I Believe in …An Apostolic Church
Acts 2:42, Ephesians 2:20, Galatians 1:1-9.
Listen! Can you hear the cheering in the far off distance? If your heart is quiet and your mind at rest sometimes you can still hear the cheering. The atmosphere was charged with excitement that summer of 1988.
1. The Athletic event
It was the time of the Summer Olympic Games in Korea. The moment had come for one of the most exciting events in any Olympic games. The 4 by 100 meter relay race. It was going to be no contest. The United States was fielding an unbeatable team of magnificent athletes.
The race started with a bang. The starter’s pistol gave the signal and spiked shoes dug into the asphalt. The initial runners of the relay team accelerated around the first section of the track with batons gripped firmly in their right hands. Elbows pumped. Legs drove with intensity against the ground. Each runner had his eyes focused on the waiting person ahead. As the first hundred meters came to a close, each runner began to stretch out the baton to the now accelerating runner just ahead. Those next in sequence had begun already to move with a hand extended blindly behind them.
The sound of the baton exchange could be heard by the spectators near by as it was slapped into each waiting hand. Then the second leg was up to full speed, racing towards those waiting to run the third leg of that race.
Calvin Smith of the U.S. took the baton to begin the third leg and was away with blinding speed. The U.S. team was sure of its victory as the meters sped by. Waiting ahead was Mark McNeil, ready to run the fourth and final leg. In good fashion he began to accelerate as Calvin Smith began his approach. His hand was extended behind him. With a lunge Calvin slapped the baton into Mark’s hand, and hit only thin air. He had missed the hand. He slapped again, but he was now too slow and Mark was too fast and they missed the connection again. Mark slowed down and a third attempt was made, but it was too late. They had passed beyond the exchange zone and were disqualified. The U.S. team was out of contention. They had failed to advance out of the preliminary round. What a tragedy! The cheering in the grandstands turned to gasps of disappointment.
2. Passing on the Apostolic legacy
That story reminds me of another word that we need to touch on before we can understand the church well. It is the word “Apostolic.” The Creed reads: We believe in “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
If the word “catholic” has reference to the universal extent of the church, the word “apostolic” has reference to the historical depth of the church. Once in a while people ask me when my church was started. I must confess to being overly clever at such times. I say “about 2,000 years ago!” For the church was not born yesterday. It did not come into existence with the laying of cornerstone of our local church. It did not begin with John Wesley, or Martin Luther, or St. Augustine. It began with Jesus and his Apostles.
The Apostles were 12 men who were given the authority to pour the foundations for the Christian Church. They were given authority by Jesus Christ Himself to lead the infant church into its future. For two to three years he taught them. Then for 40 days after his resurrection, he taught them more intensely. Then he gave them His Holy Spirit who in turn would lead these 12 men in those early days. Jesus was setting the Genetic code of his church in those early days. He was also giving them a message that was to be passed on unaltered to their world and the coming generations.
Church history is that grand story of a baton being passed down the centuries and around the world. Let me tell you the story.
It began with Jesus passing on the baton to the 12 Apostles. J.B. Phillips in one of his books describes Jesus’ return to heaven after the ascension. The angels ask him about his plans for the extending of the Kingdom just begun. Jesus tells the Angelic audience that he has left behind 11 men. The angels are apprehensive. They ask the question, “What if they fail?” Jesus responds, “I have no other plan.”
But he needed no other plan. Those 11 men passed on the baton. On the day of Pentecost it is handed on to 3,000. Then a few days later the baton is now in the hands of 5,000. Before the book of the Acts of the Apostles is finished the original Apostles have passed on the baton to new Christians in Europe & Africa & Asia. It is passed on to men like Ananias and from him to Paul. From him it is passed on to men and women like Lydia, Aquilla & Priscilla, Timothy and Titus, until by the end of that first century it is in the hands of Polycarp & Clement, and then to Athanasius & Augustine, later to Saint Theresa & Francis of Assissi, to Aquinas & Anselm, Luther & Calvin, Wesley & Whitefield, Moody & Finney, and to Billy Graham & Mother Theresa. Finally to you and me.
Talk about the world’s most exciting relay race ever run! It is a remarkable story of almost 2 millennia. At times the baton of the Gospel was dropped by those who were commissioned to carry it. But other hands took it up. Sometimes feeble hands, fearful hearts, stammering tongues picked up the message: often by default, but they passed it on. It was passed down the centuries through storm and flood and fire and war, and pestilence, from dying hand to dying hand, the baton was passed. And that baton one day came to us.
Some passed it on in pain, others in their moments of Martyrdom. Others passed it on by song, by godly lifestyle, by wise counsel. But ministers and lay people, women & men, children and the aged passed on the baton to the succeeding generation.
