Sermon for High Mass – Ss Simon & Jude Sunday 28 October 2018
ST. SIMON & ST. JUDE, Apostles 28th October, 2018 High Mass
Readings: Isaiah 28.14-16; Ephesians 2.19-end; John 15.17-end
“You are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
What can we say about Simon and Jude, the two apostles we celebrate today? Not much in fact. The New Testament tells us little. Simon is called “the Zealot;” perhaps because he had belonged to a group of Jewish freedom-fighters (or terrorists, if you were on the other side), or simply because he was zealous for the Law of Moses. Jude has a short epistle attributed to him. He had the misfortune to share a name with the traitor Judas Iscariot – and this is said to be the origin of his role as the patron saint of hopeless cases – the intercessor of last resort. We celebrate them together on this day because it is the anniversary of the consecration of a church in Rome built to house their relics.
Last Saturday I was in St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth, – the one in Scotland not Western Australia.
St. Ninian’s was designed by William Butterfield, who built this church. It has additions by Ninian Comper, responsible for our Lady Altar and the present decor of the chancel and sanctuary. The cathedral has just been restored and looks splendid.
But I do not want to speak today about church buildings but of church-building. The Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the Church being built, “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the corner stone.” In him, “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
I was in Scotland for the consecration, the episcopal ordination, of Canon Ian Paton, whom some of you will remember preached at my 40th anniversary mass. He had been elected to serve as Bishop of St. Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane.
In the Church of England, bishops are usually consecrated here in London, at St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey or Southwark Cathedral, occasionally in Canterbury, or in York Minster for the Northern Province. They are then “enthroned” or “installed” in their cathedrals in a separate ceremony later.
In Scotland things are done differently. Both these acts take place in the same service in the cathedral of the diocese. A new bishop is ordained, by prayer and the laying on of hands in which the power of the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the one to be ordained. The new bishop is then seated in their “cathedra,” which was originally the chair from which a bishop taught. From there they lead the congregation in the profession of faith, the Nicene Creed, a summary of “the faith once delivered to the saints”, before going to the altar to preside at the celebration of the Eucharist.
In that creed, the Church professes its belief that it is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” The four “marks” of the Church as they are known are inter-related, but today’s feast provides an opportunity to think about what it means for the Church to be “apostolic.”
In his great book, “The Gospel and the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Michael Ramsey tells us the use of “apostle” in the New Testament is varied but we can see that there was a ministry with definite authority, not attached to a local church but exercising oversight of them on behalf of the wider church.
This ministry included the Twelve, especially important for St. Luke, but was also extended to include missionary figures like Paul and Barnabas, as well as James the Brother of the Lord, who came to lead the church in Jerusalem.
The functions of this group were
1. To link Christians with the historical events of Jesus from whom this apostolate has received a solemn and special commission. They were those who had gone about with Jesus during his ministry from the beginning and were witnesses to the resurrection.
2. To represent the one Church, the one Society to local churches – for only in the context of the “One” could the local grow into the fullness of Christ.
Ramsey asks: “What is the spiritual meaning of the apostolic order?” Is it more than an administrative convenience, a way of managing the organization? He looks to our passage from Ephesians for an answer. The Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” The Church is not just a convenient gathering of people who find inspiration in the teaching of Jesus. It lives in an organic and spiritual relationship, one initiated by him, a communion with him by the working of the Holy Spirit.
What about the “prophets?” Ephesians speaks of? Through them God speaks his word in this or that situation or crisis. Their work is free, inspired, spontaneous. God calls and sends prophets to recall the Church to its faith, as he had done with ancient Israel. But prophets are members of the apostolic church. Their work and witness will lack its full meaning unless attention is also given to the Body’s continuous life and universal character. Prophecy finds its full meaning and power only in the context of that other foundation – “the apostles,” and in relation to Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Prophets speak, but apostles by their organic place in the Body of the Church, which is an organism rather than just an organization; by their ministry of word and sacrament, their care of all the churches, their provision of other ministers, declare the facts of Jesus crucified and risen. The apostles represent unity and continuity being sent by the Lord himself, as he, the primary apostle had been sent by the Father. (John 20.21).
The members of the apostolic company were not immortal. So what happened when they died? Well the evidence is patchy and much argued over, but what we can say is that there soon emerged the ministry of bishops who were seen as successors of the apostles.
