Sunday, April 17, 2016

I Believe in the Church

In the earliest days of Christianity, and I mean the earliest days of Christianity, the Bible, as we know it, did not even exist. The New Testament was not even an idea in the minds of the Christians at that time. In those earliest days, Christians set out to determine what was most important to their faith. Was it a worship style? Was it a type of building in which to meet? Was it a list of ministries that every Christian, no matter where they lived, should participate in? Not one of those things made the list! This list was reserved for only the most important things. The things that, if you took them away, you couldn’t rightly call what you were doing “Christianity.” So, what should be on that list? It would have to be a very short list! Let me ask you: What would be on your list?

Their list included things like:
  • I believe in God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
  • I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord.
  • I believe in the Holy Spirit.
Folks, it does not get any more foundational than these things! You may have a wonderful group of people. They may serve the world. They may do wonderful things. They may even get together to sing and pray. But if they do not believe in God, if they do not believe in Jesus, His Son, and if they do not believe in the Holy Spirit, then, what they are doing cannot be called “Christianity.” Because this list is unalterable. This list is the core of our faith.

We’ve mentioned several things on that list already, and this morning, we will add another one. Those earliest Christians wrote this:
I believe in the holy catholic church.
You cannot have Christianity apart from the church!

Now, let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible. When I say, “I believe in the holy catholic church” I probably do not mean what you think I mean! When we hear the phrase “catholic church,” we immediately think of the Roman Catholic Church. But when the earliest Christians wrote, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” that is not what they meant. In fact, that idea did not exist in the earliest centuries of the church. It would be anachronistic to talk about the Roman Catholic Church in the first centuries after Christ. By “catholic,” they meant universal. In fact, the dictionary definition of “catholic” is simply:
Universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all
There is even an entry in the dictionary for “catholic” as it pertains to church:
Pertaining to the whole Christian body or church
We could say: We believe in the worldwide church. They believed the church existed throughout the world, and even though the church was separated by race and gender and ethnicity and national borders, it was still the church. There is only one church! There is a worldwide communion of all the saints. There is actually a way to distinguish between the Roman Catholic Church and the catholic church, but it is hard to describe in a sermon. When you see catholic church with a little “c,” that typically means the worldwide church. When you see Catholic Church with a capital “C,” that typically means the Roman Catholic Church, the official title of the denomination. But, it is difficult to make that designation when you speak. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, can we talk about why the church made it on their list?

One reason the church made it on their list is because they believed the church was “holy.” Now, there are folks in our world who might question that. There are people, even people in the church, who have expressed their exasperation with the church. They have called attention to the many ways in which the church is not holy at all. You’ve heard their reasons:
The church is hypocritical.
The church is too institutional.
The church is more concerned with budgets and buildings than it is with people.
And let me just say right here: Those folks are right! The church is all of those things and more! The church is imperfect to say the least. Even this part of Christ’s church—Glenwood—we are imperfect too! And sometimes we get frustrated with each other, don’t we? And sometimes, we don’t act like the church! Sometimes we are hypocritical, and institutional, and more concerned with budgets and buildings than we are with people. And I know sometimes we like to think otherwise, but the early church was messed up too. Some of the earliest Christians were prejudice and racist. Some of the earliest Christians were more concerned about money and budgets than they were about Christ’s mission. Some of them were selfish, overly ambitious, and even downright evil. And in spite of their humanness, they still wrote: “We believe in the holy catholic church.” Do you know why they could call the church “holy”? Because they understood this very important point. The church is not holy because of its body. The church is holy because of its head. Jesus Christ makes this church holy, not the flawed elders, or the imperfect ministers, or the hypocritical brothers and sisters in this room. I love the way Piotr Ashwin-Siekowski puts it:
This connection of the human and the divine, through the Holy Spirit, is then the essential context to the holiness of the Church. The church is “holy” as it is composed of members who have been spiritually cleansed, sanctified and dedicated to God through the specific ritual/liturgical act of baptism, when the Holy Spirit begins the process of “regeneration.”
He is making a very important theological point here. You are not holy by yourself, but when you were baptized into Christ, God’s Spirit took control of you. Now, because of the Spirit living inside you, you are holy! The church is not holy all by itself. It is holy, because the Spirit of God lives in it. The church is holy only because of its relationship to God! We need to remember that, church. Maybe we need to especially remember that in our own time.