There were times when it was passed on from grandparent to grandchild, because some generations refused the burden and the boon. Those missing generations of a family are sad tragedies. They dropped the baton. They quit the race. They disqualified themselves. But others stepped into the gaps. And the message was passed on with no diminishment of its power to transform lives in every nation in every age.
It is interesting to note the two relay races that Paul notes in his first letter to Timothy.
The first is a relay race within a specific family.
II Tim 1. Grandmother Lois passed the baton to Mother Eunice
who passes it on to Son Timothy
The second is a relay race in the wider community.
II Tim 2: Faithful witnesses had passed on the message to Paul
Paul had passed on the message to Timothy
Timothy is to pass it on to Faith-filled people
And those faith-filled people are called to pass it on to others.
The book of Hebrews in the twelfth chapter tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. (12:1-2.) These witnesses are the ones who went on before us. They are the saints of Chapter 11 (32-38). They are those who conquered & suffered by faith. Now they are in the grandstands. Looking down on us with eager joy. Can you hear them cheering? Can you hear them egging us on? This is at least what is meant by the phrase “The Communion of saints.”
3. The Apostolic Message
Well, what is the apostolic message that is being passed down the centuries?
St. Paul is very protective of it. He says that even if an angel from heaven brought a different message, it was not to be believed. In fact, if anyone, angels or men, or even himself, brought a different message than the one he first passed on to them, let them be cursed! (See Galatians 1:6-9)
What is that message? The Scriptures contain that message in detail. The New Testament scriptures are the writings of those early church leaders whose one passion was to pass on the Gospel of God to the entire world and to all the ages.
Those who read the scriptures are standing on Apostolic foundations. They are in touch with the apostolic legacy.
Within the Christian Church there has been a controversy over “Apostolic Succession”. It has to do with the question, who are true ministers of the Church? One theory says that only those who were ordained by those who had been ordained by those who had been ordained by the original apostles. But most of us think the debate is a silly one. Every minister is in true apostolic succession if he or she teaches the Biblical message. Every Sunday school teacher or home Bible study leader, is in apostolic succession, when they open and teach the Word of the Prophets & Apostles, which is the Word of God.
4. The Apostles’ Church
But let me share a further implication of this truth of about the church being Apostolic. The church is not ours to do with as we jolly well please! It has been handed down to us through the centuries as a sacred trust. Jesus said, “I will build MY Church” which means it is his and not ours.
There is a tendency in our culture to want to be creative and innovative. And I applaud it in part. But there may be a danger if we end up disparaging the past. Some in the current age wants to jettison the past, so it can get on with its future. There are many who have no love for history, thinking it to be a past we are well gotten rid of.
But in the Church of Jesus Christ, at the beginning of the twentieth-first century, we still read an Ancient scripture that includes both Old and New Testaments. At times we read the ancient creeds and re-voice ancient prayers. We sing hymns and songs that have been written by others who have passed away, but whose words have been passed on to us. We celebrate new weddings using words that are centuries old; we conduct funerals in words that have comforted the millions who preceded us. We celebrate communion, in words that ring with the ancient legacy.
I think as the baton is passed I can still hear the voices of the church in ages past, crying “Keep faith with us! Take the same flame that burnt of old, and pass it on to those that are to follow. Keep faith with the apostolic message! Keep faith with the apostolic mission!”
And when we are inclined to re-cast our songs and our sermons and our liturgies, let us be very very sure, that we are not bending the message that has been committed to our care. Let us use the speech pattern of our age, but not their thought patterns. Let us transpose the message into other languages, but be certain that the message is passed on intact.
It is our turn to continue our leg of the race. Let us take the baton and pass it on. If we do, and if our hearts are quiet and our minds are at rest sometimes we will hear the sound of distant cheering. It will be the sounds made by the saints of bygone days joined by cherubim and seraphim and the entire angelic host. The company of heaven composed of the glorious company of the apostles, the good fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of the martyrs will be cheering in the grandstands.
So, let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our Faith. If we do, we shall not only hear the cheering of the grandstands, but one day we shall hear those marvelous words ringing thorough the universe, “Well done, good and faithful servants! Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
The mediaeval church left us a hymn that is still worth singing in our personal and corporate worship.
The “Te Deum” – here in contemporary English, is credited to Ambrose of Milan around A.D. 387. It echoes the thoughts of the Apostles’ Creed and restates the story that is at the heart of the Gospel.
We praise you, O God,
we acclaim you as the Lord;
all creation worships you,
the Father everlasting.
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
the cherubim and seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:
Father, of majesty unbounded,
your true and only Son, worthy of all praise,
the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the King of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you took our flesh to set us free
you humbly chose the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting.