Week of June 30: Identity in Christ is established through our traditions


By Kim Reindl 
Lesson for week of June 30
Scripture: Ezra 3:1-7
Opening questions:  What are some of the traditions held by your family?  How are those traditions part of your identity?  (i.e., “We are people who…”)
For those who know me, one of the things that they know about me is that I am an avid Georgia football fan!  I often say that my obsession with the Dawgs is not my fault because I was brainwashed from birth.  I knew how to growl before I knew how to talk.  I could spell GEORGIA before I could spell my name.  (I’m not exaggerating.  This is true!)  For all of my life, Saturdays in the fall have been about Georgia football.  Yet, being a Dawg is not just about football for me, although I love the game.  It’s about family and the excitement that we share across the generations when we gather with homemade chili around the TV (or in earlier days around the radio to listen to Larry Munson), or journey to Athens to cheer on the Dawgs between the hedges.  Our traditions around football connect us.  Being a Georgia fan is part of my identity because those traditions are so deeply rooted in what it means to be part of my family.
Traditions are an important indicator of identity.  This point is apparent in the book of Ezra.  Today’s scripture passage, Ezra 3:1-7, takes place in a time when the exiles in Babylon have been permitted through the royal edict of Cyrus, king of Persia, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-3).  After almost 50 years in exile, the people are finally allowed to return home.  One of the major concerns during this time is the question of religious identity.  Without an affiliation to a monarchic nation-state and amidst the threat of cultural assimilation, how are the people of God to be identified?   As a descendant of the high priest Aaron, Ezra’s view for the preservation of God’s people is based on identity grounded in religious tradition.
The book of Ezra, like the book of Nehemiah, promotes a theological perspective that elevates the importance of the priestly role.  The understanding here is that in order to avoid the mistakes of the past that led to exile, the people must renew their commitment to the covenantal teachings that have kept them distinct.  These covenantal teachings are directly tied to the sacrificial system according to the Law of Moses.  Therefore, restoration of the altar (Ezra 3:2) is an important first step that allows for the return of sacrificial worship and a functioning priesthood.
The book of Ezra reports several connections between the post-exilic community and the pre-exilic community that emphasize the importance of tradition during the period of reconstruction.  The second altar is reconstructed upon the foundation of the first altar (Ezra 3:3).  Since the central means of religious expression in the pre-exilic period was the sacrificial system, a catalogue of sacrifices is listed in Ezra 3:3-5 that underscores the fact that worship according to the Law of Moses has been resumed.  Links between the building of the first temple and the second temple are also apparent.  Ezra 3:7 states that payment is given “to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa.”  Such is reminiscent of the building of the temple by Solomon since Solomon also paid workers/artisans from Sidon and Tyre with wheat and oil (1 Kings 5:11) and used trees that were bound and towed from Lebanon to Joppa (2 Chr. 2:16).
The people of God, upon return from exile, needed something to ground them, to remind them of who they were.  Jerusalem as they knew it was no more.  The monarchy was no more.  As a sub-province of the Persian Empire, among the ruins of the former city surrounded by people of foreign cultures, what was to distinguish the identity of those loyal to Yahweh?  Ezra’s answer was the covenant tradition.   
Our identity, especially our religious identity, is always tied to our traditions.  Traditions are not merely, as perceived by some, dead ritual.  Traditions give us a sense of who we have been so that we may claim who we are and grow into who we will be.  Traditions link us to a community beyond ourselves and give us a sense of belonging.  The same is true today as it was in the time of Ezra.  Through our traditions, we are not only known by others but we are formed into a collective people, the people of God.    
Questions for further reflection:
Name the traditions of the church that you consider to be the most important.  How are these traditions formative?  How would the community of faith suffer if these traditions were absent?
Kim Reindl chairs the Discipleship Ministry Team for the North Georgia Conference and is available to lead retreats, workshops, and seminars through Pomegranate Christian Education & Formation, www.pomegranatece.com.  You can contact her at kim.reindl@gmail.com.