Monday, March 7, 2016

I believe in the Apostolic Church

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” 
II Corinthians 5:18-19

 Brazil has been in the news a great deal the last few weeks, as public health officials struggle to contain the Zika virus.  It is the latest in a series of challenges surrounding the country’s first opportunity to host the Olympic games, which will be held in Rio in July.  There’s still quite a bit of work to be done—mosquitoes to control, bays to clean up, stadiums to be completed.  And time is running short. 

 It was recently announced that the Olympic torch will be lit on the 21st of April at the ancient city in Greece where the games were first held millennia ago.  And though the games themselves are still very much a work in progress, the plan for moving the torch across the country, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest, are pretty astounding.  The torch will go on a 95 day tour around Brazil, visiting all 26 state capitals, as well as 500 other towns.  12,000 runners will carry it, passing the torch from hand to hand, covering a total distance of 20,000 km by road,[1] until it reaches its final destination and was used to light the great flame in the Olympic Stadium at the opening of the games.

What we call the apostolicity of the Church is that way in which the Church is so much like that torch that will be passed from hand to hand across Brazil. 
The Church maintains continuity with its first leaders, that company of apostles gathered around Jesus.  But it also pushes on to continue their work, passing on the torch generation after generation, so that all the world may know Christ and the gifts He brings us from God.

The word apostle means “sent out”—sent by Christ to continue His work with His own power.  The apostles were those He chose out during His earthly ministry to be his special companions.  They saw his miracles, heard his teaching.  Even more importantly, they were witnesses of His resurrection.  He appeared to them in power, showing that He had accomplished the salvation of the world by His death on the Cross.  Jesus sent them out to continue that work.  It was to the apostles that He delivered the Great Commission—go and make disciples.  It was on them that He breathed His Holy Spirit—first in the upper room before His ascension, when He gave them the power to forgive sins, and then more dramatically on the Day of Pentecost, when He equipped them to tell the good news to all the world.  The Book of Acts tells us their story, documenting their journeys throughout the Mediterranean world working as what Saint Paul calls, “ministers of reconciliation.”  They told others about Christ and his saving work, and their established churches to carry on the worship of God and deepen fellowship between the new believers.

The apostles were called to the work of pioneering missionaries, travelling from place to place to tell their own stories of following Jesus and encountering Him after the resurrection.  But as they set up new churches, they passed on their leadership to local church leaders, called bishops and presbyters.  Establishing a pattern of leadership is crucial to the growth and health of any new organization, and the pattern set by the apostles was handed on in the churches they established.  The apostles laid hands on the bishops, giving them their authority and power.  And those bishops laid hands on other bishops, to continue the work of the ministry in new places and in new generations.   To call the church apostolic is to say that it is part of that long, unbroken chain, back through the centuries to the apostles and their Lord.  There is no living institution in the world as old or as widespread as the bishops of the apostolic succession.  And yet with every new consecration, in the several branches of the church that have maintained it, the system continues to grow and flourish. 

This notion of an apostolic church is unpopular among some Christians.  To them, it roots the Church too much in the past.  It fixes one path for the work of the Spirit.  If the Church is apostolic, then one can’t be self-ordained, founding a new church just because it seems like the right thing to do.  The Church must be a gift handed on from the past, something you must receive from those who have led it in the past, not a new thing made out of one’s own ideas and gumption.  A priest or bishop of the apostolic church must be ordained by another.  He or she must be prepared to submit his or her own opinions to the faith handed down from the apostles.  His ministry will work through the imparting of grace that comes from beyond himself, through the work of the Spirit through that channel called the apostolic ministry.  The apostolic church must be patient, reverent, humble—and those virtues are not easy to practice in a society like ours that values independence and instant gratification.

