"For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered
(1 Corinthians 11:23).
Often, when people speak of "Christian Tradition" or of the "Apostolic
Succession" of the ministry, they talk as if these were separate items
floating in the air, unconnected with one another, or with the Holy Scriptures,
or with anything else.
For many people, this is the essentially innocent kind of error that
comes from having forgotten (or from never having been taught) that the
New Testament is the Apostolic tradition. The New Testament is the preaching
and teaching of the Apostles’ written down. Of course, the New Testament
is even more than this, because the Word that the Apostles preached and
taught, they received from the Living Word of God himself, Jesus Christ.
And the authority by which the New Testament was written down was not merely
the authority of the Apostles, but the authority of Jesus Christ, who called
them and sent them to teach his Word, as well as the authority of the Holy
Ghost, who descended upon the Apostles to preserve them within the Word
of Jesus Christ.
Both the Old and the New Testaments, which form a single Bible, are
the Spirit-breathed administration of the Word of God, whom we know as
the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ. Thus it was that the Fathers of the ancient
Church summarized both Testaments of the Bible in the Apostles’ and the
Nicene Creeds. These statements of the Scriptural essentials of the Christian
Faith, however, were neither the invention of those ancient Fathers, nor
issued on the basis of their own authority.
The Creeds were ratified by the whole Church, but not in any sort of
"democratic" fashion, wherein the members of the Church voted their private
opinions. On the contrary, the members of the Church received the Creeds
from the Fathers on the basis of the Creeds’ plain agreement with what
God had taught the Prophets and Apostles, and through the Prophets and
Apostles to his faithful people, as preserved both in the Bible and in
the Church’s consistent teaching by the Holy Ghost.
The formula is the same, whether we are considering an Old Testament
writer’s office of promise and prophecy, or the apostolic office of a New
Testament writer whose duty is to teach the fulfillment of prophecies and
the completion of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ: "I have
received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you." The Father
teaches chosen men through the Son and by the Holy Ghost. There is One
undivided Godhead, and there is one indivisible Truth.
True Christian Tradition, then, is the handing over intact of the indivisible
Truth of God in Christ, from one generation to another. Yes, there are
secondary traditions involving the application of the Scriptural Truth
to discipline and order, which are always to be judged by the primary Christian
Tradition of the Scripture itself. But when we call the traditions of application,
order, and discipline "secondary," we do not mean that they are "second
rate" or dispensable. They represent the living mind of the ancient Church
still at work in the Church today.
We call on that living mind, preserved from generation to generation,
all the time—so much so that we may take it for granted and not recognize
it. The Sixth Commandment, for example, says, "Thou shalt do no murder."
It is the living mind of the Body of Christ, passed on as tradition and
maintained by the Holy Ghost, that tells us that simply not murdering our
neighbors is not enough to fulfill this commandment, but that all selfish
harms inflicted on others are offenses against the holy will of God.
And while it is the calling of the whole Church to maintain both the
primary and the secondary tradition of life in Jesus Christ, it is the
special duty of the Church’s ministry to preserve and transmit the Truth
of God intact. Just as the Apostles were men under Christ’s authority,
chosen by him to continue his work in the world, the Apostles put other
men under their authority and Christ’s. Since the time of Christ, without
interruption, the men under authority have chosen the ministers of the
next generation, to serve under that same authority in the offices of bishop,
priest, and deacon.
Unfortunately, in the 19th century, some Christians became obsessed
with the outward and visible sign of the commission of ministerial authority,
the laying on of hands by a chief pastor or bishop. This laying on of hands
is a Biblical sign, and the manner of its administration is an important
part of the secondary tradition of order and discipline. But the laying
on of hands and the reception of an office are not enough on their own.
True ministerial authority also requires submission to the entirety of
the primary tradition of God’s Truth in the Holy Scriptures, and the wholehearted
transmission of the Truth to future generations.
No one doubts, for example, that Judas Iscariot had received a valid
call to become an Apostle. Nevertheless, despite that high calling and
office, we read in tonight’s Gospel that the devil had put into Judas’
heart the will to betray our Lord (John 13:2). Judas did not remain in
the tradition of Holy Scripture, so Judas became the tool of the devil
and not a true and faithful Apostle of Jesus Christ. Likewise, only the
primary tradition of Apostolic and Scriptural Truth protect a minister
who has received the outward signs of the secondary tradition of order
and discipline from failure, vanity, and service to the devil.
And so we come to the great tradition whose first transmission we celebrate
tonight. St. Paul tells us, "I have received of the Lord that which I also
delivered unto you." St. Paul does not mean that when he received the grace
of conversion on the Damascus Road that he also received, like a mighty
computer download, all the details of the Christian Faith. He means that
God’s grace opened his heart to receive the whole of the Apostolic preaching,
by which he learned that at the Last Supper our Lord commanded, "Take,
eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of
me" and "This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft
as ye drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11:24-25).
We do not receive the Holy Communion because we approve of it as a religious
service or because it is a chance to come together with our friends. We
receive the Holy Communion because our Lord Jesus Christ has commanded
us to receive it, through his Apostles, and by his Apostles’ teaching recorded
by the Holy Ghost. We receive the Holy Communion because "we show forth
the Lord’s death till he come"(1 Cor. 11:26) in the exact supernatural
remembrance of his death for our redemption that he demanded the night
before he died.
Because the Holy Communion is a supernatural, God-commanded remembrance,
the power of the Holy Communion does not reside in us or in our ordinary,
earthly, psychological memory. The power of the Holy Communion is the will
of God, enacted by the Holy Ghost, who accomplishes in us greater things
than we could imagine or invent. As the Reformation Exhortation in the
Book of Common Prayer reminds us, summarizing the Apostolic teaching preserved
in the Holy Scriptures, when we receive the Holy Communion with a penitent
heart and a living faith, "then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ,
and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are
one with Christ, and Christ with us."
This Truth about the Holy Communion is what the Church has received
from the Lord and what the Church is obligated to deliver to all generations
until the Lord’s return in glory on the Last Day. St. Paul had no authority
over the Holy Communion, any more than the other Apostles did, and no right
to change the Lord’s command in any way. The same remains true of the Church’s
The minister (priest or bishop) who administers the Holy Communion today
only has such authority as was given to him by the preceding generation
of lawfully called and ordained men, back through the human generations
of the Church’s ministry to the original Apostolic band of ministers called
and ordained by our Lord himself to do his will and none other.
Thus, under the authority of Jesus Christ, as received through his Apostles’
ministry and teaching, and recorded for us by the Holy Ghost, if we are
obedient to Jesus Christ tonight at the Lord’s Table, we receive the very
same Holy Communion that Jesus Christ administered to his Apostles at the
Last Supper. We receive the very same Body and Blood, in the very same
manner that Jesus Christ commanded that reception. We are not merely following
the example of the primitive Church and its apostolic ministers, we are
the very same Church present here and now by the all-powerful grace of
Perhaps most wonderful of all, in the world of private opinions, personal
theories, and competing ideologies is this. We have no private opinions,
no personal theories, and no ideology that apply to this Holy Communion.
We can say with absolute certainty and in absolute truth, both to one another
and to the entire world, "I have received of the Lord that which also I
delivered unto you." Let us continue our worship now in absolute obedience
to our Lord and Savior, who gave his Body and Blood on the Cross for our
redemption, and who continues to give us his Body and Blood in this sacrament
of love, communion, and eternal life.
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation. If you
wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit
St. Andrew’s Church and Dr. Tarsitano.