Our Apostolic Tradition – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website.


While I was in seminary, I stumbled upon a sweet summertime gig.  Every summer, the seminary would hire a couple of students to support the maintenance department during their busy season.  I applied and got the job.  On my first day of work, I went into the office of Dave Mutscheller, the Facilities Director, and got my assignment.  Because I had experience working for a construction company, they put me with Mr. Wayne who would be running several excavation projects that summer.  Mind you, my experience at the construction company was 99% behind a desk and 1% that time I drove the lead escort vehicle for an oversized load.  I had exactly zero hours of experience in the field, and I left Dave’s office pretty sure that I was in way over my head.  I met Mr. Wayne who handed me a grease gun and told me to grease the fittings on the old New Holland farm tractor the seminary used to dig ditches.  Now, I knew for sure I was in serious trouble.  As the summer went on, Wayne discipled me in the stuff they probably thought I knew before I got hired.  I learned how to set a catch basin, how to cement pipe, how to shoot grade, and even how to operate that old New Holland tractor.

One Friday, about mid-way through the summer, we were digging a new French drain behind a professor’s house, when at lunch, Wayne told me he was leaving early and that I should be able to finish digging and laying the drain by the end of the day.  Terror swept over me as I recalled the story from two summers earlier when Wayne dug up an unmarked, underground six-inch electric line in the middle of a field.  Breathing deeply, I hopped on that old blue tractor, and thought to myself, I have no business digging this drain, but if Mr. Wayne trusts me, I can do it.  It wasn’t the straightest ditch you’ve ever seen and we had to backfill with more stone than Dave would have liked, but it got done, and nobody got hurt and nothing got broken in the process.  Mr. Wayne had discipled me as far as he could, it was time to try it on my own.

In two of our lessons for this morning, we find the disciples in exactly the same spot.  Our Gospel lesson comes from the tail end of the long farewell discourse that Kellie mentioned last week.  After several years of day-by-day discipleship, Jesus and his disciples are together for one final meal before his death.  After washing their feet to show them what being his disciple should look like, Jesus spends three chapters giving them final instructions.  He gives them a new commandment, that they love one another.  He assures them that through him, they know the way to the Father.  He promises them the Holy Spirit who will come to guide them into all truth.  And finally, he prays for them.  His prayer isn’t so that God will know what to do with the disciples when he is gone, but rather so his disciples will know that even when he is gone, he has not left them abandoned.  Through the Spirit, the disciples will carry on the work of Jesus in his absence.  After years of discipleship, it was time for them to try it on their own.

Terror swept over them, and when the time came for Jesus to be arrested and crucified, they failed spectacularly.  Peter denied ever knowing Jesus while nine of the other ten disciples fled in fear.  By Easter evening, it was clear the disciples needed a bit more in the way of discipleship.  On Easter 2, we heard the story of Jesus entering the upper room late on that first Easter day.  Despite having heard the news of his resurrection from Mary Magdalene, the disciples were huddled behind locked doors in fear.  Jesus entered and offered his disciples peace.  He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, knowing they needed it then more than ever.  For forty days, he continued to disciple them, this time not merely as their Rabbi, but as their risen Savior.  On the fortieth day, as our Acts lesson describes, Jesus once again gathered them together.  Aware that it was time for him to leave them again, he prepared one final discipleship lesson, when the group spoke up and asked a question.

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  After years of following him around the countryside.  After the fear and sadness of his crucifixion.  After the panic, joy, and disbelief of his resurrection.  After forty days of intense discipleship, it seems they still didn’t quite get it.  “It is not for you to know how it all will happen,” Jesus tells them, “but when the Spirit comes in power and might, you will have what you need to go out and tell the Good News from here to the end of the earth.”  And with that, despite much evidence to the contrary, Jesus had discipled them all he could on earth.  It was time for them to try it on their own.  As the book of Acts unfolds, we hear stories of the power of the Spirit that allowed these ordinary men and women to do miracles, to preach the Good News, to nurture new disciples, to stand up to oppression and persecution, and to grow the church from the 120 Jesus left behind to thousands of disciples around the known world within a couple of decades.  Like my French drain, it didn’t always happen in a straight line, and maybe it required more heaping a helping of the Holy Spirit than God might have wanted, but they were faithful to their teacher and they did the work entrusted to their care.

Some two-thousand years later, we are the recipients of that ongoing pattern of discipleship.  We take our place in the Apostolic Tradition by way of having the faith once shown to the Apostles by Jesus patterned to us by our parents, clergy, Sunday school teachers, and elders.  Throughout history, one generation of disciples has raised up another, teaching them what it means to love God and love our neighbor, showing them what compassionate service looks like, recounting the stories of God’s saving grace in the person of Jesus Christ, and baptizing new believers in water and the Spirit in the name of the Triune God.

Lest we think that discipleship training is only the purview of the clergy, our baptismal liturgy makes it clear that we all have a part to play in this ongoing Apostolic Tradition of discipleship.  This morning, we will welcome into the household of God two new members.  It would be easy enough to leave the discipleship work for these two young children to their parents, grandparents, and godparents.  Or, we could just rely on their being raised in the church and hand responsibility over to their priests, deacons, Sunday school teachers, Christian Education Directors, and youth leaders.  But I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he told his ragtag group of disciples that it would be up to the Spirit and them to spread the Good News of his saving grace.  It certainly isn’t what our Prayer Book teaches when it asks of the congregation gathered, on behalf of the Church universal, to “do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ.”[1]

It is the job of all Christians to disciple the next generation in the model of Jesus.  We teach through our words: not only in what we say, but in the way we talk to our families, our friends, and total strangers.  We teach through our actions: through the way we care for those in need, where we donate our money, how we vote, even what car we drive.  We teach through our love: caring for all those whom God has put in our lives.  We teach by living the example of Jesus Christ: telling and showing the Good News that God loves everybody, no exceptions.  And one day, we will come to the point where we will have discipled them enough and they will have to try it on their own, through the power of the Spirit, taking their place in the Apostolic Tradition.  Like the disciples’ story, theirs’ won’t always be perfect, but thankfully God is good at forgiveness.  Empowered by the Spirit, today and every day, we each take our place in the long line of Christians discipling new disciples to the honor and glory of God.  Amen.

[1] 1979 BCP, 303.

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