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The Apostolic Church  
Susan K. Wood, SCL  

What does Pentecost have to do with the Church? Pentecost, feast of the Holy Spirit, is also the feast of the Church. The Spirit constitutes the Church because the Spirit is the bond of unity among all those within the Church. The second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles traces a direct trajectory from the gift of the Spirit given to the apostles, in the form of “divided tongues, as of fire” (Acts 2:3), to life in the Spirit as lived in the Christian community. This trajectory passes from the gift of the Spirit through the unity and harmony represented in the great diversity of Jews from every nation, each speaking in his own language yet understood in the native language of the hearer, and through Peter’s admonition to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ in order to receive the gift of the Spirit. This trajectory culminates in the life of the Church characterized by the apostles’ teaching, fellowship (namely, the breaking of bread and the prayers), their life in common and care for those in need.

Unity of Spirit
The first gift of the Spirit is unity. That so many different languages could be understood by all the people, as reported in Acts, is the reversal of the tower of Babel in the Old Testament (Genesis 11:1– 9). In the story of Babel, the whole earth had one language and the same words. The people attempted to build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, a symbol of their attempt to overreach human limitations and attain fame and security. God’s judgment scattered the people and confused their language so that they could no longer understand one another’s speech. Disunity and mutual misunderstanding become the wages and symbol of sin. Pentecost reverses this reality and inaugurates life in the Spirit. Disunity is replaced by unity, unintelligible speech by comprehension.

Peter, the first of the apostles, explains the meaning of Pentecost in Acts. This life in the Spirit inaugurates the messianic age foretold by the prophet Joel. The Spirit testifies to the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (verses 22 – 36), who, having been raised up and exalted at the right hand of God and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit (verses 32 – 33), pours out this same Spirit upon the people. In the Spirit, Jesus is revealed as Lord and Messiah (verse 36).

This same Spirit will be poured out on all whom the Lord calls to him (verse 39). We enter into this life in the Spirit through repentance and Baptism in the same of Jesus Christ. At the same time we gain entrance into the life of the Christian community, the Church. The early Christian community is characterized by the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers, life in common, and care for those in need.

Today, we also associate the Church with the work of the Spirit each time we recite the Nicene Creed on Sunday. The third section of the creed (“I believe in the Holy Spirit”) is linked with the statement on the Church: “And in one Holy Catholic and apostolic Church.” The fruit of the Spirit is unity, that which makes the Church “one” in one of the four “marks” of the Church in the Nicene Creed (the “marks” being one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic). Today, we might translate the characteristics of the early Christian community in Acts 2:41– 47 as those qualities essential to the life of the Church: apostolic faith, community (koinonia), Eucharistic worship (leitourgia), and service of the poor (diakonia).

Apostolic faith ensures that the faith professed today is essentially the same faith in the Paschal Mystery proclaimed by the apostles. If our faith today is not this same faith, we are a different Church and have broken communion with our origins. The unity of our community life in one body and one Spirit — even in the midst of real diversity — witnesses to the “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4 – 6). Our life in community mirrors our faith. This unity is both manifested and constituted in our participation in the Eucharist where by partaking of one bread we become one body (1 Corinthians 10:16 –17). Finally, as a community in Christ and the Spirit, we care for all those in need, for in the Eucharist we are sent to live what we have just celebrated sacramentally.

The apostolicity of the Church means that the Church professes the same faith as the apostles. In Acts 2:14 – 40, Peter, the first of the apostles, proclaims the faith of the Church in his sermon. As in all good sermons, Peter begins by interpreting the people’s experience of Pentecost through the scriptures — in this case the prophecy of Joel, according to which the gift of the Spirit, along with such manifestations as visions, dreams, and prophecies, are signs of the “last days,” the messianic times. He assures everyone that those filled with the Spirit were not drunk, but that the prophecy of Joel was fulfilled. He then connects the life of Jesus to this same Spirit event and the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy by referring to Jesus of Nazareth as “a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs that God did through him.”

Peter is then able to get to the core of his message: This Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, but God raised him up freeing him from death. Jesus is now exalted at the right hand of the Father and, having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he now pours out this same Spirit that they now see and hear. The conclusion and climax of his sermon is found in Acts 2:36: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” This is the fundamental apostolic message. This is the apostolic faith of the Church.

Apostolicity became an important characteristic of the Church in the conflict with Gnosticism in the second century. Gnosticism was an early heresy that claimed certain Gnostic teachers had received secret and privileged knowledge from the apostles. This created a two-tiered structure, within which only a few possessed the essential knowledge necessary for salvation. This threatened the universality of the faith and the possibility of salvation for all, as claimed in 1 Timothy 2:3 – 4.

John Burkhard identifies four expressions of apostolicity.1 First, a Church is apostolic by reason of its origin of being founded by an apostle or by being founded by these primary apostolic communities. Second, a Church is apostolic in doctrine because it proclaims and teaches what the apostles taught. Third, after the Second Vatican Council, more emphasis was placed on the apostolicity of life and worship including such things as sacramental practices, style of leadership, exercise of charity, moral principles, and internal discipline, in addition to doctrine and sacred writings. Finally, a Church is apostolic through its ordained apostolic ministry. This is usually identified as apostolic succession, referring to the succession of bishops through the Church’s history.

Apostolic succession is more than an unbroken succession of bishops. The structure of Church offices as we know them today developed over time. Nevertheless, we can assert that bishops, as successors to the apostles, have been charged from the origins of the episcopal office with interpreting the word of God for their own times and keeping the Church in communion and continuity with apostolic faith. As indicated in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “They were confirmed in this mission on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-26) in accordance with the Lord’s promise: ‘You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8)” (#19). Just as the apostles were witnesses to Christ, the bishops are witnesses to the faith of the apostles, so that the faith that we profess today is truly apostolic faith.

1. John J. Burkhard, Apostolicity Then and Now: An Ecumenical Church in a Postmodern World (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2004), pp. 26 – 41.

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Susan K. Wood, scl,
is a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas. She is professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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