God Has a Big Family: The Holy Catholic Church

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Series: 

Ephesians 2:11-22 God Has a Big Family: The Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints

The Best God Joke Ever
Emo Philips is an American comedian with a bowl-cut hairstyle and a strange falsetto voice and child-like delivery. In his 1985 debut comedy album he tells a joke that in 2005 was voted the funniest religious joke ever. It goes like this:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."

I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over. (https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2005/sep/29/comedy.religion)

It’s a funny joke because it highlights the tendency we have as Christians to divide ourselves from one another. According to a 2011 study by Gordon-Conwell Seminary, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 41,000 Christian denominations worldwide. According to one projection, by 2025 that number could reach 55,000. Even allowing for national boundaries and language differences, that’s a lot of division within Christianity.

Why “that” word?
The joke also brings up an issue I have always had when reciting the Apostles’ Creed. The last few weeks I have been talking about some of the older language that was used in the version of the Creed I first memorized. Phrases like “seated on the right hand of God the Father;” “the quick and the dead;” and “the Holy Ghost.” I’ve been reminding you that while the Creed stays the same, the English language does evolve and changes in phrasing can be helpful for understanding without changing meaning.

But there’s one old-fashioned word that tends to stay in the Creed which can still create considerable confusion. And that word is: “catholic.”

As a kid, I always wondered about this word. In my hometown there were three churches: a Presbyterian Church, a Christian Reformed Church, my Reformed Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. I didn’t understand all the differences, but I knew the Roman Catholic Church was different from the other three. We didn’t think Catholics were bad, necessarily, but we knew they were different. I knew that we were Protestant, and that meant we were not Catholic. So why were we saying we believed in the catholic church?

You may have the same question. There are some versions of the Creed which substitute the word “Christian” for the word “catholic.” That doesn’t get across quite the same meaning, however. Others retain the word “catholic”, but put an asterisk by the word and then have a footnote that says “catholic means ‘worldwide’”. We used to have a slide that looked like that, but it is kind of clunky.

What is happening is that the word “catholic” does, indeed, mean “worldwide.” It’s one of those Latin words. The Roman Church—the one with the Pope in charge—has chosen this word to be part of their name. But that does not mean they have exclusive rights to it.

A parallel might be the word “presbyterian.” If you have taken the Starting Point class, you might remember that the word “presbyterian” comes from the Greek word for Elder. “Presbyterian” is a word for a church government that is elder-led. We have a “presbyterian” structure here at Hope Church, even though we are not a part of a Presbyterian denomination. Similarly, Presbyterians have a “reformed” understanding of theology, though they are not a part of the Reformed Church.

My point is: these are church words that get used in our church names, but it doesn’t mean those words can’t also apply to churches with different names. And that goes for “catholic.” What we are saying—when we get to this part of the Creed—is that we believe that Christ has one, true church that extends around the world and consists of everyone who believes in Him in spite of denominational affiliation.

In fact, this is one of the purposes of the Creed. One of the things I have been emphasizing throughout this series is that when we recite the Creed we are joining together with Christians throughout the centuries and across continents in confessing a common faith. And I’m not just talking about people around the world with a Reformed affiliation. There is something beautiful and extraordinary about knowing that when we confess the Apostles’ Creed, there are people all over the world doing the same thing in different languages and different denominations: Swedish Lutherans and Korean Presbyterians, African Pentecostals and Guatemalan Catholics, Chinese house churches and Egyptian Copts — all can affirm, “This is what we believe.”

In fact, the Creed represents the “irreducible minimum” of Christian belief, and we would say that if a church can affirm the things in the Creed, then it is a Christian Church, despite whatever other disagreements we may have.

So we leave the word “catholic” in there to remind us that we are a part of something very big, something worldwide.

Unnecessary Repetition?
But there’s another thing about this section of the Creed that bothers me, and that’s the next line: “The communion of saints.”

It’s not the word “saints”. “Saint” is one of the Bible’s favorite words for describing a Christian. From the New Testament perspective, if you belong to Jesus then you are a saint. You are made holy by His death on the cross, and you are being made holy by the presence of His Holy Spirit. The use of the word “saints” here in the Creed has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic practice of canonizing certain people into a special category of sainthood.

No, what bothers me about the line “the communion of saints” is that it seems repetitive. If we’ve just talked about “the holy catholic church” as a way of affirming the people that Jesus has left to do His work here on earth, then why do we need to talk about “the communion of saints”? Isn’t that the same thing? Isn’t that just another description of the church?

I’ve mentioned before that the Creed is incredibly brief. With only 114 words there is no room for wasted words or extra phrases. So I’ve been pondering this all week: why does the Creed appear to repeat itself here? Why have a second line describing the church?

And the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve read about it, the more I’m convinced that it is not really a second line. That is to say: “I believe…in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints” is supposed to be read together, as one line. These two phrases are about the same thing—what we call the church—and they are affirming two important truths about the church.

