In the past few articles, I have tried to address a fundamental question that all Christians face at least once (and probably more than once) in the course of their spiritual lives: what is the Church? I have based my answers on the Nicene Creed, that fundamental confession of faith, which applies four descriptors to the Church: that it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Having talked about unity, holiness and catholicity, then, I would like to reflect today on the question of apostolicity and its relevance for us.
Indeed, relevance is the very issue at stake when we discuss the question of apostolicity. Many churches today struggle with how to be relevant in a modern and postmodern secular society that seems increasingly indifferent to the Church. They wonder to what extent Christian communities can or should adjust their worship, social programs, and even their teaching to inspire and engage the people of this age, while maintaining a firm grip on the unchanging and ageless truths of Christianity. How do we strike a balance?
The answer varies depending on how we understand apostolicity. According the Eastern Orthodox view, anyway, an apostolic Church is one whose teaching and worship practices are consistent with the experience of the apostles, beginning at their encounter with the risen Jesus Christ on the road to Emmaus. It was on that road that Jesus “interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself,” (Luke 24:27) before revealing himself to them “in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35)
Because of this seminal experience, the disciples began to proclaim the fundamental Christian proclamation: “The Lord has risen indeed!” (Luke 24:34) In time, they “handed over” their encounter and knowledge of the crucified and risen Lord to the next generation of Christians. As the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Church, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5)
According to the Apostle Paul, then, being “apostolic” meant receiving the knowledge that Jesus revealed to His disciples concerning Himself, and faithfully delivered that knowledge to the next generation. This “handing over” involved more than merely conveying information about Jesus to others. Because the disciple knew the Lord in the interpretation of the Scriptures and “the breaking of the bread,” the manner in which they transmitted that knowledge was also consistent with the way in which they had received it.
Just as the disciples understood Jesus’ true identity when Jesus opened their minds to the Scriptures, so too did the Apostles teach those who followed them to begin their worship encounter with Christ by reading and preaching from the Scriptures. And just as the disciples had recognized Jesus when He “took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them,” (Luke 24:30) so too did the Apostles instruct their communities to receive Christ in the breaking of the bread, which the Apostle Paul understands as the Eucharist, where Christians partake in “the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:27)
What the Apostles taught, that first generation faithfully practiced in their life of faith together. A late first century Church manual known as Didache (the text is available online at www.ccel.org) witnesses to the practice of early Christian worship: “On every Lord’s Day—His special day—come together, and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure.” The document also gives specific instructions on how the Eucharist is to be offered and prayed over during the service...
From the beginning, then, an apostolic Church was a community that faithfully received and transmitted the knowledge of the crucified and risen Christ in a manner consistent with that of the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
This “handing over” was not just slavish imitation or the mere preservation of dead rituals and doctrines. It is clear from the history of the Church that each succeeding generation of Christians appropriated and personalized the faith they received from the Apostles, making it unique and alive in their own time and place. Despite these developments, however, the apostolic Church maintained the scriptural and Eucharistic elements that the Apostles themselves would have recognized in their own teachings and practices.
What does this mean for us? I began this article by saying that many Christian communities today are seeking to be relevant to our secular society by adjusting worship styles, methods of ministry and even doctrinal teaching to suit their congregations. The problem with this approach, I would argue, is that in pursuing ever more current ways of expressing the faith, churches run the risk of forsaking their apostolic vocation.
In seeking greater relevance through worldly means (MTV-style music, multimedia presentations, dumbed-down preaching, etc.), Christian communities are in danger of losing the only relevance they have ever really possessed in this world: their identity as the faithful bearers of the original apostolic encounter with the crucified and risen Christ, who is “the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8)
Adapting to the challenge of the modern world is indeed crucial to the mission of the Church. More essential to the nature of the Church, however, is its call to be apostolic, to hold fast that which has been delivered to us by the Apostles. Abandoning this fundamental vocation to pursue adaptation, compromise and innovation is simply too high a price to pay to fill a church building on a Sunday morning. After all, as Jesus Himself says, “What does it profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)