For the past three weeks, I’ve had the honor of researching and exploring the Apostles Creed and sharing those insights with you. The first week focused on our belief in God the Father, the second week focused on our belief in his son Jesus Christ, and the third week focused on our belief in the Holy Spirit and the mystery of the Trinity. Today we’ll be focused on our belief in the holy, catholic church. This week my words are taken from the writings of UMC pastor Adam Hamilton and Church of England Bishop N.T. Wright.
At our love feast last week, I had a conversation with my table mates about the word catholic, and the table was split about how the use of that word made them feel. There are many who have either been hurt by some of the policies of the Roman Catholic Church or that have been negatively impacted by the sexual scandals within that church. For those people the word “catholic” is a barrier to saying the traditional words of the Creed and meaning them.
As used in the Creed, the word “catholic” is used as an adjective, not a noun. It does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church specifically. “Catholic” comes from a compound Greek word that means, in essence, everywhere. This word was in use in early church history, and the word served as a reminder of the church’s unity. Every community of believers, despite differences in language or ethnic makeup were part of one church; the church everywhere is the catholic church. That is why there is an asterisk on the word “catholic” in our hymnal and the option to substitute the word universal.
The Roman Catholic Church claimed the word “catholic” for their denomination in 1054 when the Western church and the Eastern church divided. The Western church claimed the name Catholic – they were the “universal” church. The Eastern church claimed the name Orthodox, meaning “right worship” and by implication right beliefs and practices. Hence, they positioned themselves as the church who believed and worshiped in the right way. Tragically today, there are many divisions within the Christian family. Jesus predicted this when he prayed in John 17 that God would make his followers one, as he and the Father are one. He tried to forestall the divisions among his followers by telling his disciples not to judge one another and to love one another and forgive one another. Nevertheless the church divided and continues to divide. Despite these divisions, our belief in the holy, catholic church is an ecumenical belief that all who call upon the name of Christ and seek to follow him as Savior and Lord are, despite their denominational or non-denominational names, part of one universal church.
When many people view the church, it doesn’t look holy. It is filled with hypocrites and judgmental people. Many young adults say that they are “spiritual but not religious”. These same people have great admiration for Jesus, but far less admiration for his people, the church. They see neither Jesus’ love nor unity when they look at the most vocal Christians and the most outspoken churches today.
It helps to understand that when we say we believe in the holy catholic church, we’re not saying the church is filled with really righteous people who are nearly perfect. The word holy in the biblical context means belonging to God, or “sacred to” God or “set apart for” God. You’ve likely heard it said that the church is not a country club for perfect people, but instead a hospital for broken and sinful people who are slowly being made well.
The church then, is holy when those who are a part of her recognize that she belongs to God and not to her members. She is holy when those who consider the church home don’t ask “What do we want our church to do for us?” but rather “What does God want his church to do for him?”
Now let’s turn to the central point of this part of the Creed that Christians believe in the church.
The Greek word for “church” that is used more than eighty times in the New Testament is ekklesia, a word that literally means called out as in a gathering of people called together. It was not a religious term but often meant simply an assembly. But ekklesia came to mean more than just an assembly when it referred to Christians.
The first time we see this word in the Gospels is when Jesus speaks to Peter and says, “I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” Matthew 16:18.
Here Jesus speaks of “my church”, making it clear that the church is his ekklesia – his assembly. The church is specifically a community or assembly of people who belong to Christ. It is this relationship with Christ that distinguishes it from a synagogue or a civic gathering or a club. We see this same distinction in the other word used in the New Testament for church. The word is kuriakon which means “belonging to the Lord.” In German, kuriakon became kirsch which in English became church. In the New Testament the Church is the gathering of people called out by Jesus, who belong to Jesus, and therefore who seek not only to experience fellowship with him but to do his will and his work in the world.
I believe in the Church and I believe that the Church has at least three purposes. One purpose is to be the community or family of God. The second, and most important purpose, is to be Christ’s representative in the world. The third is to worship God.
As human beings we need community. We need to belong. We need others to encourage us, challenge us, care for us and be cared for by us. We are wired this way. As God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – each member of the Trinity in community with the others – we too are made for community. A wide array of studies have shown the importance of community in longevity and mental health. From a strictly secular perspective, we are healthier, happier, and live longer when we are in community with others. From a spiritual vantage point, we will never grow spiritually into the people God wishes us to be without the church.
