Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…”
Today is the 7th and last Sunday of Easter. We’ve spent the last seven weeks contemplating the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and what that means for the world and the Kingdom of God. This morning I want to look at the grounding of our faith, which is in the witness of these Apostles.
We tend to come to our faith through a combination of someone’s testimony, then it develops by prayer, reading scripture, study and worship – all of it built upon very old and deep traditions. We cannot help but look at the roots our faith in hindsight, but there is more to it than that and it is important to recognize it. Here is why.
In the second semester of my 10th grade biology class, each of us dissected a fetal pig over the course of about 6 or 8 weeks. That sounds kind of gross, and I suppose to a degree it was, but the whole point was to teach us anatomy, because pigs have many of the same physical structures we do.
Much of our understanding has grown like that through the scientific method, especially in the last 150 years or so. Generally speaking, we dissect or pick apart just about everything in our world – plants and animals, rocks and, well, everything – and there is great value in that, great learning to be done.
And that is not limited to the physical environment. We’ve done it with institutions, systems, language, music art, literature – everything. Pick it apart, see how it works and how it fits together and in the world as a whole.
But there is also a problem with that method, too. I learned quite a lot about anatomy but nothing about the pig as a living animal, which only in its living essence imparts the meaning of the word pig. It was an ex-pig. We have words for that: pork, ham, bacon. A live pig, a live animal, a live anything, is dynamic in its life and in its interaction with the world around it. That dead thing on my dissecting tray was no longer a pig in any useful sense. And the whole point of the dissection was to help us understand the living pig, and ourselves, better.
Apply that logic to the Bible. Scholars have and continue to dissect the Bible, analyzing its original texts and languages, placing them in the context of their ancient cultures. And there is great benefit in that, too. And there is a danger of losing its wonder as the living Word, dynamic in its life and its impact on the world.
Scholars, not all of them but most, applied the scientific method to scripture persistently for decades, to the point that most were losing that sense of it as a living thing.
But the Bible’s meaning, especially all those details gleaned through the dissection, exists as the living document that it is.
Among a very strong group of theologians who challenged the dispassionate road other academics pursued was an Englishman named C.H. Dodd.
Whereas most scholars looked back across the centuries with an arrogance of hindsight, dissecting and as they would put it de-mythologizing scripture as though meaning were only discernible in the dissection and dissect the community that formed around the scripture. That seems natural to a degree, as we all have come to our faith in some way by engaging the Bible text, accepting and applying as we are able.
Dodd recognized that was backwards as it applied to the Apostles. Apostle literally means “sent ones,” those who had encountered the risen Christ and testified to him. When the Apostles went out into the world to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, they did not have any Gospels or letters from Paul or any of the other books of the New Testament. All they had was their personal witness, which they shared relentlessly despite constant persecution from the Roman Empire and Jewish authorities as well as other skeptics. Their preaching formed communities that came to be known as churches.
What did they preach about Jesus? Dodd gleaned 7 key elements of what he calls “The Apostolic Preaching” from Paul’s letters, as well as speeches recorded in Acts by Peter, Stephen and Paul. Note that these written elements go back very close to the earliest days of the church, the first 20 years or so. These 7 elements are present in whole or in part in all of the New Testament books, and they are:
1. The prophesies are fulfilled and the new Age is inaugurated by the coming of Jesus Christ.
2. He was born of the seed of David.
3. He died according to the Scriptures, to deliver us out of the present evil age.
4. He was buried.
5. He rose on the third day according to the Scriptures.
6. He is exalted at the right hand of God, as Son of God and Lord of the quick and the dead.
7. He will come again as Judge and Savior of humanity.
Thus, the Apostles fulfilled Jesus’ prayer, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
Christian communities originally formed around their oral witness, not around any writings. The writings came later. And the New Testament books were considered authoritative IF they were known to have a connection to an Apostle AND conformed with the witness that had formed the church in the first place. Other writings were floating around too. But if they didn’t conform to the preaching of the Apostles, they were rejected. If I said to you the USA got into World War II when Germany bombed Pearl Harbor, you would very quickly correct me. Although the US did immediately declare war on Germany after Pearl Harbor, you know that it was the Japanese who bombed it.
Jesus prayed, “…those who will believe in me through their word.” Our faith today is the faith and witness of the Apostles. That’s why we proclaim in the Nicene Creed that, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” John was there. We are a community formed around his and others’ living witness to Jesus, and charged with sharing Him in word and action. Otherwise, they are left to see the dissected version and not come to know the living Word. That is our gift and that is our call.
 Dodd, C.H. (1936, 1949) The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments, New York and London, Harper & Brothers, p. 17