Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Marks of the Church: I'll be Apostolic for Christmas

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas everybody! As the carols play, the shopping intensifies, and the stockings are hung by the AC Unit with care, it's easy to forget what it is we're doing all this for. Santa gets more “air time” than Jesus these days. And it calls us back to the need for a good witness this holiday season, in reminding people of this Baby born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

Of one of the many familiar sounds during this season is the carol, “Deck the Halls”

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule tide carol, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

They require some translating for modern ears, though they are as popular as ever. Some words (gay, troll) have changed meaning since the song was written, others have almost disappeared entirely (when did you last wish someone happy Yuletide?). And so although many folks know the song, they sing it without delving into it's meaning.

Many aspects of Christmas end up becoming like this song...familiar, but without their original meaning. Even Santa Clause was once Saint Nicholas, and a model of Christian giving. But now, he more represents the fulfillment of our wishes for possessions. We managed to get our message into the culture, but in the process of things, it got garbled a little bit.

As we've been talking about the historic marks of the church over the past few months, Apostolic is the last on our list, following One, Holy, and Universal. It has a few different meanings historically. The Apostles were original disciples of Jesus who were the first to spread the message of salvation (and the term later became more broadly applied, as Paul and others took on similar roles in the church). The origin of the word is literally “Sent Ones,” those who have been sent to spread Christ's word. Alternately, those of you with some Catholic in your background may recognize the term Apostolic Succession, which implies that the leadership of the church (in one form or another) is tied back to those original disciples, with the implication that the faith is consistent down the ages. One is directly tied to reaching out, the other tied to heritage and preservation. And ironically enough, these two meanings embody one of the most ancient conflicts in the church...the nature of mission.

The question is do we communicate a timeless yet ancient message to ever changing cultures? How much do we change in order to make it intelligible, and how much should be kept iron clad? Over the centuries, we have often battled back and forth with these two. At times, we have used the ways of the culture (Christmas is a great example of this, as are Catholic saints and Christian television) to try and communicate the message. Sometimes, we go to far, and water-down the Gospel in an attempt to win listeners. On the other hand, while we make great effort to protect the simple truths of the faith, sometimes we get so caught up in the ancient that we forget people don't know words like “Hark” anymore. We make an make a particular worship style or Bible translation the gold standard of our faith, regardless of whether modern ears can understand it. At worst, we get focused on preserving the institution, in a desire to pass down the ancient faith, but in the process turn inward and forget to share it with others.

Either extreme is dangerous. At one end, you loose the message, at the other, the potential recipients. But if God's Word really is inspired by Him, then no matter how ancient it is, it bears relevance to modern life, even if the language needs updated now and again. It is important for us to remember, especially at this time of year, to keep these two meanings of Apostolic in a precious balance...we must not neglect God's truth, but we must also make it intelligible to our community.

And one of the best ways to do that, my friends, is to live it in love. Because love transcends language barriers, and is hungered for in every culture. If you love others, you'll want to share the Message you know they need, but in a way that they can hear. If your truest purpose is to share God's love with others...not preservation or being accepted...then you will find the balance. And if there's anything that people need this Christmas...with a crazy economy and the stress of the holidays, it's someone to love them unconditionally.

Where we are not reaching out, and are only about ourselves, we fail to be the church. But where we are also not protecting the integrity of the message, teaching it, nurturing folks with it, learning how to dig into it and live it out, we also fail. We are not called to reach the lost with pop-psych, nor to protect the word just for us. We are called to reach out in love, offering the healing message of Jesus Christ. And that's a gift that never goes out of season.


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