Quakers, Tradition and the Resurrection Community (Acts 13:13-33)

This is the message I gave a few weeks back at George Fox Chapel. I’ve been meaning to post the manuscript but haven’t had a chance.

_Tradition is Dead, Tradition is Alive

I think I am an unlikely candidate for Quaker week. I am like the majority of you; I did not grow up a Quaker, I didn’t grow up in a Quaker-mecca like Newberg and didn’t become a “Friend” until my 20s. I had no idea who George Fox was, wasn’t he that guy in the recent Wes Anderson film (fantastic mr. fox)? I didn’t know anything about the awesome Quaker history of being involved in Native American rights, the underground railroad and movements like women’s suffrage.

I grew up a nominal Catholic. I went to parochial schools (or as I usually say, I did my time there…) and visited mass only irregularly. Growing up I wasn’t even really sure I knew what it meant to Catholic. Then through a complicated set mostly tragic events my family began attending a small, fairly conservative and charismatic, non-denominational church. This is where I began to learn to read the bible, and took part in more church-based activities. If at the Catholic church I was an observer, this new church is where I became more of an active participant. But the church was also one of those non-denominational churches that are fairly anti-denominational, but they do it in a kind of “denominational” way if you know what I mean? In other words, I had a major suspicions about words like “denomination” and “tradition” by the time I left home for college.

And isn’t it the case that in an America influenced by creatives such as Steve Jobs we prize above everything innovation, newness, and individual expression? The thought that one of us might be seen with a Myspace page, let alone an first generation iPhone would be almost to much to bear (professors?!). In this ideology, old equals obsolete and tradition equals a liability.

So why celebrate a Quaker week here at George Fox?

I once read a quote by church history Jaroslav Pelikan that rings true for me.

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” –Jaroslav Pelikan

I, for a long time, believed in the traditionalism model.

But then, everything began to change for me when I attended a Friends college in the Midwest. Now I didn’t know it was a Friends college for quite a while (this was not something they were advertising by any means), but as I learned, if you dig deep enough you could find the Quakers there. And being that I was there to study theology and Bible that opened me up more to those kinds of conversations. And as is often the case when you go to college, my worldview began to expand, be challenged, and in some respects completely overturned. For instance, I remember the first time I literally ever heard anyone, let alone someone who was a brilliant professor and someone I deeply respected, talk about Jesus and nonviolence. I had no idea there were Christians who believed that kind of stuff. But what was I to make of all the things I grew up believing? I had other major changes and challenges to my beliefs. I had a professor whose wife was a Methodist pastor. Not only was he the first person I’d ever heard talk positively about denominations, but I remember him telling us that we would write using inclusive language and that by the time we left class we’d all support women in ministry. He was write. I also remember reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and learning about so much of the underbelly of our nation’s history and really wishing that the church had a better track-record as far as the was concerned. I had a growing sense of what justice looked like and a desire to be a part of a community that embraced it.

What I am describing was a sense of despair and crisis that I experienced. And I had no language to really understand how to make sense of it.

“Somehow deep time orients the psyche, gives ultimate perspective, realigns us, grounds us, and thus heals us. We belong to a mystery far grander than our little selves and our little time. Great storytellers and spiritual teachers always know this” (Richard Rohr).

What Rohr is talking about here is the mystery of tradition.

Then I began reading Quaker history as a junior and God spoke to me there. I had this kind of existential experience where I realized there’s this who Christian tradition that’s actually tried to live out the kinds of things I’d come to believe. And in some strange way I’d always been a Quaker but didn’t know it. I learned that Friends actually sought to put it into practice the way of Jesus in the world, and actually rejected the kind of Christianity that was based on simply believing “the right things.” I learned that they’d become dissatisfied with the lip service of the church and set out to do something about it, and what had arisen from that was movement in the 17th century I found very compelling as a 22 year old.

This began to realign me within God’s bigger story and helped me make sense of my past as much as my present.

_Paul’s Resurrection Remix

A similar kind of mid-course change and new encounter with God happened to Paul when he encountered, and was blinded by, the living Christ on his way to Damascus (Acts 9). Any time the individual self encounters the bigger story of God and the mystery of “deep time” as Rohr calls it, it is an intrusion into his or her life. Just like a baby crying in the middle of the night, this is an intrusion that will wake you from your slumber and reconfigure your plans. Paul’s encounter was no different, he was awakened and his life was reconfigured by God, re-written into a larger narrative with an unexpected twist.

