Don't Forget Where You Came From
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:19-23).
I remember a lesson that my father told me several times while I was growing up. Like all the best lessons, he not only told me this lesson, but showed me by his example what the lesson meant.
Dad had achieved big things in his life. He grew up poor in the middle of the Depression, but after serving in World War II, went to college on the GI Bill. Like so many of his generation, he was among the first in his family to get a post-High School education. And he went on to success in his professional field, and to enjoy the respect of the community as a leader. Everyone always looked up to Ward Collins.
So, you might say, he achieved much more than his parents and grandparents; yet he never forgot where he came from. And all through my youth I remember him returning to his hometown regularly to visit his Grandmother and Uncle Bob. He didn't brag when he went there; he was more interested in seeing how they were doing. And I remember him telling me, that just because you've had better opportunities than the people who raised you, you should never look down on them, because they made everything possible for you.
I think the world would be better – and we would be better people – if more of us thought this way.
But turning to our Scripture reading this morning, we see Jesus encouraging his disciples - the leaders of which were soon to be called "apostles," meaning, "those who are sent" - in one of his resurrection appearances.
They are afraid; he gives them his peace. He says he is sending them out into the world, just as God the Father sent him into the world, to proclaim the kingdom of God. Then he does a remarkable thing: he breathes on them – I assume, he breathes in their faces – and he says, "Receive the Holy Spirit" and with it, the ability to forgive sins. And though we say the Church was born on Pentecost, yet from this time on, we can say the Church is a-borning, for her first leaders are now set in place and empowered by Christ himself.
These guys are "where we come from," as Christians. If Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Church, then the apostles are the first course of stones – the course upon which every succeeding course is laid – and everything depends upon their being right and true. It is their witness that we constantly check our experience against - for none of us has seen the risen Christ in the flesh - and it is their instructions, passed on from the Christ himself, which we are still following. Oh, yeah, there've been a lot of good people since, and a lot of things are different now, I know; but these guys are still what connects us to Jesus the Christ, and they still define what it means to be part of the Church.
In the Nicene Creed, we confess, "We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." And I'd like to take just a few moments and do some thinking out loud about what apostolicity means, and why it's important.
Now, if you asked most Christians of the distant past – and even some two-thirds or so of Christians today – what that label "apostolic" meant, as in "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church," they might point to this story of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit into the apostles' faces and say, the Church is organized around leaders – bishops – who are the successors of the apostles, and in their consecration lies the passing on of the power to bind and loose which Jesus gave to the apostles before he ascended into heaven.
The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and some other Churches thus emphasize the continuity, from apostle to bishop to bishop to bishop down through the ages, which they believe is essential to the Church being the Church, and not just a religious organization. For these Christians, being part of the living Tradition is what guarantees that you have found the Real Thing.
And there are some quibbles one could make over certain historical claims here and there – but I'm not going to spend our time chasing those rabbits. Suffice it to say that even the most directly-connected Church's leaders can all covenant together to jump off a cliff or wander into the weeds. If you doubt that, you have only to look at today's Episcopal Church as it self-destructs – or at the situation that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century.
And in the crucible of that long-ago upheaval, a new idea was born – a new understanding of apostolicity. Reformers like Luther and Calvin believed that it was not the historical connection to the apostles that mattered, so much as it was following the apostles' original teachings and practices. So the Reformers declared that the Bible trumped Tradition, and they returned to the New Testament as their primary authority, since the Apostles and other writers of the first generation of Christians left it to us. And they said, the Bible is what guarantees you've found the Real Thing when it comes to Church.
Of course, it's not so easy to "return to the New Testament," for the New Testament is not a book of church government, nor even a book of doctrine, though it contains references to both those things. And so, despite Luther's or Calvin's best attempts to go back to the 1st Century Church, it turned out that the Churches they founded looked an awful lot like 16th Century Northern Europe. The same thing happened in what we call the Restorationist Movement in 19th Century America – whose members even today make a big deal of being "New Testament Churches," but whose norms in organization and teaching are pretty 19th Century American.
