So, obviously, I’m a history nerd. Which is why the most meaningful thing about being confirmed today was the laying on of hands by David Reed, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. That’s not a super comfortable thing for me – touching was not a part of the religious tradition in which I was raised – but sometimes the best things are those that push us out of our comfort zones.
The principle of apostolic succession was a big deal in early Christianity, and it remains a big deal today, especially in liturgical traditions like the Episcopal Church. When a priest is ordained, the bishop lays hands on her or him. That bishop was ordained and received blessing from hands from a previous bishop, and so it goes back, hands upon shoulders or heads, all the way back to the earliest church leaders – apostles like Paul, Junia and other women and men who shepherded a small Jewish sect that insisted the savior of the world had come, and that his kingdom would set to right in a new heaven and a new earth all that had gone wrong.
And today is Pentecost, the birthday of that movement. Jesus’ spirit came down and touched each of those disciples, and they went out and touched others, all the way down to today, when Bishop Reed laid hands on my wife and me, invoking the power of the same Holy Spirit that inaugurated this whole business of transforming the world and changing lives in anticipation of the return of Jesus, the full arrival of God’s kingdom and the restoration of all things to their true and perfect selves.
The principle of apostolic succession is cool – at least to me – but more important is what it represents. Because with each of those blessings from one generation to the next comes also a request for commitment. The bishop asks a series of questions, to which the confirmants and the rest of the congregation respond, “I will, with God’s help.”
- Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
- Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
- Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
- Will you seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
- Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
From Jesus to the Twelve, from the Twelve to a broader group of apostles, from the apostles to Ignatius and Irenaeus, Origen and Cyprian, Gregory and Basil, Augustine and Ambrose, Aquinas and Cranmer, Seabury and Madison, Katharine Jefferts Schori and Michael Curry, to Jennifer Brooke-Davidson and David Reed – a line not only of people but of the faith they embody, a great cloud of witnesses encouraging us to embrace the leading of the spirit who started this whole thing.
To confirm the promise of my baptism and take my place among that great cloud of witnesses is a little intimidating, a little hard to believe. I’ve never been a big Holy Spirit guy; I’ve never quite figured out how it works. But maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe it works whether I’m comfortable with it or not. Maybe it works through faithful people trying their best and saying, over and over, “I will, with God’s help,” until it’s time to lay hands and pass it on, one generation at a time.