When I was young, growing up in the United Kingdom, my family and I could always count on our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Oglive, to be around. We left a spare key with her in case we got locked out. We forgot our keys quite often, and she was always there—morning, afternoon, and night—to let us in.

Mrs. Oglive never went out. She suffered from agoraphobia, the fear of crowded or public spaces. Having lived next door to her for 40 years now, I still haven't seen her venture past her doorway. She wasn't always this way. She has pictures on her mantelpiece of less anxious days, from her honeymoon with Mr. Oglive and from a day at the beach with her children. But after her husband died, Mrs. Oglive began to isolate herself. As a child, I saw opportunity in this: Her garden resembled a jungle, and I earned some pocket money by pretending to be Indiana Jones armed with a machete slicing through the undergrowth, clearing the path to her front door.

As an adult, I can only imagine the heavy cloud of fear and frustration that surrounds her. Now frail and in the twilight of life, Mrs. Oglive's curtains are almost always drawn. But now and then, I still get locked out, and as she hands me the spare key, I am glad to see she is still alive.

I see parallels between Mrs. Oglive and the contemporary church. Many Christians observe the world from behind closed curtains, bemoaning culture instead of engaging it. Many local churches are isolated from the wider community and world, bunkered up like a coterie of doomsayers, suffering from fear of an open public square with divergent viewpoints and lifestyles. Meanwhile, many onlookers have read the church its last rites, so to speak, due to its dwindling numbers, scandals, and shrinking influence in Western society.

Locked In

These challenges are not unique to Western believers of today. The apostle John gives us a snapshot of a first-century church in a similar situation. Just three days after the Crucifixion—one of the most important events in history—where do we find the church? On a tenacious missionary charge, turning the world upside-down? No; the disciples are barricaded in, "with the doors locked for fear" (John 20:19). Who can blame them? After all, the Romans brutally executed their leader, and Jewish leaders are out to destroy the remnants of Jesus' ministry. Naturally, the disciples thought these leaders would come after them next.

John's account doesn't end with the disciples hiding in fear, but let's press the pause button and zoom in on the agoraphobic church of his time. Why should those early believers leave the safety of the bolted room? Why can't they happily continue as a church in hiding?

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To be sure, the locked-in church in Jerusalem fulfills several descriptions of the nature of the church, affirmed three centuries later in the Nicene Creed, which describes the church as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." The locked-in church in Jerusalem is one: it is united in fear. It is holy, set apart from the world. It is catholic: by faith it is connected with every Christian in history. But can it be called apostolic?

Believers of various traditions have confessed the Nicene Creed since as early as 381. But the adjective apostolic remains a point of controversy and disagreement.

According to both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the church is apostolic because of the "apostolic succession"—that a minister can trace his ordination through a line of bishops back to the apostles. According to Protestants, the church is apostolic in so far as its teachings are in line with the apostles' teaching. Along these lines, the locked-in church could be called apostolic. However, both of these approaches reflect limited understandings of the church's apostolic nature. And the first-century church's initial isolation contradicted what Christ intended for her.

When we release the pause button on John's narrative, we discover that apostolicity is more than correct supervision and right doctrine. As the risen Christ walks into the fortified room, the despairing disciples are transformed into audacious apostles. The transformation helps us more fully understand the apostolic nature of the church and perhaps opens up the barricaded doors of our own congregations.

A Missionary Church

In John's narrative, neither death nor door locks prevent Jesus from commissioning his followers. After proclaiming peace and proving he has conquered death, Jesus utters these astounding words: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you" (20:21).

This scene is John's version of the Great Commission. It helps us understand both the apostolic nature of the church and also the nature of God.

Both the noun apostle and the adjective apostolic derive from the Greek verb apostello, meaning "to send." The Latin equivalent is missio, from which we get the English word mission. Therefore, the apostolic church is a missionary church; it seeks to faithfully take Christ's mission into the world. True apostolicity is not so much a matter of succession of leadership or transmission of a message as it is obedience to God's mission. And if the church's mission is to be useful, the church's leadership needs to model the apostolic gospel.