But the apostolic church is not just a settled thing handed down.  Like all these marks of the church it is also a call to action.  The church is truly apostolic when it continues in the apostles’ work, in proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, encouraging other people with the promise of salvation, and training up new disciples.  Talking with a friend or neighbor about the faith is apostolic work, so is to teaching a child to pray, or defending the church’s teaching against those who ridicule it.  We are surrounded by people who do not know our Lord, people loved by Christ and in great need of the gift of salvation.  The Church is apostolic when it goes out to find those people and to bring Christ to them, so that all the world may know Him.  There are parts of the world where the church is focused on apostolic ministry.  In Africa, the Church is growing dramatically.  New dioceses are being established, the Scriptures are being translated into new languages, and there is a great vitality and sense of purpose.  Christ seems very close to those who are doing the work He commanded.  In our part of the world, we see very little growth, and often very little passion.  The faith is a dry thing, and many of those who come to church hardly seem to know why.  What we need is a new outpouring of the Spirit to continue in the apostles’ ministry.

We have an outstanding example of the apostolic ministry in Bishop John Henry Hobart, the third bishop of New York.  He inherited a passionless, declining church.  The Episcopal Church lost more than half its membership in the American Revolution and its aftermath.  The first bishop of New York, a man named Samuel Provoost, had no real desire to spread the faith.  He believed that the Episcopal Church was destined to die out with the old colonial families along the Hudson, and resigned his post when still a fairly young man to give more time to his work teaching botany and writing poetry in Italian.  The second bishop, Richard Moore, was devoted but sickly and unable to do much work.

When Bishop Hobart was consecrated in 1811, at only the age of 36, he had an enormous task before him.  There were only 50 churches in the diocese, which comprised the whole of New York State, and only 26 priests to serve them.  Bishop travelled great distances to encourage the churches and to preach the Gospel, making tours of 4000 miles on horseback in summer and 2000 miles in winter.  In his 21-year ministry, he confirmed over 15,000 people.   He established Hobart College in Geneva and General Seminary in New York to train men for the ministry, and then he sent them out as missionaries to found new parishes throughout the state.  Four times as many priests served in New York at the end of his ministry and there were three times as many churches.  Bishop Hobart constantly corresponded with his clergy, and encouraged them in the work of evangelism. 

Bishop Hobart was also notable for his age because he was so insistent on maintaining the apostolic form of the ministry.  In his era, Americans were even more anti-institutional than they are today.  They had just overthrown the power of the British king, and many wanted nothing to do with a church whose government was based on a hierarchy imported from old Europe.  There were very strong calls in early America for a new kind of church, a church that would unite all the Protestants into one body, ruled only by the Bible and common sense.  It was just the wrong kind of ecumenism, Bishop Hobart believed, shortsighted, ignorant of the wisdom of the past, valuing present fashions over Christ’s own plan and purpose.  He argued strongly for the system of bishops, the traditional liturgy and the doctrines of the Creeds in a number of highly publicized books and articles.  Some, he said, make a “distinction made between the doctrines and the institutions of the gospel. And yet they have both a divine origin, and they are inseparably connected as means to the same end--the salvation of man.”  Outside the apostolic church, outside the ministry handed down from the apostles, through the bishops, we cannot be certain of that salvation.  “Evangelical truth and apostolic order”—that was Bishop Hobart’s motto—the saving purpose of Christ cannot be separated from the system of ministry He established.

Bishop Hobart died as he lived.  He made a long journey to administer confirmation at Auburn, near Syracuse, and collapsed afterwards in exhaustion, and died a few days later in the rectory.  He was not in good health and his wife urged him to stay home, “You are undertaking too much" she told Him.  His answer, as he set out, was, "How can I do too much for Him Who has done everything for me?"  This is just what Saint Paul meant when he recounted the sufferings that he had experienced in fulfilling his own mission.  He rejoiced in his pain and hardship, because through them many more were brought to life and salvation.  

God challenges us with the same call.  The apostolic task is not easy, it will not often win us acclaim, but it is the most important way that Christ continues to build His Kingdom.  He promises his blessing for all who will work with those in ages past to truly make ours an apostolic Church.

[1] Rio 2016 Confirms Start Date for Olympic Torch Relay.  8 Oct. 2015.

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