In the name God who was, and who is, and who is to come. Amen.
I remember when I was first learning to preach, one of the bits of wisdom that I captured from my mentor was that for every sermon that is preached, at least ten more get left on the cutting room floor. She advised me to hold on to those notes and ideas, because you’ll never know when they might come in handy.
Today I have one from just a couple weeks ago. It was related to the New Testament reading that day, but I ended up focusing elsewhere. So today, you get a little bonus reading from Acts 8:14-17.
It says, “When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
When I read that a couple of weeks ago, my mind turned to reflections on the idea of Apostolic Succession. That’s the idea – the belief – that our church shares a direct line through the laying on of hands by bishops all the way back, even to Jesus Christ. Christ blessed and ordained the Apostles for evangelism, and they, in turn, blessed and ordained the ministries of others, through the generations. Now, this theological concept isn’t often the subject of sermons. What in the world could Apostolic Succession have to do with any of us in our daily lives? What impact does it have beyond, maybe just thinking it’s neat to think about?
The thing is, Apostolic Succession is usually talked about, almost as a kind of administrative thing – like a validation certificate. But in reality, it’s something more. It’s a statement of faith about connection. But even more so, it’s really a statement of faith about relationship. In my own life, hands of faithful people have touched me – physically touched me – to baptize me, and years later, to ordain me. The same was true for my parents and mentors – hands of faithful people shared a physical connection of the faith with them. And it was true of their parents and mentors, and theirs before, and so on and so on – through the ages, all the way back to Jesus.
We’re all connected. Not just by hearing words, or by learning about the faith, or even through individual discernment. We are physically connected, in our bodies, even to Christ.
And it’s not just about celebrating a past that’s brought us here. These hands have baptized others. These hands have shared in the ordinations of others. And who knows where the faith will go from there? The future of this connection – this relationship – is limitless.
In the reading from Acts, the faithful people of Samaria had learned about the faith. They had embraced the faith. They had been baptized into the faith. But it was not until they shared in the relationship of the faith through the laying on of hands that they became filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit demands relationship. The Holy Spirit lives in our relationships.
The Gospel lesson today begins with a proclamation that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit – a spirit that descended on him in baptism, through the ritual of touch and purification that he experienced with John. It was a power that empowered him to teach in the synagogues all around the region. And when he came to Nazareth, his teaching called back to the Holy Scriptures of the Book of Isaiah. It was a reading about the Spirit. It said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
And then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, this happens right at the beginning of his ministry. This story of Jesus using the power of the Spirit to teach about the history of the Spirit and to proclaim a future of hope with the Spirit.
In doing so, he is inextricably tying his own story to the Holy Spirit. But that’s not all. He is grounding the story in the transience of the generations – all the ones before and all the ones to come. He is saying that this story that is unfolding before their very eyes is the same story that you’ve heard about from long ago. The Spirit is still moving. The Spirit is still bringing good news to the poor. The Spirit is still inspiring us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight the blind. The Spirit still has more to share.
As followers of Jesus, we know that the story is still going on. Jesus showed us that it wasn’t just for the past. It is for now and for forever. Who knows where the faith will go from here?
The whole idea of Apostolic Succession may seem academic – or even sort of precious. To some it may seem self-indulgent. But, as a statement of faith, it reminds us that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are the outcome of the faith that came before us and the seed of faith that is waiting to bloom.
Today the scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. And tomorrow, it will be, too. This faith is always one generation away from being forgotten, and yet it lives. That is the power of the Spirit. It lives in us. It lives in our communities. It lives in our relationships and it lives in our sharing. In all that was, and in all that is, and in all that is to come. Amen.