But let that go. Suffice it to say that there are two main ways of defining apostolicity: we can talk about a living Tradition and a historic connection to the past, or we can talk about fidelity to the teaching of the New Testament left to us by the apostles. Finding a way to value both would be important, to my mind, but whether we choose either or both, we would be "remembering where we came from" and would be the better for it.
But what about folks who are just "making it up?" What about people who turn to the apostles or the other great saints of the past, and whose critique of them amounts to, "Oh, that's so yesterday?"
There are a lot of these folks around these days, especially in the mainline Protestant denominations: well-meaning folk, I'm sure, but they think the mere passage of time invalidates the truth of the past, whether we're talking about Tradition or Scripture. They talk about being "progressive" and about how "we now know thus and so" or "can no longer believe the simplistic blah blah blah of those bygone days." They like to think of themselves as "prophetic" as they announce new moralities and new doctrines and new rituals. And when you ask, "where are you getting this stuff from?" they give you some faffle about the emerging spirit of something or other or "if Jesus were alive today."
Well, let me clue you in: the apostolic belief is that Jesus is alive today, and I don't remember him appointing any new apostles to declare the things you're teaching. And I understand that truth is ever-unfolding, but I also know that it tends to build upon itself. It doesn't suddenly say, "oh, we don't believe that anymore" and then start from some other basis - whether a new "revelation" a la Joseph Smith, or the political ideology that takes the place of theology among today's radicals.
No sir – we dare not forget where we came from. That's how we know we've got hold of the Real Thing. And let me tell you where this touches you and me and our congregation here.
I have a friend who just moved from Illinois to the Seattle area, and she's been posting in her blog about the various congregations she and her husband have been visiting in their attempts to find a new church. Some of them are a bit on the, well, weird side. And I don't just mean just in terms of style – how the service is organized, what songs they sing, what the pastor is wearing – I mean in terms of more basic stuff. And I think it's important that we think about what we convey to people who wander into our midst looking for a church – to people who are looking for God. (This is his address, right?)
Well, what do we offer them?
I would suggest to you that style is a relatively unimportant thing, though that's what a lot of people are clued into. And style is not unimportant, but authenticity is what I think really matters.
People want to know that they've found the Real Thing. They may not know just what that is that they're looking for, though they hope they'll know it when they see it. And they really hope not to waste their time chasing stuff that turns out to be a dead end, which is why they are often so reluctant to commit themselves to things. But their hope is greater than their fear, at least this week, so here they are, checking us out. What are they looking for?
I think they're asking, is the teaching sound? Does it really come from God? Or is the preacher just making it up?
Is this stuff they're doing authentic? Will it really connect me to God? Or is it all just entertainment – or allegory?
Does the moral compass here point me in the right way? I mean, I don't want to be yelled at for being a sinner, but neither do I want to be coddled; after all, I'm looking to get rid of my sins, not have them all affirmed.
And – perhaps most important for a first impression – are the people here for real? Do they really believe what they say? Do they live that way? Will they be there next week and the week after that? And will they make room for me, to show me how to do it, too?
Now, not all those who come wandering into church are ticking off all those things. As I said, lots of them don't really know just what it is they're looking for; but they know the urge is upon them, and they're hoping to recognize God when they meet him – and they're hoping to meet him here. Sooner or later, they wind up asking all these questions. And whether they stay depends a lot on what they decide when they start asking themselves these questions.
Remembering where we came from is not merely a debt we owe to the past. It is also how we stay connected to God in the present. And if we forget where we came from, I don't think we'll have much of a future. For people may dabble for a while with attempts to make God "cool" or to sidestep uncomfortable truths, but in the end, most people are looking for the Real Thing, and if we're just faking it, it won't matter how nice a building we have or how many programs we offer or if we're all into the latest thing. But if people do find the Real Thing – oh, they will stick to that through thick and thin, for that makes everything worth it.
Our task is simple: we must stay connected to what is Real - and we must be Real ourselves – so that the Real God can touch people's lives, and the real Christ can breathe right in their faces, so that they have his Holy Spirit dwelling within them, and so they can have a Real hope that will not disappoint them.
And may it be so, here and now, and may we rejoice to see it happen amongst us. Amen.