I’ll put it like this: The Church of Jesus Christ is global—it’s a big church that crosses national boundaries and denominational affiliation and language barriers and stretches over the span of history—the Church of Jesus Christ is global (it is “catholic”) and the Church is local. That is to say, there are local expressions of this big church that we are called to belong to and interact with and share life together with and serve in and contribute to and so on…the “communion of saints.”

And both are vital parts of the Creed, both are vital parts of Christian belief. We need to see ourselves as part of this big, universal body of Christ that’s so much bigger than our local fellowship or even our cultural expressions of faith; but we also need to see the importance of being plugged into a smaller, local body of Christ that is committed to doing life together and being salt and light to the community it is a part of. Global and local. Big church, and small church. Worldwide and hometown.

Ephesians 2:11-22
Those are the ideas conveyed in the Creed. But I’ve been telling you throughout this series that my objective is not to preach from the Creed, but to preach from the Bible. I want to show you that the Bible teaches what the Creed confesses. That the power of the Creed comes not from itself, but from its accurate reflection of Biblical truth.

And there are a lot of places in the Bible that teach that the Church is both global and local. But there’s one passage I can think of where both ideas are taught together. So, for the rest of our time today, I’d like us to camp out in Ephesians 2:11-22. This is a passage that addresses one of the fundamental controversies of the New Testament era—Gentiles and Jews; but in the process it gives us a pretty good picture of the Church.

I’ll go through it in two parts, and I’ll label those two parts with the two phrases from the Creed.

Tearing Down Walls
So, first, “the holy catholic church.” Let’s look at Ephesians 2:11-13:

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Here’s a little background. The Apostle Paul, who is Jewish, is writing to a group of Christians in Ephesus who are Gentiles. A Gentile is basically anybody who is not a Jew. And the understanding, prior to Jesus, has been that only Jews—those who are physically descended from Abraham and who keep the rules of the old covenant (symbolized by circumcision)—only Jews could be in a special relationship with God.

But, then, along came Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the dead and many became convinced that He was the fulfillment of all the old covenant promises. So, many Jews, like Paul, put their faith in Jesus. And they began to proclaim the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, and invited them to believe in Him as well.

But that raised a question: did a Gentile first need to become a Jew in order to follow Jesus? That is, was adherence to the old covenant law (like circumcision) a prerequisite to being saved? This is a question that underlies a lot of the New Testament letters.

And Paul’s answer—in fact, he says it in the verses right before these—is “No!” Jesus saves by grace, not by works. So there’s no way that keeping an old set of laws is going to make a difference in Jesus rescuing us from sins and transgressions. And so, Paul’s position is that Gentiles who were once without hope can be brought near by the blood of Christ.

So, verses 14-18:

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Where once there were these two groups in opposition to each other—Jews and Gentiles--with a wall of hostility between them—now there is one new humanity. And this new humanity is found in Jesus. This new group has formed, and it cuts across racial and ethnic lines, and it finds its identity in what Jesus has done at the cross.

So Paul’s point is that there is not going to be two kinds of churches: there’s not going to be a Jewish church and a Gentile church, there can only be one church. And it’s made up of everyone who believes in Jesus. Everyone who believes in Jesus has the same access to the Father through the same Holy Spirit. So whatever divided them before—whatever cultural and historical differences they might have had--that all gets subsumed in this new identity in Jesus.

So Paul says, in verse 16, they are reconciled to God, and thus they are reconciled to each other. The walls which divide need to be torn down. The hostility between the groups needs to be exchanged for peace.

And this, I am saying, is teaching us a lesson about the “holy catholic church.” That is to say, this is the reminder that we are a part of a big, worldwide group that consists of everyone who names Jesus as Lord. And whatever else might divide us—whether that might be language differences or skin color or cultural differences or historic rivalries or whatever—if we are believers in Jesus then we are part of this big, catholic, universal church.

You see, we don’t struggle too much with the Jewish and Gentile question any longer. Pretty much all of us are Gentiles, and we’re pretty comfortable with the idea that Jesus accepts us apart from the law. But we live in a world where there are plenty of other walls of hostility, especially when it comes to race and language and socio-economic status.

And I think the principle that Paul is putting forward here holds up pretty well in those situations as well. Christ is our peace. Christ tears down the walls. I mean, different racial backgrounds or different economic classes shouldn’t be a reason for us to be hostile towards anybody, but especially when we all claim Jesus as Lord. We need to set aside our cultural notions of superiority, we need to get rid of our prejudices that assume people with a certain skin color all act one way, or people from this country or that are all the same.

Matt Chandler says this:

You and I have brothers and sisters all over the world who have no shared language but the language of the gospel, who have no real shared socioeconomic status or race, but… belong to a family of faith that goes well beyond what we see here today. All over the world, in different languages and different contexts and different styles, men and women, our brothers and sisters are making much of Jesus Christ, preaching the Word of God, singing to God, breaking the bread of Communion, and enjoying the God of our salvation. ( http://www.tvcresources.net/resource-library/sermons/the-holy-catholic-c...)