There has been an avalanche of books and sermons and articles in recent years lambasting the church. Calling attention to its imperfections, even encouraging people to leave the church, as we know it, behind. I have good friends who have grown so fed up with the un-holy nature of the church that they’ve walked away. Some well-meaning, God-loving people, people who have dedicated their lives to Christian ministry, have grown so fed up with the church that they have left. And in their minds, their actions are completely justified. I’ve even heard some say, “I’ll be better off without the church; I’ll be a better Christian without the church.” I want to say this as pastorally as possible: Those people, my friends, are wrong. Because you cannot have Christianity without the church. Christianity is not a lifestyle you can practice alone. We need each other. God created a body made up of many members. And only together can the body do the work of God in this world. The church is holy, but that is not all, we believe in the holy “catholic” church.

In what possible sense is the church “catholic” (or, unified)? My goodness, if you thought “holy” was a problematic label to put on the church, what about this one? The church today is made up of thousands of separate denominations, and within those specific denominations, there are still more divisions. Even within single congregations, people cannot get along. That is reality. But listen to the ideal:
Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. That’s why scripture says, When he climbed up to the heights, he captured prisoners, and he gave gifts to people.
What does the phrase “he climbed up” mean if it doesn’t mean that he had first gone down into the lower regions, the earth? The one who went down is the same one who climbed up above all the heavens so that he might fill everything.
He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part. (Ephesians 4:1–16, CEB)
Brothers and sisters, how will we ever create that kind of unity in such a fractured, divided church? Well, if you listened carefully, you know that we do not have to. God does not call us to create unity. God calls us to preserve it or maintain it. The fact is, the church is one, whether we realize it or not. In God’s eyes the church is one. We may see all sorts of divisions, we may refuse to engage with certain parts of the Body of Christ, we may build walls around ourselves so that we don’t even see other parts of the church, but when God looks at His bride, God sees only one church. And it is so important for us to maintain the unity of the church. What is at stake? Through the church the world sees God. We are a picture of God to the world! That is why the way we love each other is so very important.

Let me get a bit more practical here. This text calls all of us to ask this question of ourselves: How can I help maintain the unity of Christ’s church? How can I, as a minister of Glenwood, preserve the unity of the church? I’ve asked myself that question a lot in recent months! I think God is calling me to a pastoral moment this morning. A couple of months ago, our elders announced that we would begin a congregational study and conversation on the role of women in the church. I know that discussion is difficult. Because, like so many other issues, not all of us see it the same way. And many of us are passionate about our beliefs. Most of us have handled that announcement very well. I’ve heard wonderful conversations in the hallways. I’ve had wonderful conversations with some of you about this study. I know most of you are ready and eager to begin this study together. But I still admit: It is a difficult topic. There will be the temptation to get upset with each other when we do not see eye to eye. So, brothers and sisters, how can we maintain unity in the midst of a difficult conversation? We use the metaphor of “family” a lot for the church, as does Scripture. If we are family, we must learn to have difficult conversations together. We cannot ignore tough talks, because they are tough. In my family at home, when I disagree with Kim, I don’t leave. In my family at home, when I disagree with Kim, we learn to work it out. That’s what families do.

So, church, how can we come together as God’s family, have a tough conversation, not assume the worst of each other, and continue God’s mission together?

That is the question that must dominate our discussions in the days ahead. Name calling will not work, ultimatums will not work. That is not how the church is called to love each other! One of the ways that history helps us is that it reminds us that the church has a long history of engaging in difficult conversations together: In the earliest days of the church, they had to decide what to do with Gentile believers. According to Scripture at the time, they had no place in the family of God. That was a tough conversation for the church. There was name calling and there were ultimatums! But they made it through, and we are stronger for it! A few years later the church met serious persecution. Some people held tightly to God and died as martyrs. Others recanted their faith and walked away. When it was all over, some of those weaker Christians wanted to come back to the church. The church had to decide how to handle that. That was a tough conversation for the church. There were fights! But they made it through, and we are stronger for it. In more recent times, the church had to tackle the issue of slavery. Some said, “The Bible clearly says, ‘Slaves obey your master.’” Others said, “No, the principles of justice and equality displayed in Scripture are what really matter.” That was a tough conversation for the church. There is a war to prove it! But the church made it through, and we are stronger for it.

The church made it through those rough waters only because of their dependence on the Holy Spirit. And we will make it through these waters only because of our dependence on the Holy Spirit. The church is not holy because we are more righteous than anyone else. And the church is not catholic (or united) because we are better equipped to maintain unity than the rest of world. We are holy and united because God makes us that way. Period. Lest we forget: God is bigger than we are. And on the other side of this discussion and all others, if we will trust God, if we will love each other in spite of our disagreements, we will be stronger and better equipped to make a difference in this community and this world! I believe that with all my heart. Because I believe in the power of Christ’s holy and catholic church.

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