The Four Marks: “Apostolic”

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A sermon on Acts 2:42 given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on July 5, 2020, the fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Part a four-part series on the Four Marks of the Church, as found in the Nicene Creed.

Introduction: Are You Apostolic?

We heard last week from Chad how there is a great deal of confusion around the concept of catholicity, and I suspect that’s the case when we think about the term “Apostolic.” As Inigo Montoya said in Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Today, some churches use the very word in their title, particularly some smaller and modern offshoots, muddling up the meaning “Apostolic.” How can a small, modern denomination, connected to nothing, historically speaking, be apostolic?

Additionally, you can look up movements like the New Apostolic Reformation, which purport to have living, modern day apostles. This is not what it means to be part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

But the Bible, and the witness of the Early Church, do not leave us confused about what we mean when we confess to be part of Christ’s Apostolic Church. Acts 2:42, describing the life and worship of the church in Jerusalem, essentially answers the question for us. It tells us that being Apostolic has four components. Jaraslov Pelikan (Acts:BTCB by Jaraslov Pelikan, pg 59-60) very helpfully summarizes it this way:

  • Apostolic doctrine
  • Apostolic fellowship
  • Apostolic breaking of bread
  • Apostolic prayer

Apostolic Doctrine

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…”

The very first mark of a church that is within the One Apostolic Church, is that it looks back to Apostolic Faith, rather than trying to improve upon it. It’s not embarrassed by it, but rather loves it, guards it, defends it, and upholds it.

Jude 3 is very clear about this: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Once for all delivered – handed over – to us. C.S. Lewis very famously used that phrase chronological snobbery to combat the idea that newer is always better. The commitment to be Apostolic in our teaching constantly reminds that we are not called to be innovative or successful, but rather faithful to the Faith all Christians have held since the days of the Apostles.

We also need to see that Apostolic Christianity is authentic Christianity. It is not simply one option among many. Our Anglican Catechism says this: “All genuine Christians affirm that authentic Christianity is apostolic Christianity. Apostolic Christianity rests on the historic, eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ first followers, the apostles, to the actual events of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, present heavenly reign, and promised future return.” (To Be a Christian, from the introduction to the Apostles’ Creed, pg. 29)

Friends, we need to lovingly press back on our culture on this. It’s funny, you rarely hear some one say, well, what Islam means to me is… Or, what Buddhism means to me is… And yet people say something like this all the time in regard to Christianity – what Christianity means to me is… (fill in the blank!). And when we hear this, the first question we ought to ask is, On what authority? What makes your personalized, privatized version of Christianity right?

But Apostolic Christianity is that faith revealed to the Apostles themselves by Jesus the Messiah. They did not decide who Jesus was for themselves, but rather received the revelation of the Son of God. That is, first and foremost, what it means to be Apostolic.

Apostolic Fellowship

“And they devoted themselves to…the fellowship.”

The word used here for fellowship is κοινωνίᾳ, meaning “communion” and “joint participation.” Being Apostolic impacts how we view relationships within the church and the ministry of the church.

First, God has given us an ordered Church. Part of being an Apostolic Church, is sharing in the heritage of what we call the three-fold order (Bishops, Priests/Presbyters, and Deacons). Side note: I think it should be called the four-fold order, because these offices arise out of the Laity and exist to serve the Laity.

At any rate, you see this clear development in the Early Church, that as the Apostles were martyred or died, they appointed Bishops as their successors. So, Clement of Rome, writing around 100 A.D. as the third or fourth Bishop of Rome, say this:

[The Apostles] preached from district to district, and from city to city, and they appointed their first converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of the future believers. … And this was no new method, for many years before had bishops and deacons been written of.”(Clement of Rome, Ad. Cor., 42)

Secondly, Apostolic fellowship assumes participation in the common mission of the ordered Church God has given. Paul, writing to the Philippians says, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership (κοινωνίᾳ) in the gospel from the first day until now.”

What does Apostolic fellowship look like? It looks like having a genuine, substantial, committed role in the Gospel mission and ministry of Christ’s Church.

Apostolic Breaking of Bread

“And they devoted themselves to…the breaking of bread.”

In these words, we see that the celebration of Holy Communion, as well as Baptism, have been sustained the Church’s life and worship right from the start. They were never on in importance at some later date. To paraphrase Jaraslov Pelikan, ever since the mid-first century, Christians have been taking bread and wine and calling it the body and blood of Jesus. That is a massive continuity.

