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An apostolic Church
The Reverend Jane Sinclair Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret's Church
Sunday, 10th February 2019 at 11.00 AM
Some years ago I enjoyed a wonderful summer holiday with a group of friends in the south-west of France, near the town of Albi. We walked along field paths and gazed at golden eagles soaring high above the gorge of the Tarn river. We shopped for plump tomatoes and ripe smelly cheeses in the market. We wandered into cool dusty churches a thousand years old, and mellowed by the warm sunshine of centuries. It was the south of France just as you might imagine it to be, even coming nose to nose with a wild pig down a country lane one afternoon.
So I was a bit taken aback when over a relaxed dinner at our gîte one evening, the bright fourteen-year-old daughter of my friends suddenly asked me out of the blue, ‘Jane, what does it mean in the creed when it says that the Church is “apostolic”?’ Rachel was always good at asking testing questions, and they’re not easy to answer when the most difficult decision you’ve had all day is whether to have a glass of red or white wine with your lunch. Everyone else around the table grinned broadly and looked at me for an answer. They were all church-goers, and one of them was a very distinguished lecturer in New Testament studies. He could have answered the question much better than me.
But Rachel’s question set me thinking. What does it mean to say that the Church is apostolic? We say it every Sunday in the Nicene Creed. But what does it actually mean? My answer then was substantially what it remains today. The Church is ‘apostolic’ when it continues to live and believe in the Christian faith first articulated and handed on by the first apostles – Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene and so on – and recorded in the New Testament writings. Being apostolic means living out the values and priorities of the apostles, but in our own time and place now two thousand years later. In other words being apostolic is not about claiming some sort of hotline to the early Church, hand on hand down the ages. It’s not about slavishly following every last detail commanded in the epistles, as if the New Testament were some sort of blueprint for the twenty-first century or even for the first century. No. Being apostolic is about living as Christians today as faithfully as we can in the light of the gospel which the apostles first received and then handed on to others. As Paul writes in our first reading today: ‘I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved.’
I’m not sure how enlightening Rachel found my answer to be all those years ago. And anyway, I would want to add to that answer today. For being part of the ‘apostolic’ Church isn’t just about receiving the gospel and living according to its values and vision. It’s also about handing that gospel on to others. We’re being apostolic when we share the good news of Christ, when we spread the good news among our friends and neighbours. Remember Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus? She was horrified to find the tomb empty on that first Easter morning, but then found herself transformed as she realized that the man in the garden nearby was no workman, but was Jesus himself, risen from the dead. Suddenly, Mary became an apostle – the word literally means ‘someone who is sent with a message’ – as Jesus told her to go and tell the other disciples what had happened. And she lost no time in doing so. As Mary breathlessly told Peter and the others what had happened in the garden she was being apostolic. She was telling anyone who cared to hear all about what had happened to Jesus and what it meant to her. That’s being apostolic.
So being apostolic is about looking forward and handing on the Christian faith just as much as it is about looking back and remembering the apostles and the teaching of the New Testament. It’s about living and telling our faith today; it’s about working out what the gospel means for us, now, in contexts which are very different from those of the New Testament. Paul and his friends knew nothing of social media or of the scourge of drug abuse on the scale we face today. He knew nothing of climate change, or international terrorism, or Brexit. It’s our job to wrestle with these issues as Christians today, and to work out how to be a holy, catholic and apostolic Church in the light of them. Being truly apostolic means being prepared to be as creative with the gospel as were those first apostles.
You’d have thought from his background that Paul would have been keen to preserve the Christian tradition that he had received, and to hand it on unchanged to others. After all, Paul had been brought up as a strict Pharisee, trained to the nth degree in the niceties of the Jewish law, and a strict adherent to the norms of Jewish community life. Yet after his Damascus road experience, and a lengthy time of retreat and reflection, Paul found himself at the forefront of doctrinal change among those first Christian communities. He it was who argued that non-Jews – Gentiles – should be baptized and received as fellow-Christians, equal to the Jewish followers of Christ, with no need to obey the dictates of the Jewish Law. This, Paul argued, was a fulfilment of that Law. It was an astonishing development in the understanding of the tradition which had been handed on to Paul. The gospel was not simply for Jewish believers – it was for everyone. To be apostolic suddenly meant not just living as Jewish-Christian believers and speaking to others at the synagogue about Jesus. Being apostolic meant offering the gospel to non-Jews as well. Being apostolic meant to Paul and his contemporaries, and it still means today, being open to the utterly unexpected leading of the Holy Spirit.
Well, all of this might seem rather academic – and a long way from a nice chunk of baguette, a glass of vin du table and the innocent question of a teenager in France many years ago. But lately I’ve been re-reading some of the poetry of that archetypal Anglican parish priest, George Herbert, in the light of what it means to be apostolic. Apostolic and Anglican.
Why am I an Anglican? For three reasons principally. First, I’m an Anglican because I was born into an Anglican family. If I’d been born in India I might have become a Hindu or a Muslim. But as it happens I was born in London of Anglican parents. So Anglican I became. Secondly, I’m an Anglican because of conviction. The Anglican Church is part of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It stands in the tradition of Christians from the first disciples until today. It bears witness to the apostolic gospel faithfully and truly, and that’s where I want to be. And thirdly, I’m an Anglican because I find the Anglican way of thinking about the Christian faith has integrity and stands up to the test of time. In the Church of England we appeal to Scripture, reason, tradition and the Holy Spirit as the four sources of authority for informing our faith. Scripture, reason, tradition and the Holy Spirit. If they accord with one another, it’s a good sign that the truth isn’t far away, that we’re holding to the apostolic faith of the Church. All of that rings true for me. That’s why I’m an Anglican.
But it’s not always easy being an Anglican. You may have read or heard something about the arguments which continue to divide the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is the world-wide grouping of churches which all look to the Church of England as their founding church. About 70 million people are Anglicans world-wide, all grouped into national churches or provinces in their own countries. But there continue to be serious disagreements among some of the Anglican churches over the issues of women priests and homosexuality. Some of the African and Far Eastern Anglican churches have distanced themselves from the Anglican Church in the USA over the sexuality issue, and have called for the Americans to be expelled from the Anglican Communion. Each side claims to be acting in accordance with the claims of the gospel. The debate between Scripture, reason, tradition and discerning the work of the Holy Spirit is by no means finished. Meanwhile, the apostolic call to live in fellowship with one another, to value our commitment to one another in Christ and to live in continuity with the faith we have received – all these are called into question. We live in hard times as a Communion of Christians.
If only we Anglicans could begin to recover afresh what it means to be truly apostolic: to learn, like St Paul, to receive that which was handed on to us; and then to think and pray about it creatively and faithfully, for our own times. If only we could catch the excitement of Mary Magdalene on that Easter morning, and set our sights on spreading the good news. If only we could live apostolic lives rather than snipe at those who choose to differ from us in their understanding of the faith. If only…..
But I do have one final warning to you all. Keep a very careful watch out for teenagers on holiday with awkward questions at the ready.