The church is meant to be a unique, multiethnic community, unlike other clubs and organizations to which one might belong, though sharing some common characteristics with the best of these organizations. Nearly a hundred times in the New Testament, the apostles addressed the Christians they were writing to as “brothers and sisters.” The idea of the church as a family comes with responsibilities: families care for one another, work for the good of one another, and support one another. In Galatians 5:2, Paul instructed the members of these newly formed churches – “carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
The Greek New Testament word for this kind of caring for one another is koinonia, meaning “communion” or “sharing.” We usually translate this word as “fellowship.” It involves getting to know others, building relationships with them, and actively caring for and encouraging them. This was one purpose of the church – to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set for one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform, while bound together by a common faith, and working together to live out their faith in the world. We not only are Christ’s assembly; we are his family.
We heard a testimony about how this church has served as family from Kerry Bolen a few weeks ago, and we hear about it being carried out regularly during our prayer time and fellowship times. We have some formalized ways of building relationships such as Methodist Meals Together. Working together on a mission project or on a physical project of the church are other ways that we build relationships in our community of faith. And it is our responsibility to welcome others into the church and the family of believers.
You could say the church is God’s answer to our existential need for belonging, community, acceptance, support and love. You don’t ever have to be alone. If you are a member of a church you are to take this seriously. It is part of your responsibility in being the church. It means looking around to see who is alone who may need a friend, who needs encouragement. It means inviting people to sit by you or asking if you can sit by them. It means checking on and caring for those who need someone. It means visiting the elderly and the sick. It means providing support and care for the hurting.
I know there are many dysfunctional congregations; in some way, every congregation likely has a bit of dysfunction. That’s because churches are made up of imperfect people. We’re going to get it wrong sometimes, preachers and lay people alike. And yes, the church is filled with hypocrites – we’re all hypocrites aren’t we? No one perfectly lives the values and faith they espouse. But when the church is striving to be the church, she is one of the most beautiful communities in the world, a community that seeks to live selflessly, encourage and bless others, a community where you can be accepted as you are and where you will find family who will welcome you, stand by you, and encourage you.
The church is meant to be a community of redemption and love, a place of acceptance and transformation, a place where we grow in our faith and find encouragement and support.
But the church isn’t just about community. Listen to the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: 7-11, 27 (VOICE).
Each believer has received a gift that manifests the Spirit’s power and presence. That gift is given for the good of the whole community. 8 The Spirit gives one person a word of wisdom, but to the next person the same Spirit gives a word of knowledge. 9 Another will receive the gift of faith by the same Spirit, and still another gifts of healing—all from the one Spirit. 10 One person is enabled by the Spirit to perform miracles, another to prophesy, while another is enabled to distinguish those prophetic spirits. The next one speaks in various kinds of unknown languages, while another is able to interpret those languages. 11 One Spirit works all these things in each of them individually as He sees fit. 27 You are the body of the Anointed, the Liberating King; each and every one of you is a vital member.
Listen to the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 12:27 in another translation, “You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.” The Church is the Body of Christ, the single body in which every individual, and every local community is a limb or an organ. “The body” is more than merely an image of unity-in-diversity; it’s a way of saying that the church is called to do the work of Christ, to be the means of his action in and for the world.
Many people today find it difficult to grasp this sense of corporate Christian identity. We have been so soaked in the individualism of modern Western culture that we feel threatened by the idea of our primary identity being that of the family we belong to – especially when the family in question is so large, stretching across space and time, and with whom we may not always agree. The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals, all following their own pathways of spiritual growth without much reference to one another. It may sometimes look like that, and even feel like that. And it’s gloriously true that each of us is called to respond to God’s call at a personal level. You can hide in the shadows at the back of the church for a while, but sooner or later you have to decide whether this is for you or not. But we need to learn again the lesson that a hand is no less a hand for being part of a larger whole, an entire body. The foot is not diminished in its freedom to be a foot by being part of a body which also contains eyes and ears. In fact, hands and feet are most free to be themselves when they coordinate properly with eyes, ears, and everything else. Cutting them off in an effort to make them truly free, truly themselves, would be truly disastrous.