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But Jesus doesn't send the apostles out on their own mission; he connects their mission with the very activity of the triune God: The Father sends Jesus into the world, and Jesus sends the church in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Mission begins not with the church but with God himself. This idea is known as Missio Dei, which literally means "the mission of God." German theologian Jürgen Moltmann captured it well: "It is not the church that has a mission … it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church." South African missiologist David Bosch similarly said, "Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God." This is why we should speak of "mission" rather than "missions," because the church is caught up in the singular mission of the triune God.

The locked-in church that first Easter week may have been orthodox in its doctrine and supervised by the right leadership. But it was not truly apostolic because it had not yet received or obeyed its commission to go into the world.

A Spirit-Empowered Church

Jesus' encounter with the locked-in church in the Gospel of John raises a theological conundrum: Christ appears to impart the Holy Spirit nearly 50 days too early. This is essentially John's version of Pentecost, a sort of prophetic pre-enactment.

For John, the role of the Spirit is vital for the mission of the church. In fact, the church cannot carry out God's mission in the world without the Spirit's presence and power. That's why John includes this detail of the church's commissioning.

Recognizing how the Spirit animates the life of the church, the writers of the Nicene Creed placed the four marks of the church—"one, holy, catholic, and apostolic"—in the section describing the person and work of the Holy Spirit. According to British theologian and missionary Lesslie Newbigin, "The church is the place where the Spirit is present as witness."

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By breathing on the disciples, Jesus demonstrates that he and the Spirit are inextricably connected. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for "Spirit"—pneuma and ruach—mean "breath," and this passage in John echoes the Creation account, where God breathes on fistfuls of clay to animate the inanimate. It also echoes Ezekiel 37, where the prophet is commanded to call forth breath to resurrect a dead army. By breathing on his disciples, Jesus doesn't simply impart to them a super power. As the Resurrected One, he resurrects their faith with his life-giving Spirit. And as Christ intimately breathes life into his moribund church, God initiates the new creation.

This means that the locked-in church, with its correct theology and leadership structures, is not yet fully apostolic until God has sent his Spirit to empower it to participate in his mission.

An Explosive Church

The dejected, disappointed, and defeated disciples are shell-shocked after the crowds turn against them and make them enemies of the state overnight. It's understandable why their first reaction is to hide.

But John's account tells us that the proof of Christ's resurrection, the promise of the Father's authority, and the gift of the Spirit turn the dejected and fearful disciples into joyful and courageous missionaries. Somehow, many of our churches have failed to make the connection between joy and mission. As Newbigin observes,

There has been a long tradition which sees the mission of the church primarily as obedience to a command. … It tends to make mission a burden rather than a joy, to make it part of the law rather than part of the gospel. If one looks at the New Testament evidence, one gets another impression. Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy.

Christ's resurrection, the gift of the Spirit, and the bestowal of the Father's authority resulted in an explosion of joy that propelled the church on its mission. Jerusalem was ground zero for this explosion, and its shockwaves spread throughout Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Neither suffering nor persecution could prevent the apostles from carrying out God's mission. In fact, they rejoiced that they were "counted worthy of suffering disgrace for [Christ]" (Acts 5:41). An apostolic church, therefore, is one that spills over with the same joy that launched the apostles on their mission.

I was reminded of Mrs. Oglive the other day, when a friend told me that he had taken a local pastor out for coffee. It was Thursday afternoon, and the pastor explained that it was the first time he had left his house since the Sunday service. I assumed he had been ill or joking. But no, he had been doing administrative work and sermon preparation.

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The pastor's work that week reflects the way many churches prioritize their ministries. His church is doctrinally sound, reflecting apostolic teaching. But because it has isolated itself, it is failing in one important sense to live out the apostolic mandate. The surrounding community wouldn't notice if that church ceased to exist, beyond the fact that more neighborhood parking spaces would be available on Sunday mornings. Of how many other churches could this be true?

Fulfilling the apostolic mandate is not something we can do on our own. Only by encountering the risen Christ and receiving the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit are we able to step beyond our doors and carry out God's mission. When we do so, we are transformed from an agoraphobic church to an apostolic church.

Krish Kandiah is executive director for Churches in Mission at the UK Evangelical Alliance and author most recently of Paradoxology.

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