An apostolic church.
A Sermon for Easter 1
April 16, 2023 at Holy Communion
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
I was recently asked an excellent question: what does it mean that the church is “apostolic”? Every Sunday, we claim to believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” but that last adjective is a mystery to most of us.
Our church is “apostolic” if we continue in the faith and practice which we receive from our forefathers, and originally from the apostles, from the leaders of the church in the days immediately after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.
That’s the answer, and of course we’ll spell it out a bit more. But why are we talking about the apostles at all? It’s Easter: shouldn’t we be talking about the resurrection? Yes indeed. By talking about the way that the church is apostolic, we are talking about the resurrection.
The church, the way that we live together, the way that we serve one another, and the way that pray and learn together, are all meant to be signs of the resurrection. Last week, we said that we are sharers in Christ’s resurrection. Practically speaking, this means that the risen life of Jesus is the animating principle of how we are together. The way that we live together shows what it means to be “risen with Christ” (Colossians 3:1).
And that is just what the Acts of the Apostles says. In the very first words of the Book of Acts, we hear that the Gospel of Luke, which was written by the same author, contained “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The implication is that the Book of Acts is about everything that Jesus continued to do and teach—but it’s about the church. The church, as Christ’s body, carries on his life after he ascends to the Father. So the life of the church is the continuing sign on earth of Christ’s resurrection.
And the church is apostolic. Our vocation to show forth the risen life of Jesus depends on us holding fast to the ways of being the church which we receive from those who have gone before us, all the way back to the apostles.
The Book of Acts says this too. After telling the story of Christ’s ascension to the Father, his sending of the Holy Spirit, and Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, the narrator stops to give us a summary statement of how the church lived together. This was our first reading. It says that “they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). It’s easy to miss, but this is a very specific list of the things that make the church what it is.
First comes the apostles’ teaching: the church which is apostolic holds fast to the same faith which the apostles’ taught. Christian teaching may be clarified over time, and it may be brought to bear on new circumstances, but it does not change over time. Our faith should be the same faith held by St Peter and St Paul.
Second comes the apostles’ fellowship. Here, the word “fellowship” is not just “getting together,” spending time in one another’s company, but “communion.” The apostles preside over a church which is in “communion” or “fellowship” with itself, because its members recognize that they hold a common faith and practice. Today, our bishops preside over the communion of the church, as successors to the apostles.
The third feature of the church listed by the Acts is “the breaking of bread.” This is the eucharist, the act by which we are renewed in our communion with one another in Christ’s body.
And the fourth is “the prayers.” Pay attention: this isn’t just “prayer,” as if it meant that we should all be praying people and say personal prayers at home, but the prayers, the official prayers of the church which we say when we are gathered.
The church is apostolic when it continues in these things: the faith of the apostles, membership in the communion over which the apostles preside, the eucharist administered by the apostles and their representatives, and the prayers authorized by the apostles.
But so what? Why does it matter whether the church is apostolic or not? On one hand, the apostolic tradition is a safeguard for our faith. In the conversation I mentioned earlier, the person I was talking to suggested that this is how we distinguish between church leaders who are genuine, and church leaders who are just selling something. The official traditions of our faith—what you find in the book—are supposed to keep us all, clergy and people, on the right track.
But if apostolic tradition is a safeguard, it is also a joy. It helps us achieve deeper intimacy with God.
I can think of a few ways that being “apostolic” is something that we can bring into our hearts and into our homes. First and in general, learn to love old ways. Let’s not chase after things that are new, but enjoy the riches of things that are tested and true.
But more concretely, consider structuring your private prayers at home with the help of “the prayers,” the official prayers of the church that are in the book. Both the BCP and the BAS contain forms of Morning and Evening Prayer, and I can testify that there is no better bread and butter for your spiritual life. If you don’t know how to use the books for Morning and Evening Prayer, please, please do get in touch with me. I would be more than happy to talk you through it.
And I’ll point to just one more ancient tradition: on page 555 of the BCP, there are simple instructions for developing a “rule of life,” a commitment you make to yourself and to God about things like attendance of church, receiving communion, Bible reading, acts of service, and giving. The purpose of making a rule of life is to make a conscious and specific commitment to the ways in which you will participate in the apostolic traditions of the church.
May God strengthen us as members of his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic body, as we approach this Holy Communion.