In particular, it would deny the very purpose for which the church was called into being. According to the early Christians, the church doesn’t exist in order to provide a place where people can pursue their private spiritual agendas and develop their own spiritual potential. Nor does it exist in order to provide a safe haven in which people can hide from the wicked world and ensure that they themselves arrive safely at an otherworldly destination. Private spiritual growth and ultimate salvation come rather as the by-products of the main, central, overarching purpose for which God has called and is calling us. This purpose is clearly stated in various places in the New Testament: that through the church God will announce to the wider world that he is indeed it’s wise, loving, and just creator; that through Jesus he has defeated the powers that corrupt and enslave it; and that by his Spirit he is at work to heal and renew it.
The church exists, in other words, for what we sometimes call “mission”’: to announce to the world that Jesus is its Lord. This is the “good news,” and when it’s announced it transforms people and societies. Mission, in its widest as well as it most focused senses, is what the church is there for. God intends to put the world to rights; he has dramatically launched this project through Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus are called, here and now, in the power of the Spirit, to be agents of that putting-to-rights purpose. The word “mission” comes from the Latin for “send”: Jesus said it this way after his resurrection: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” then, “he breathed on them and said receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20 21-22). Once more we find that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit are essential to the church in fulfilling Christ’s mission in the world.
From the very beginning, in Jesus’s own teaching, it has been clear that people who are called to be agents of God’s healing love, putting the world to rights, are called also to be people whose own lives are put to rights by the same healing love. The messengers must model the message. That’s why, though the reason for God’s call for the church is mission, the missionaries, that is, all Christians are defined as people who have themselves been made whole.
The church exists for two closely correlated purposes, to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world. You can and must worship, and work for God’s kingdom in private and in ways unique to yourself, but if God’s kingdom is to go forward, rather than around and around in circles, we must work together as well as apart.
It is within this context that the different “ministries” within the church have grown up. From the earliest evidence we have, in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul, the church has recognized different callings within its common life. God has given different gifts to different people so that the whole community may flourish and take forward the work with which it has been entrusted.
Worship, fellowship, and the work of reflecting God’s kingdom into the world flow into and out of one another. You can’t reflect God’s image without returning to worship to keep the reflection fresh and authentic. In the same way, worship sustains and nourishes fellowship; without it fellowship quickly deteriorates into groups of the like-minded which in turn quickly become exclusive cliques – the very opposite of what Jesus’ people should be aiming at.
It is within the church, even when the church isn’t getting everything quite right, that the Christian faith of which we have spoken is nourished and grows to maturity. As with any family the members discover who they are in relationship with one another. Churches vary enormously in size. But ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other and particularly to pray in meaningful depth for one another, and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity. The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering, the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.
So, why do I believe in the church? The church is the continuing presence of Christ in the world. Jesus came two thousand years ago to show us the way, the truth and the life, and to suffer, die and rise again to save us; but before his departure he gave his disciples the Holy Spirit and called on them to be his ongoing presence in the world and to continue his saving work of healing, teaching, proclaiming, and liberating people.
When God sees pain and brokenness, injustice and need in the world, he doesn’t send angels to address it; he sends the church. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. Imagine the potential if everyone was a part of the community of the Lord’s people, seeking to do his work in the world. And imagine how the world would be different if every church were seeking to continue Christ’s work in the world around them.
When Jesus came he did not simply call individual disciples; he formed a community, a family, a people chosen to love and to continue his work in the world. This assembly or gathering is meant to be a foretaste of heaven, a place where people care for one another, encourage one another, and build one another up. But it is also meant to be a community, empowered and led by the Holy Spirit that serves as the continuing presence of Christ in the world.
The church is holy because she belongs to God and is set apart for God’s work. She is catholic because in God’s eyes there is only one church, though it is made up of many tribes, nations and denominations. God’s church is a communion of “saints below and saints above” who are bound together as members of God’s family.
You will never prove intellectually there is a God, any more than others can prove there is no God. But if you want to prove God’s existence, show it by your actions. As part of the church act as the body of Christ in the world; together we must incarnate God’s love and Christ’s presence. It is by our works of mercy, compassion, and service that we will draw people to Christ.
Please pray with me:
Come Holy Spirit we, your church, need you. Breath of God, fill us wholly and completely. Form and shape this branch of your church into the church you want us to be. Lead us to do what Jesus wants us to do. Empower us to fulfill your mission in this time and place. Remind us that we are part of your universal church. Help us to find our way forward in turbulent times. In Jesus’ name. Amen.