THE NON-NEGOTIABLES – I BELIEVE IN THE CHURCH
I Corinthians 12:12-27, John 17:20-21
April 2, 2017
We are nearing the conclusion of a six-part sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed. This historic confession serves to provide us the big picture of what we believe as Christians, outlining the non-negotiables, the guardrails that help us stay between the ditches of what is vital to our faith. It offers us the essentials of what we are to believe if we are to call ourselves by the unique name Christian.
Last Sunday we explored what it means to affirm we believe in the Holy Spirit.
Today we turn our attention to unpacking the statement, “I believe in the holy catholic Church.”
These are tough times in the church, and to be the pastor of a church. Given the short attention span of folks today, there are all kinds of online preaching seminars to help you connect with your parishioners. James was just starting out as the pastor of a small Baptist congregation.
James was listening to a podcast of a preaching seminar. The instructor said you had to shock and awe your worshipers with a great sermon opening line. For example, the instructor said you might grab them with this: “Some of the best years of my life were spent in the arms of a woman who was not my wife.” Wait for the gasp. And then, add the punch line – “She was my mother.”
The next Sunday the young preacher nervously clutched the pulpit front of the congregation. Finally he blurted his opener, “Some of the best years of my life were spent in the arms of a woman who was not my wife!”
He was pleased at the instant reaction—the shock on his members’ faces—but then he panicked. “But for the life of me, I can’t remember who she was!”
These are tough times in the church. Giving is at an all-time low. Finances are hard to come by. Sometimes preachers have to be pretty hard-core.
The phone rings at Rev. Jones’ office. “Hello, is this Rev. Jones?” The caller asks “It is.”
“This is the Internal Revenue Service. We wonder if you can help us.” “I’ll try.”
“Do you know Herman Cohen?” “I do.”
“Is this man a member of your congregation?” “He is.”
“Did he donate $20,000 last year?” “He will!”
For 2,000 years the Christian Church has been maligned, disrespected and laughed at. It has gone through countless schisms and scandals. It has endured endless upheaval over worship, rituals and doctrine. Most recently, it has been eroded by an increasingly secular culture and economic woes.
And yet, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the Church’s demise have been great exaggerated! The Church is very much alive and at work in the world today, because the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ is very much alive and active in the world today!
CLEARING UP SOME MISCONCEPTIONS
Let’s take a moment to clear up some misconceptions about the Church, especially as it relates to this portion of the Apostles’ Creed:
What immediately comes to mind when you hear the word “church”? Most likely a stately, downtown edifice such as Asbury or Otterbein….or perhaps a picturesque tiny wood-framed white chapel on a hill in West Va….
And yet, in the New Testament, the Church is always a people and never a building. We are the Church….the living stones referred to in I Peter 2:5.
Now this is both the greatest challenge and the greatest hope of the Church.
Inside every congregation you’ll find contentious, greedy, thoughtless, judgmental, unreasonable, pig-headed, downright ornery folks. (and I’m just describing myself!) That’s because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. And what was that old adage–“the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints?”
And yet, the hope of it all is that this very fallible, all-too-human institution is God’s idea. Led by his Spirit, together, as God’s people, warts and all, we are a force for good in this world. I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together!
The Greek word the New Testament writers use is ekklesia. It refers to those who have been called out of the world to follow Christ. That is who we are –those who have been redeemed and who now seek to follow in our Lord’s footsteps.
The Creed speaks of us as a “holy” Church. Now I realize every church has some Bertha-better-than-you, holier-than-thou folks. And yet, most of us would not consider ourselves to be holy by any stretch of imagination.
Hear this: we are considered “holy” not because of any special merit in our lives. Rather, we are considered “holy” because of God’s grace–it is our association with God’s Son that renders us holy in God’s sight. The technical, theological jargon for it is “justification” — “just-as-if I never had sinned”- that’s how God sees those who have received and been redeemed by the freely-given grace offered through his Son Jesus Christ.
I believe in the holy, “catholic” Church. Some people, especially non-Roman Catholics, have a problem with this part of the Apostles’ Creed. It makes them feel vaguely uncomfortable, as if they are saying something they ought not to say. Over the years I have received more comments over this phrase in the Creed than any other–and, in fact, sadly, I have had a few persons leave the church over it despite my explanation.
