This line, from the third article of the Nicene Creed, rolls off the tongue – and sometimes too quickly. What we forget is that part of our confession of faith includes this understanding that the Church is not just something that we can tinker with to suit our fancy for our modern world today. The Church – and even Christendom itself – is apostolic with one Confession of faith, not many – and that this one Church is holy because of the Triune God who comes to dwell and work within and through us. This is why we emphasize the role of Scripture as a window through which the Holy Spirit comes to us – yes, but also as the glimpse into what the faith and spirituality of this ‘apostolic’ Church looked like.
We see this in last Sunday’s first Scripture reading from Acts 2:42-47. Yes, there’s the references to the believers ‘holding all things in common’ – and no, this is not a proof-text for arguing for any particular socio-economic system within the political world. That’s simply a reference that the early Christians used all they had in order to care for and support one another. It’s a good practice for us to continue even today when greed and selfishness are far too often the default for many of us. But the earlier verses likewise provide a beautiful nugget which outline the way in which the earliest Christians lived out their faith.
St. Luke records how these early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers “ (2:42). There’s a lot hidden in plain sight within these words.
First, they devoted themselves to these things – like spiritual disciplines – so as not to miss out on the blessings which come to us through Jesus Christ. It wasn’t just a casual endeavor for them. It was rooted in a focused, loving, practice so as to grow in the process.
Second, they devoted themselves, it says to the apostle’s teaching. Here’s a mouthful. While it is true that the New Testament hadn’t been fully gathered by this point, St. Luke here tells us that in addition to the reading of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures), it was already common practice for these earliest Christians to make use of the written instructions left behind by the apostolic writers – the letters (epistles) and then later the Gospels as well. These became the foundation for teaching and preaching so as not to confuse subjective ideas with the teachings from Jesus that were handed down by the eye-witnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why we continue to place such strong emphasis on reading the Scriptures within our Church services – so that it isn’t just the latest spin that a charismatic preacher might want to overlay onto hand-picked verses of Scripture.
Third, they devoted themselves to fellowship – koinonia – used in the Greek to refer both to the social dimension of Church life – but anchored, as St. Luke points out, in the celebration of the sacraments. This simple reference illustrates an important point that we too easily miss. Many today think that faith is just something that we hold tacitly in our brains (like pieces of information) without leading us into Church. That’s far from the picture of faith that the apostolic writers present to us – and we see it here in our text. Gathering together around the Word and Sacraments was not just something that was a ‘take it or leave it’ within this Biblical spirituality – it stood at the heart of it so-much-so that a person who absented themselves from these things – and from the fellowship of the Church – was considered an apostate – literally, a Greek term which means ‘one who stands/stays away/separate’. Church attendance and building that relationship with our fellow Christians, as St. Luke points out, is an integral part of what it means to be living the Christian faith.
Fourth, St. Luke mentions the breaking of the bread. This is Luke’s way of describing the Lord’s Supper – as a central element within the apostolic Church. We could get into a deeper discussion of the Lord’s Supper here – but that would be a topic for another post. But, as historic Christians teach and confess, it’s more than just a memorial meal – Jesus truly presents His Body and Blood to us here to both bless us, forgive our sins, and sustain us in our faith. The earliest Christians understood this to be self-evident based upon the witness of the apostles. We do too (as a Church) – even though we don’t often take the time to really ponder the fullness of the Gift.
And lastly, and this is perhaps one of the most interesting elements here, St. Luke mentions the prayers. The Greek text is very specific. It says “the” prayers – and not just prayers. What am I getting at? It points to the fact that the early Church was inherently liturgical as it gathered in prayer and fellowship around the Word and the Sacraments – something which it inherited from its Jewish roots. Certainly we can pray without written prayers – but that was not the discipline and practice which stood at the heart of the early Christian Church. Their prayer life was anchored in the discipline of liturgical prayers that both framed the way in which they gathered and related to one another – but also which became the catechism for their own individual prayers as well. There’s a whole study here too as we examine both the biblical texts as well as witnesses to the liturgical structure of the Church’s prayers from early sources following the time of the New Testament. Part of our spiritual disciplines, as a result, is learning the language of this liturgical prayer – making it our own – so that it gives shape and definition to the living of our faith – centered on Christ, and then lived in community (fellowship).
There’s a lot to meditate on here – as we look at our lives in the 21st Century. Remember that the next time you pray and confess the Nicene Creed. Pray that the Holy Spirit would help us grow into that apostolic faith as we seek to live it out in our modern world today.