Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
By Suzy Ward
Episcopalians are a prayer book people. In preparing for a new member class I searched my shelves for all the books to help me share the ethos of who we are as a community of faith. There are more books that I can list but some of the ones I like to use are:
- Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship Christopher I. Webber
- Jesus was an Episcopalian (and you can be one too) Chris Yaw
- Those Episkopolis Dennis Maynard
I also include Living Faithfully as a Prayer Book People by John H. Westerhoff. Westerhoff is recognized as a leading advocate for Christian formation rather than Christian education. “Living Faithfully” reminds us of one of the reasons many people find their way into Episcopal churches and some decide to stay, it’s the prayer book. Westerhoff writes, “Our life of prayer shapes our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. To answer what we believe about the Christian life of faith, we turn to our prayer book and engage in process of interpreting its content…We shape our understanding of faith and life through participation in our liturgies. We reflect on our convictions about faith and life by reflecting on our liturgies. We reform our understandings and ways of life by revising our liturgies.” (Living Faithfully, p. 2) As Episcopalians and part of the greater Anglican Communion, we understand that what we pray shapes what we believe (Lex orandi, lex credenda) and in turn, how we live.
The 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer took the one question that had been asked at baptism since 1662, “Wilt thou then obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of your life,” and turned into five. (BCP 304-305). As Episcopalians we are quite proud of these questions, especially the last four. These last four questions are the backbone of all our theology and practice of social justice. They shape our lives and our ministry. Every time we ask “Who is our neighbor?” we are engaging in that baptismal covenant and those last four questions.
But what does the first question ask of us?
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?” We all respond, “I will with God’s help.” This question and our response is the foundation of our formation not just as an individual believer, but as a believing community. It is rooted in our heritage. The Acts of the Apostles records
Ac 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
When we respond “I will, with God’s help” we are praying that our lives will be shaped by our participation in worship including Holy Eucharist. We are praying we will seek opportunities to learn about our faith. We promise to engage in pray not just as an individual but as a community. How many times have we heard a friend say that they feel they can be a Christian and worship in their backyard or standing by a mountain stream or on the golf course? I am not sure that the apostles and the early church would totally agree. Where is the community, the fellow disciples, the fellowship of relationships?
In a recent book titled, Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs and Practices by Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, the authors elaborate on this first baptismal question saying, “To live out this promise we need to put worshiping with a Christian community at the top of our priority list, not a do-it-when-I-feel like it activity.” The authors explain that the earliest Christians found great joy in committing to follow Jesus in community. While we are shaped and nurtured by our worship and prayers, this experience of fellowship and joy is the life blood of our welcome and evangelism. Have you ever asked, how is fellowship and joy experienced by a visitor on Sunday morning? Are we creating experiences of welcoming and joy that can be empowering enough to help someone going through dialysis three days a week get from one Sunday to the next? Is our fellowship transformative enough to emotionally and spiritually support a young same-sex couple who want to be married but one set of parents refuses to acknowledge their daughter and the congregation needs to become the surrogate parent as well as their witness, wedding planner, caterer and clean-up crew? And if we are not there on Sunday, being shaped by our liturgy and experiencing the joy of worship, what lesson went unlearned and what prayer was unheard, what fellowship opportunity was unmet?
One of Westerhoff’s foundational thoughts in faith formation is the importance of the faith we see and experience from those who nurture us along the way, whether it is in our youth or at some point when our life is being reoriented. The stranger that is homeless that comes back week after week, are they just seeking a warm cup of coffee and something to eat? How does our promise to worship faithfully, to pray and to be in fellowship translate into something they can experience? It is worth a conversation, don’t you think? It is part of our baptismal covenant after all.
Our faith communities are tremendously successful and expend lots of time, talent and treasure in reaching out to our neighbors who are homeless, migrant, LGBTQ, who are hungry, abused and marginalized. Let’s celebrate all of that. Those are all “Wow” moments. Then let’s do the same for the neighbor that comes in the front door. And will you be there to welcome them?