And here is the explanation: the word “catholic” in the Apostles’ Creed is spelled with a little “c”. To be “catholic” is to be intentionally universal in our outreach, reflecting God’s heart for the entire world. We are in mission to all of God’s children around the world as well as around the corner, from Portugal to Port Republic Road. That’s what it means to be the holy catholic Church.
Now, while we are on this topic of the Church, what exactly is the nature of the Church…how would God desire that we be described by others, not only in the greater Church worldwide, but right here at Vision of Hope United Methodist Church:
I BELIEVE IN THE CHURCH…CALLED TO BE THE BODY OF CHRIST
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.
And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment.
But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. – I Corinthians 12:12-27
Now that’s a great sermon illustration by the Apostle Paul that needs no further expounding upon.
Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry in a region no larger than the portion of the Shenandoah Valley that stretches from Winchester to Staunton. When he ascended on high and his Spirit came upon us, then we became his vehicle to reach every corner of the world with God’s Good News and love.
So it is, Christ has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet, no voice but our voice. And we are organically-knitted, synergetically-entwined as his body in a miraculous way to carry out his mission. No matter what part of the body we may be, we each are vital to Christ.
And we need, respect and support one another as his Body. In any given week 3-5 notes and emails cross my desktop expressing gratitude to our Vision of Hope Church Family for the love and concern you have shown to someone dealing with pain, loss or some other difficulty. Your prayers, your encouraging visits, cards, texts…your gifts of food and financial support sustained someone during a tough time and made such a difference. You were Christ to them.
And that’s what it means to be the Body of Christ–we lift one another up in and beyond our fellowship.
There is one more quality God desires to see in us….
I BELIEVE IN THE CHURCH…CALLED TO BE UNIFIED IN CHRIST
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. -John 17:20-21
Prior to halftime at every JMU home football game there is this extreme chaos going on underneath the endzone stands. Some 450 members of the JMU Marching Royal Dukes are scrambling around, tuning instruments, adjusting uniforms, getting ready to head out on the field. Now having had two musical kids in my family, it’s hard for me to believe some 450 brass, woodwinds, percussionists and flag teamers could ever sublimate there egos to work together on something as challenging as a half-time show.
Yet, when the MRD’s take the field, coming together with great precision in formation, then raising their instruments en masse at the cue of the lead drum major, amazing, inspiring music ensues. It is truly a spectacle to behold!
Jesus prays that we, as his church, would dwell together in such unity…that we would set aside egos and petty differences and all that divides us, and then march together to make a difference for his sake in this world.
Scripture proclaims that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Guess what? You can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your relatives!
And so we have to somehow find a way to dwell and work in unity if we are to truly be the Church in the world.
And that’s getting harder and harder to come by given the myopic culture we live in. I want what I want when I want it, and to heck with you–that’s the motif of our lives today, is it not?
A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to spend a week at Ginghamsburg UMC, one of the largest and most dynamic congregations in our denomination. This church averages 4,400 in worship on a weekend. Its services are quite loud and quite contemporary in format–yet I noticed with curiosity a lot of senior adults mixed in with the hundreds of younger folk. Many of the seniors were scattered throughout the sanctuary as greeters…they would seek out new faces and sit beside them, helping them to get acclimated to the church.
I spoke with one such senior couple–Robert and Betty–who were greeting on the Sunday I was there. I asked them if they enjoyed the music–they replied it wasn’t their cup of tea–they both played with the Dayton Symphony. They discreetly showed me their earplugs.
I asked them, “What is it, then, that keeps you coming to Ginghamsburg?” And they told me it was having the opportunity to mentor young adults in the faith, and to also be a part of the many hands-on mission projects the church sponsored.
And they said quite matter-of-factly, “The church is bigger than us and our own particular tastes–we can always sing “A Mighty Fortress in Our God” in the shower–but here we get to be part of something that is truly unique and special!”
Yes, Jesus prayed for us on the night before he went to the cross. And you know what he prayed? That we would be one!….that the world would see him in us and come to believe in him through us. And yes, sometimes that involves us making sacrifices for the sake of such unity and witness.
I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together….All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the Church together!
Vision of Hope UMC is called to be an outpost of Christ’s greater work in the world. We are blessed to have a congregation of strong believers who see ourselves as the hands, the feet, the voice of Christ, serving together in unity, that the world might experience the hope of his grace.
Jesus promises us, “I will build my Church, and not even the gates of hell shall prevail against it!”
I love the saying that printed over the exit doors at a United Methodist fellowship in Bethesda, MD:
You’ve Been to Church…Now Go Be the Church!