And it is. Our participation, our κοινωνίᾳ in the common sacramental life of the Church is the basic and primary way we grow in our love and affection for Christ and for one another.

Rightly received, it’s one of the basic ways we know ourselves to be a good and fruitful branch, attached to the vine of Christ through the Faith handed down through the Apostles.

Just as Jesus said to the Apostles in John 15, so he says to us: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

Apostolic Prayer

“And they devoted themselves to…the prayers.”

Common prayer together is one of the basic ways we affirm our identity in and communion with the Church of the Apostles. In the Early Church, the prayers were exclusive to those who had come to faith in Jesus. It was to be treasured.

Here, Jaraslov Pelikan writes, “[T]he definite article here…does appear to suggest the presence, already at this early stage, of more or less fixed texts and liturgical forms.” (Acts:BTCB by Jaraslov Pelikan, pg. 60). Just as we have a common life and forms of prayer that we share in together, so did the Early Church. This shouldn’t surprise us. They were, after all, mostly Jewish.

And I want to say here that I have seen our church grow much in its common life of prayer. I have seen God’s people pray faithfully for one another, and I have God answer our prayers in dramatic and powerful ways. I have prayer warriors pour themselves out in love for God and others. And yet, I feel that we are still so very much learning how crucial and powerful this last element of an Apostolic church is. May we evermore be a church at prayer, in fellowship with God our Father, in the Faith of the Apostles and all who have gone before us. An Apostolic church is a praying church because of it’s Lord and his Gospel.

A Call to Persist!

“And they devoted themselves…”

There, is in Acts 2:42, a timely call to persist in being Apostolic. This word, “devoted” denotes, as Luke Timothy Johnson defines it, “continuing and consistent patterns of behavior.” (The Acts of the Apostles, pg. 58) Apostolic belief, Apostolic fellowship, Apostolic breaking of bread, and Apostolic prayer – this is fullness of Christian faith. And friends, by the grace of God, it is our ours.

As we close out our series on the Four Marks, I want us to return back for a moment to the article “How the Coronavirus Might Change the Local Church, Forever” by Dale Partridge. In his article, he points to an interaction he had online:

“Recently,” he writes, “I made a statement on social media that implied watching a sermon on Sunday was not church. One woman, who was obviously offended by my claim, replied, “Don’t tell me that watching a sermon on Sunday isn’t church! God has worked deeply in my life through these online messages!”

… Let’s imagine someone said, “Don’t tell me that loving affection isn’t marriage.” My response would be something like, “Well… loving affection is a really important part of marriage but affection is not marriage. In fact, marriage is much more complex than affection. It requires a commitment before God, it calls for divinely appointed gender-roles, and it requires love and sacrifice and pursuit. It also involves romance and fidelity and spiritual leadership as well as a host of other vital aspects. Furthermore, God designed marriage not only for what it is but for what it produces. That is, a God-centered family and home that has its own interwoven role in the furthering of God’s Kingdom.”

So to say that affection is marriage is a very superficial and almost silly statement. The same is true when someone says that watching a sermon online is church. Now, affection in a marriage is critical just like a sermon in the local church is critical. But likewise, just as affection does not equal marriage nor does a sermon online equal church.

As you know, both marriage and the church are complex and robust. As an example, the local church requires regularity, commitment, membership, communion, baptism, corporate worship, church government by way of elders and deacons, church discipline, gender-roles, the exercising of spiritual gifts, corporate prayer, biblical order, accountability to Scripture, fellowship with one another, mutual ministering through relationship, giving and receiving, meeting the needs of the saints, and yes, the preaching of a sermon.

Ultimately, to diminish the church gathering to merely watching a sermon online (and maybe singing some songs from your couch) is a great insult to the comprehensive church doctrine found in Scripture. In fact, validation of virtual church in equivalence with the historic church assembly would likely offend the thousands of martyrs who gave up their lives so that Christians could meet, in-person, without religious persecution.”

And here, thinking of our last mark, we are drawn back to praise and adoration of God, giving thanks for how he has founded the ministry and life of his Church, in the words of Revelation, upon the twelve Apostles of the lamb (Revelation 21:4). Upon their life and witness, their martyrdom, and the giving up of their lives, that we might know Christ and be found complete in him as members of his Apostolic Church. Amen.

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