Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?
Over the course of this Epiphany season—a season when we celebrate Christ’s mission and ministry in the world, those numerous miraculous, mountaintop experiences—, we at St. Patrick’s have had our own occasions to celebrate, our own mountaintop moments. We had a confirmation, reception, and installation two weekends ago; an awesome annual meeting last weekend; and now welcoming our new deacon, Peter, this weekend. This Epiphany season we are celebrating how each one of us, each member of this congregation is a vital and necessary member of the Body of Christ—lay and ordained; man and woman; young and old. We are celebrating how each one of us, each fearfully and wonderfully made individual, lives into our Baptismal Covenant in beautifully unique ways. We are celebrating what it means to come together as a beloved community of faith.
In my opinion, this is why our question for today: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers,” comes first in our Prayer Book in the line of questions about discipleship. Because without Christian community, without those with whom we gather together in prayer and support, it becomes almost impossible to love our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, to repent and return to the Lord, and to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ.
Yet today’s question for contemplation might be the most difficult aspect of the Baptismal Covenant for us to actually live into today. Not only does our secular society scoff at our Sunday morning commitment, but let’s be honest with each other: being in Christian community is really, really, really difficult. It is not all mountaintop experiences (like today’s Gospel reading), but is full of long and winding valleys. Like when we lose a beloved parishioner; or when vestry members argue vehemently; or when all of our youth grow up and graduate; or when we go five years without a rector; or when our leadership leads us astray; or when our church theology hasn’t caught up with someone’s true identity. Christian community is full of highs and lows, mountains and valleys, celebrations and reconciling our growing edges. It is full of moments when we would rather give up on each other, this thing we call Church, the Body of Christ, instead of seeing it through those difficult times.
But the reality is we smooth out our rough edges by bumping up against one another. In these moments of seeming weakness, we actually find our strength in community. When we as church, when we as a congregation, when we as the Body of Christ experience such difficult moments, we have a choice to make. As those holy people in our Old Testament and Gospel readings for today had a choice to make as well.
For example, in 2 Kings we encounter a period of tumultuous transition. Elijah, a miraculous prophet (whose ministry was most definitely full of mountaintop moments), is about to leave this earth and depart from the people of Israel. And his closest disciple, his follower Elisha could flee. He could say he’s had enough; could say he doesn’t want to see it through to the end; could say that the transition isn’t worth the heartache. Yet three times Elisha declares that he will not leave his beloved mentor and friend. Three times Elisha recommits himself to continue in community. Three times Elisha perseveres in his call to prophetic ministry. And for his perseverance Elisha will receive that double portion of the Spirit for which he ardently asks.
Or consider our Gospel reading for this morning, which we today understand this Scripture passage in the context of a miraculous encounter with the Divine, a literal and figurative mountaintop moment. Yet the disciples—Peter, James, and John—present that holy day, may not have seen this as a highlight of their time with Jesus. Instead we find a few frightened friends. For Mark 9:6 states: “[Peter] did not know what to say, for they were terrified!” These disciples were freaking out! And for good reason! They could not quite comprehend what was happening before their very eyes. Yet despite their doubt as to what was happening, despite their confusion, despite their terror, the disciples marked that mountain as holy (as we’ve marked our own Sierra Nevada mountains as holy), and they continued to follow Christ and take part in his ministry of building the kingdom community here on earth.
No matter the highs or the lows, the mountains or the valleys, the celebrations or the growing edges, those in every generation who have looked to God in hope—the prophets, the martyrs, the apostles, Elisha, Peter, James, and John—persevered in their commitment to the community of faith.
And this congregation, this Body of Christ, this community of faith, is different than any other community you will encounter. Because we are called in our baptismal covenant to not only support one another, but to admit to one another our individual and communal highs and lows, mountains and valleys, celebrations and reconciling growing edges. When Christian community is honest with one another, we are healthy; we are holy; we are strong. When Christian community remembers in our weekly breaking of the bread that the Body of Christ was broken, for us very broken individuals, we can then empathize and meet that same brokenness in one another. When Christian community both honors all of those holy women and holy men who have come before—Moses and Elijah, and Peter, James and John—and when we humbly pray to receive a double portion of the Spirit, then we will be transfigured for the work ahead. Then we will find the courage to continue always. Then we will shepherd one another no matter the trials nor tribulations, into a dazzling and glorious future together.
When we as Christian community can do all of this together (as our reading from 2nd Corinthians reminds us), then we are truly witnesses to the Good News. Then we are the Body of Christ offered for all. Then we unveil the Gospel for everyone around us. And then there is no way that we as church, we as a congregation, we as a community will perish. Instead we will more than survive, we will thrive. We will be filled with the Holy Spirit. We will experience the resurrection in every aspect of our lives.
So today, as we have all Epiphany, we celebrate because we are people of the Baptismal waters—people refreshed, rejuvenated, and transfigured for the journey ahead. Today we celebrate because we get to partake of the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. Today we celebrate because of every member of this beyond beloved community we call the Body of Christ, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church. Today we celebrate because not only do we renew our commitment to Christ, but we renew our commitment to one another, this broken yet beautiful community of faith.