This development took place in the context of threats to the Church’s rootedness in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, from groups and individuals with their own ideas, their own “revelations,” their own special “knowledge” of God. In response to these private revelations the Church, led by figures like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, pointed to two sources of authenticity: the developing canon of Scripture as containing, to use an Anglican phrase, “all things necessary for salvation,” and the ministry of bishops as the authorised continuation of that of the apostles.
Why both? Well Christianity is the religion of the Word made flesh, something which many of these heretical bodies denied, of the revelation of God and his purposes for his creation in the life and death and resurrection of a person, not just in words. The continuation of that Person’s work of revelation is itself personal. Our word “apostle” has its root in the Hebrew “shaliah” which means a representative who embodies something of the one who commissions and sends him: “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.”
But prophetic voices, and not just at the Reformation, have long pointed out that there have been individual bishops who have been corrupt or heretical or just mediocre, and that the way the ministry of bishops has been exercised at times has become compromised by assimilation to the ways of the world.
Yesterday I was in County Durham, where I grew up. The county now proudly proclaims itself as “The Land of the Prince Bishops.” In the Middle Ages, Bishops of Durham were both spiritual and secular rulers. They were charged with the government and the defence of the border; with keeping the Scots out. That is why they had both a cathedral and a castle in Durham.
The right ecclesiastical pedigree does not seem sufficient in itself to guard and defend the apostolic faith or to forward the mission of the Church.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a theological supporter of Pope Francis’s attempts to change the clerical culture of the Roman Catholic Church, in his writing on the Church, cites his old theological sparring partner Joseph Ratzinger, better-known as Pope Benedict XVI, on this subject.
Ratzinger speaks of an inner connection between the apostolic tradition and apostolic succession. The succession is the concrete, the outward and visible form of the tradition. The tradition is the authoritative content of the succession. There is a reciprocal relationship in which, guided by the Spirit, the two, succession in apostolic ministry and succession in apostolic faith, interpret each other.
The apostolic succession is not an autonomous, automatic, even magical guarantee. It has to be understood within the whole of the Church’s Spirit-filled and sacramental structure and its apostolic faith. It cannot, says Ratzinger, be reduced to an historically unprovable chain of uninterrupted laying-on of hands and so turned into an almost automatic and independent guarantee, of identity with and continuity in the apostolic faith. This, we must admit, has been a temptation to some in our tradition; although not to people like Archbishop Ramsey, who having been brought up in the Free Church tradition had come to see both the roots of episcopal ministry in the Gospel itself, and the validity of the reformed critique of how that ministry had been exercised in churches which had preserved its outward form but sometimes been less awake to its inner content. That inner content could be found in Christian communities which had not preserved the succession of bishops.
The apostolic succession of a bishop does not go back to an individual apostle but to the college of apostles and its apostolic heritage in faith. This is why it can only be exercised properly in the communion with all other bishops.
Neither apostles nor bishops as their successors operate independently of the Church which is apostolic. The apostolic ministry exists to serve the apostolicity of the whole Church. Its guardianship and teaching of the faith serves the Church’s mission to the world. A ministry or a Church which forgets that it is sent, falls short of its apostolic calling. In our concern for authentic and guaranteed ministry, we have sometimes fallen into this trap.
Perhaps we have to learn that the apostolic nature of the Church, like its unity, holiness and catholicity, is a work in progress and trust the Holy Spirit to lead us into its fullness.
Part of that fullness must mean a learning of what it is to be an apostolic community, one called and sent by Christ and empowered by his Spirit for its mission; learning that the apostolate is something we are called to collectively. Prophetic voices in the centuries leading up to the Reformation called for a return to a lifestyle which would itself be apostolic. Sometimes these voices went unheeded and people drifted off into heresy or schism. But when popes and bishops were wise enough to recognize the work of the Spirit in these movements, their rootedness in the Gospel and their loyalty to a better vision of the Church, then renewals in the church’s mission and service like that of St. Francis took place.
Both church and world know much of the failings of those entrusted with the apostolic ministry. The reputation of the institution has been defended at the expense of its victims. In his first sermon in his cathedral on the Sunday morning after his consecration, Bishop Ian spoke of how the Church can no longer rely on a culture and tradition of deference. Its moral reputation has to be rebuilt from top down and bottom up. So we must pray for a renewal of the holiness of the church’s ministry and life. And if we ask where that is to begin and how it is to come about, well part of the answer is with the bishops but another and equally vital part is with us.