A Sermon Preached on The Seventh Sunday of Easter
(following the Julian Calendar used to calculate Easter in Greece)
June 13, 2021, at 11:00 am
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete.
It is a truth generally acknowledged that many of the great products of the world become obsolescent.
How many of you ever had a typewriter? When was the last time you used it? We have the one on which Frances’s father’s PhD dissertation was typed out – by her mother.
When was the last time you used a phone book? I don’t even know if there is one for Apokoronas. I sometimes dream about them, but I haven’t used one since moving here.
Speaking of phones, how about rotary phones? I remember last having one in the early 1990s. I got really good at using a pen or pencil to dial.
How about cameras with film? The Eastman Kodak Company last made film in 2009. Remember going to photo shops to get film developed? Do you want doubles?
I think music has gone through more formats than just about anything. 78s, 45s, and 33s, then reel to reel for the real aficionados, eight track for folks in cars, then cassettes, CDs, and finally MP3. And those are just the main ones – I haven’t even talked about cylinders or player piano rolls.
Even books change. In the first few centuries after Jesus there was a huge technological change when people stopped using scrolls and started using codices – a codex being a bound book, with writing on both sides. Much more efficient. Then came printing, and suddenly books were less expensive, and more people could own one or two. Literacy went up. Nowadays books come in digital form that you can read on a Kindle, or a Nook, or even your phone. So long as you have internet access, in theory you can read almost any book ever published.
The Twelve and Obsolescence
I say all of this to preface the fact that the Twelve Disciples did not plan for their own obsolescence. In the days after the Ascension they undoubtedly thought to themselves, “Well, Jesus called twelve of us, one of us is now gone, so we need a replacement.” So they found two candidates from among the one hundred and twenty of them, drew lots, and Matthias was the lucky winner.
And then, if you have paid attention to Acts, quick as a flash, we never hear of him again. Indeed, we hardly ever hear of any of the Twelve again apart from Simon Peter and James, the brother of John. Yes, later on pious legends came to be affixed to the Twelve, especially around how they each died – Thomas went to India, Simon and Andrew went to Georgia in the Caucasus – but in the New Testament they just kind of never get mentioned again. After Simon Peter escapes persecution in Jerusalem the church there is led by a brother of Jesus named James, who is not the same James as the one in the Twelve, the brother of John. Acts talks extensively about Simon Peter, and a bit about Philip, and the death of James the brother of John, but from chapter 10 to the end, the story is dominated by someone who is not even one of the Twelve, namely Paul of Tarsus. It’s as if God looked down from heaven and saw what the Twelve were up to, or rather, what they were not up to, and so recruited Paul – and this time it worked.
In other words, while Matthias may have been a wonderful person and a fervent disciple of Jesus, this is the only time the author of the Acts of the Apostles mentions him. His interest lay elsewhere.
The truth is that Christianity was already spreading across the eastern Mediterranean without the Twelve, and before Paul. Before Paul got to Damascus, there were already Christians there. Before he went to Rome there were already Christians there. When he arrived in Corinth, there were already Christian refugees from Rome there. How did the faith get to all these places? We do not know their names, but somebody obviously took the faith there. This bizarre new group grew because of countless unknown Christians sharing their faith wherever they went. The Acts of the Apostles highlights Paul, and Paul is remembered because of his letters, but he was not the first evangelist or the only one.
Arguably, the Twelve were already obsolescent by Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene, we are told, was the one who first saw Jesus and brought the good news to the rest of the followers of Jesus. On the Day of Pentecost he Holy Spirit came down upon all of the church, not just the eleven, as Peter, quoting the Book of Joel, notes:
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit
Are We Trying To Hold Onto Something That God Has Already Moved On From?
Some things stay the same. The centrality of Jesus. The importance of scripture. The two sacraments. Bishops, priests, and deacons.
But beyond these things the Church of England has moved on in so many ways. The Church of England now relies on the over 7000 retired clergy with PTO and some 3000 unpaid clergy to supplement the 7700 of us who are paid; it is hard to imagine how the work of the church would get done without them. A third of the clergy are female, ranging from our own curate to the Bishop of London – and this is but a recent development. The centre of the Anglican Communion, as well that of Christianity in general, has moved to the Global South. We no longer need to evangelise Africa; they are sending evangelists to England.
Things change. What do we need to let go of? Here are some controversial suggestions.
- Nationalism, perhaps? Is Anglicanism really about “national” churches? Our own Diocese in Europe is anything but “national.” It covers forty nations and most congregations are cosmopolitan, made up of multiple citizenships and ethnicities. Increasingly the clergy and laity are not English, or British, but from all over the world.
- Buildings? They are both historical treasures and awfully useful. But they are also a burden, and the early church seemed to get by for three hundred years without any permanent abodes. In France any churches more than 120 years old belong to the state, who then give them to churches to use. Notre Dame in Paris is being rebuilt by the French Republic, not the Roman Catholic church. Can we let go of our historic buildings?
- Establishment? Does it benefit the Church of England in its mission to be the national church of one part of the UK, when it is demonstrably in decline? Is it one big distraction? I grew up in a church that was not established, and the growing parts of the church around the world does not need government endorsement?
- Education? Does our involvement in schools build up the faith, or does it merely inoculate a generation into thinking they already know enough about the church to reject it?
Many people would describe the above as core characteristics of ministry in the Church of England. But are they really part of the mission of God that has been given to us, or obsolescent vehicles for the gospel?
Are we continuing to appoint Matthias to the Twelve, when God has already moved on to pour out the Holy Spirit on everybody? If Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world”, are we not all, in a sense, apostles?