

Pentecost El Greco 1596

Pentecost, El Greco (1596)

Isn’t that what happened on Pentecost?  Jesus is gone.  The disciples are all wondering what comes next.  Then the (new) Holy Spirit arrives, and all sorts of (new) things happen.  Sounds like wind; tongues like fire; speech that is translated without a translator; and a whole new movement of Christians, drawn together and organized into what would become “church.”

So out with the old! 

Out with the old covenant!  And thank goodness – amIright?  The old covenant was a bit harsh.  “Ten commandments” sounds simple enough… until you really try to live by them.  Then you add in all the laws of Moses – 613 in all, by Jewish tradition – and it seems all but impossible.  To make matters worse, God is serious about all these laws, which means serious punishments for breaking them.

Out with all that, and in with the new covenant!  At the last supper Jesus ushered it in, identifying the wine as “my blood of the new covenant” (Luke 22:20).

Out with the old, in with the new.

Out with Old Testament, too.  We can do without all that smiting and judgment.  The Old Testament is hard and confusing and occasionally downright offensive.  Now we have a *New* Testament – “New and Improved,” don’t you think?  We can just focus on Jesus and leave the rest behind.

Out with the old, in with the new.

And Pentecost seals the deal.  The Holy Spirit did a new thing and gave birth to a church.  So let the old die off and let’s move forward!

…But that doesn’t feel quite right, does it?

I hope you squirmed just a little at the idea of throwing out the old covenant.  Maybe you had some vague recollection of Matthew 5:11:  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  Yeah, I think Jesus was probably serious about that.

And I hope you took pause at the idea of tossing the Old Testament completely aside.  I’ll completely admit that there are parts of the OT that make this option tempting (Genesis 34 would top my list).  But Jesus didn’t throw out the Old Testament; Jesus mastered its interpretation, wowing the synagogue leaders (Luke 4) and using it to explain his own life and death (Luke 24).

So it’s not simply “out with the old.”  And yet Pentecost – and life with Christ in general – is very much about “in with the new.”  So how do we hold both together?  How do we plant one foot in the foundational past and the other in an emerging future?

Two words:  traditioned innovation.

These aren’t my own words; they come from Duke’s “Faith and Leadership” institute.  Putting them together sounds like an oxymoron.  “Traditioned” implies a commitment to the way we used to do things, and the way our predecessors use to do things even before that.  “Innovation” usually means creating something new through creative change.  It’s an “odd couple” pairing, to be sure… but Dave Odem (head of “Faith and Leadership”) has taught me that not only can it be possible to hold onto tradition and innovate at the same time… but it might just be the best way we grow.

Think about the new thing the Holy Spirit did by including Gentiles (non-Jews) in God’s family.  For thousands of years Israel had been God’s chosen people, so to expand those boundaries was a radical move.  But – it was also consistent with the original covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12, a covenant that promised to bless all the nations of the world through one man’s family.

Now think about the new thing the Holy Spirit did in allowing us to be saved and directed by grace rather than a rigid adherence to God’s law.  That’s a huge change in the covenant  But – Jeremiah 31:31 promised this new kind of covenant, one not written on stone tablets but written on our hearts.

When the Holy Spirit works, the Spirit brings innovation and change… but builds on the tradition of what God has done before.

It’s not unlike how a story is told – and we are, of course, part of God’s great story.  In any good story, the plot is always introducing new things (otherwise, it’d be boring).  But those new things always relate back to the beginning (otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense).  Both are needed.

Traditioned innovation.  This is how God was at work at Pentecost, and this is how God is at work today.

Andrews United Methodist Church can stand as an example.  Our first church was built in 1893 (at a price tag of $1,200 – whew!) on what’s known as “school house hill” here in town.  It was a pretty little rectangular building.  There the church worshipped for almost thirty years… until they experienced a period of dynamic growth.  Then-pastor M.T. Smathers made a public announcement to his church:  “I desire to state that, in my judgment, our church is suffering tremendously by reason of the inconvenient location and inadequate capacity and arrangement of our present church building.”

The people of Andrews UMC could have stayed locked in tradition, insisting they could not leave their original building.  They also could have leaned too far toward innovation, moving far outside of the town they served.  Instead, they chose the way of traditioned innovation:  a new church building even closer to the center of town.  Instead, they opted for both.

Then, in the 1960s, more change came.  A new parsonage was built, and the original – located next door to the church – was renovated to serve as a fellowship hall.  When the high school burned down, students met there for classes.  But time was quickly taking its toll.  In the late 60s the church decided to tear the old parsonage down and replace it with a new Fellowship Hall that would serve both the church and the community.

The people of Andrews UMC could have stayed locked in tradition, not wanting to give up fond memories of the place the pastors and their families have lived.  They also could have leaned too far toward innovation:  bulldozing both the old parsonage and the well-cared-for sanctuary.  Instead, they opted for both.

In more recent memory, Andrews UMC has built a large Family Life Center.  This $1.6 million building was a bold leap of faith.  It probably even looked crazy to some in the community.  What is that little congregation doing with two full stories that contain a basketball court, commercial kitchen, walking track, and eight classrooms?

What we were doing was “traditioned innovation.”

Yes, the Family Life Center was a bold new move (so was Pentecost).  But yes, it was completely consistent with who Andrews UMC has always been – a church whose buildings are as much a part of the community as the post office or the grocery store.  We just needed more space for the community to use, that’s all.

Today, as we celebrate Pentecost, I hope we renew our commitment to tradition.  And today, as we celebrate Pentecost, I hope we renew our commitment to innovation.

God is doing a good work in us, and that good work requires change.  So come, Holy Spirit.  Come and innovate.  Come and build on tradition.  Come and do your good work here!

Amen.

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