And this principle applies to all those denominational divisions we talked about at the beginning of the sermon—that joke by Emo Philips. When it comes to different brand names of church, we should have a lot of grace. We should have the humility to recognize that while we may not agree on everything, we have a common Lord and Savior. We need to remember that we are not in competition with other churches. We need to praise God for what He is doing to grow His Kingdom in the other churches of Spencer.

I can assure you this. There are thousands of churches who are faithfully preaching the Bible all around the world, faithfully proclaiming the gospel. They might have blindspots and errors, but no doubt so do we.

And so we should always praise those who seek to proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Maybe they have a different style. Maybe they emphasize different things. But if they can confess the Creed, then we are on the same side.

Building up the Body
Then, second, “the communion of saints.” Not only are we called to be a part of the global church, we are also called to be a part of a local church. Here’s where Paul takes it, verses 19-22:
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

The words that stand out to me in these verses are the words “fellow citizens,” “joined together” and “built together.” Essentially, Paul is saying that because Christ has made us one people through the cross, now we need to build each other up and grow together in faith and fellowship together. In fact, that’s what the word communion means in the Creed: it’s the equivalent of the Greek word “koinania” which is usually translated as “fellowship” and means doing life together, in common.

And the question is: how do we do that if we don’t do it at a local level? Stick with me here. It’s one thing to belong to this big, worldwide, catholic church by virtue of our faith in Jesus, right? Sometimes people will say: I don’t really need to belong to a church, I don’t need to go to church on Sundays, because I believe in Jesus and Jesus and me got a good relationship and if I go to some church it will just mess things up. Have you ever heard anyone talk like that?

But Paul is saying that because of what Jesus has done for us, we are now called into community and we are called to share our lives with one another and be built up into this dwelling that God inhabits by His Spirit and that’s not going to happen unless we are together with other Christians and we are mixing our lives up together and mingling and marinating together and kind of taking on the flavor of one another.

Do you see what I mean? Paul is saying that by calling us to Himself, God is also calling us to others. We all need a place where we can speak into each other’s lives and hold one another up to what Christ has called us to be and to affirm in one another the presence of Jesus and to link arms with one another in doing the work of the kingdom. And that means we need to be plugged into a local church. Not just attending, but actually belonging.

One of the ways the New Testament gets this across is by using the language of “one another.” In fact, there are 59 “one anothers” in the New Testament. 59 times the Bible says you should care for one another. Some of those are repeats, I think the Bible tells us to love one another at least 15 times, but still, there is a remarkable number of things we are called to do for one another.

I toyed with reading the whole list to you, but instead I’ll just give a sample. We are called to:
• “…Be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:50)
• “…Love one another…” (John 13:34)
• “…Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
• “…Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
• “…Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
• “Bear with each other…” (Colossians 3:13)
• “…Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” (Colossians 3:13)
• “…Encourage each other…”(I Thessalonians 4:18)
• “Confess your sins to each other…” (James 5:16)
• “…Pray for each other.” (James 5:16)

And so much more.

Those sorts of things can only happen as we engage with and participate in the life of a local fellowship of believers. In fact, the very idea of belonging to a church is that church becomes the place where we pursue the “one anothers.” We might not get it right all the time, but this is the place, the laboratory if you will, where we need to figure these things out.

That’s what Paul means when he says, verse 21, that the building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. He’s not talking about bricks and mortar. He’s not talking about our sanctuary here, as nice as it is, or some grand cathedral like Notre Dame; he’s talking about us building our lives together and building into each other so that we start to become this little picture of the community of heaven where God is glorified and honored and can dwell.

Two Questions
So, the question is: How are you doing at the communion of saints? I mean, I guess there are two questions. The first is: How are you doing at seeing yourself as a part of the big, global church? Do you recognize that Christ’s kingdom is bigger than just Hope Reformed Church in Spencer? Do you have grace and generosity towards other expressions of Christian faith?

But then, second, and the question I really want you to ponder: How are you doing at the communion of saints? Do you really see this as a place to practice the one anothers? Are you opening up your life to fellowship and community and creating space for people to speak Christ into your life?

Is this it? Is you showing up here and listening to a sermon the extent of your Christian walk? If so, that’s disappointing because you're robbing yourself of some really beautiful things. Let me urge you to jump in. To pursue deeper relationships here in the body. To do life together.

Let me end with a Max Lucado quote that I found in a sermon by Matt Chandler. Here’s a look at the beauty of community:

Questions can make hermits out of us, driving us into hiding, yet the cave has no answers. Christ distributes courage through community. He dissipates doubts through fellowship. He never deposits all knowledge in one person but distributes pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to many. When you interlock your understanding with mine, and we share our discoveries, when we mix, mingle, confess, and pray, Christ speaks.

That’s why the communion of saints matters. That’s why we need one another.