The resurrection has a way of not only making sense of the present but the past and the future as well.

This is why when we get to Acts 13 we see that Paul and Barnabas hit the streets with a prophetic message of their own about the resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Not only had Jesus come but he came rooted in a bigger story. Paul’s sermon shows this by starting not at the beginning of Jesus’ life, but at the very beginning of the whole story of Israel (Exodus).

Question: How many of you have heard of the word “Midrash?” It’s not what it sounds like, it’s not a rash you get in the mid-region of the body, it’s a practice of Jewish teachers and is a way of reading the bible that is like giving commentary on it, or shedding new light on it. One NT Scholar explains Midrash as commenting on the “continuing significance [of a text] by applying it to a contemporary event” (IH Marshall 217).

Another way to think about this is Paul is doing is remix. How many of you know what remix is? It is an alternative version of artwork based on an original piece and mixed with other pieces of art. Remixes, at least good ones, are done by highly skilled DJ’s (or artists) who draw on the many layers of meaning available within whatever “texts” they’re bringing together. And by bringing the original material together with some other text, something new is created.

One of my favorite examples of remix is Jay-z’s “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” It is a remix of the same song from the musical Annie (which our girls love!). And if I am totally honest, I may have had a crush on her when I was that age!

“When the TV version [of Annie] came on, I was drawn to it,” he says. “It was the struggle of this poor kid in this environment and how her life changed. … It immediately resonated.” Jay-Z

Jay-Z’s recording not only brought an old song back into popularity again, but by blending the original material and meaning of the song with his experience of growing up as a young Arfrican-American he breathed new significance into that song. Jay-Z was practicing midrash, or Paul was practicing remix. Whichever you like.

So when Paul stands up in Acts 13 and begins his sermon at the beginning and says:

Paul begins, “You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it.” (Acts 13)

Paul takes the old story, the old tradition, or the “original material” and he remixes it to give it a new significance and direction. Paul shows that Jesus was a part of a tradition, and that the resurrection brought new significance to it rather than render it a “liability” or “limitation.”

And he ends his sermon by saying:

And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Acts 13).

The point here is that for Paul, the remix is possible because of the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is also a part of this older tradition, but in order to understand it things have to be adjusted, tweaked, and placed under the lens of resurrection. For Paul, the whole tradition is reconfigured in the person of Jesus and this in turn has great implications for the kind of community that emerges out of the reality of resurrection. So for Paul in Acts 13 this re-reading of their tradition not only redeems their past but shows that an alternative way of living in the world has opened up. This new way is one that is universal in scope and will begin to spread even to the Gentiles and from there the rest of the world.

_Quakers and Resurrection

I want to close with a story of another person who we might consider a DJ of sorts:

In 1647 a 19 yr old young man wandered through the villages of northern England in search of the kind of Christianity that might be more about possessing and encountering the truth than simply professing knowledge of it. George Fox had grown dissatisfied with the answers that were given to him by the teachers and clergy he faced. He felt a disconnect with what he once knew to be true and the world as he was beginning to understand it as he grew up. He felt a deep sense of despair and experienced that same crisis of faith that we’ve been talking about.

What finally brought Fox hope and a radical new vision for the church was an encounter with the Risen Jesus.

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’: and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. …and this I knew experimentally.

I believe that Fox was initially trying to access God through the past, through learned people, the only way to access God is through the resurrection, which meets us in the present and then moves us back to realign us. The resurrection brings new life by reframing our past and future into the present. Once Fox encountered the reality of the resurrection he was able then to go back and begin to “remix” Christianity in a powerfully alternative way that was faithful to the past, but brought it immediately into his times.

From that point forward Fox and early Quakers began to build a community of people who lived into the reality of resurrection. Practices that kept open the space for the Risen Lord to be the leader of the church. This formed the way Quakers practice communion (in silence), they way we practice decision-making and group discernment, to the way they read the bible with empathy, and understand how our distinct “testimonies” emerge. There are many more examples, but the point is that I believe the Quaker tradition, is a tradition that not only still has significance today but that it is rooted in embodying the reality of resurrection. In other words, I think Quakerism is a lively and beautiful remix on Christianity and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.