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TEXT: I Timothy 3:15-16
SUBJECT: The Apostles' Creed #8: Holy Catholic Church, Communion of Saints
At the end of last year, we began a once-a-month study of the Apostles' creed. For centuries, the Lord's People thought the Creed was drawn up by the Twelve Disciples of Christ, and that it's authority, therefore, was equal to the Bible.
They were wrong, of course, but if you've studied the Creed, you understand why they felt this way. Without being inspired or infallible, it summarizes the teaching of the Apostles, and does it so well that after more than 1,500 years it has not been improved on! Someday, it may be done, but nobody's done it yet! Or come close to doing it.
The Creed has been widely used and deeply loved for three main reasons:
Anything short, sweet, and Christ-centered has got to be good. And the Apostles' Creed is all that-and more.
Thus far, we have studied God.
God the Father Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and Earth:
Jesus Christ, His only Son,
[And] The Holy Spirit.
Now we move on to the next heading. From not long after the New Testament was written, to this very day, Christians have stood up, every Sunday, all over the world, and confessed,
I believe. in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.
That's the topic for today, and may God give us a better understanding of it, and more than that, a deeper love for the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
Before we look at the doctrine itself, I'd have you note that it's in the Apostles' Creed. Well, of course it is. But has it occurred to you how many other doctrines are not in the Creed? Things that are plainly taught in the Bible and are very dear to the Lord's People are left out, while the Church is put in!
What does this say about the Church?
It says the Church was a very important matter to the early followers of Christ. They didn't see it as a secondary doctrine or as a thing you could take or leave as you like.
A few years ago, an article was published with a title to this effect, How People are Leaving The Church and Getting Closer to God. If a Christian had read that in 200 AD, he would have had no idea what it was trying to say. To his way of thinking, quitting the Church was the same as quitting God. Was he right? He was, because he got it straight out of the Bible. The best known verses are Acts 2:47 and I John 2:19.
And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
They went out from us, for they were not of us, for if they had been of us they would have no doubt continued with us. But they went out from us that it might be made manifest that they were not of us.
The Church has an honored place in the Creed because it has an honored place in the New Testament. And for that reason, it must have an honored place in your heart and mine.
The second thing to observe is the placement of this article. I believe in.the Church comes right after I believe in the Holy Spirit, and just before I believe in the forgiveness of sins.
Now, if you're going to affirm your belief in the Church, you've got to put it somewhere, but why here? If it were up to me, I would have put it after the forgiveness of sins. But the Early Church didn't see it that way. J.I. Packer explains why,
It is by strict theological logic that the Creed confesses faith in the Holy Spirit before proceeding to the Church, and that it speaks of the Church before mentioning personal salvation. For even though the Father and Son have loved the Church and the Son redeemed it, is the Holy Spirit who actually creates it, by inducing faith; and it is in the Church, through its ministry that personal salvation ordinarily comes to be enjoyed.
Whatever else you can say about the Church, you have to say it is the community of faith, and that faith is given by the Holy Spirit. That's why the Church follows the Spirit in the Creed. And, even though we get nervous when people say it out loud, it's still true: Salvation ordinarily comes to sinners by the work of God in and through the Church. Is the Church your Savior? Of course not! But, in the vast majority of cases, people are converted by the preaching or witnessing or praying or holy living of the Church.
This leads to the exhilarating thought: God has given us a part to play in the salvation of the world!
With the thought comes the challenge: Are we playing our part? Are we witnessing to the lost? Are we praying for them? Are we showing them Christian love? Are we supporting the Church? Are we giving to missions? Has anyone here even considered giving up a career to preach the Gospel? Or foregoing marriage to work as a teacher or nurse in a missionary setting?
To say, I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints has to mean more than 'I sit in the pew forty-five minutes every other Sunday!'
THE MEANING OF 'CHURCH'
What then, is the Church we believe in?
Someone has said, 'A little learning is a dangerous thing'. This may be true in some things, but not in the Greek language. Nearly every American Evangelical knows the New Testament word for 'Church'. It is.ekklesia.
Ek means 'out' or 'out of' and Kaleo means 'call'. The Church, therefore, are the people 'called out'. With this strict meaning, there's a hint of more: To be 'called out' of one place is to be 'called to' another place. The Church, therefore, are the people called out of the world and called to God and each other.
The basic, technical definition is also a good and clear one.
OLD TESTAMENT FORERUNNER
There was an Old testament forerunner of the 'church'. It was called out of Ur of the Chaldees, with a membership of two. After thirty years, a third member was added (Abraham was not a successful pastor!). Then, it grew into more than a million members, and God called them out of Egypt (where they didn't belong) and into the Promised Land, where they would live with Him and each other.
The Old Testament idea of 'Church' then, is the People of God living together in God's grace, under His Lordship, and for His glory.
For a time, this was easy to do: Israel lived apart from other nations in the land God gave them. But then something happened, and it was terrible to behold. In 721 BC, the northern kingdom was carried into exile. About 150 years later, the southern tribes suffered the same fate. The People were no longer together, but as a punishment for their sins, they were scattered to the four winds. Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, and later, Greece, Rome, everywhere!
What did they do in exile? They didn't blend in with the foreign peoples. They formed synagogues in every city. If they couldn't live together around the Temple, they'd find some other way to hang on to their faith and community.
Though synagogues were not commanded in the Bible, the idea of coming together as God's People was, and Jesus Christ honored the synagogue by going to it every Sabbath.
No synagogue contained all of God's People, but it represented them all. It made the worldwide community local.
When Jesus Christ began His public career, He called disciples to Himself-and to each other. He didn't tell Peter to stay home and read the Bible or Matthew to have devotions at the toll booth. He said, Follow Me, and that means together.
They did just that. You hardly ever find a solitary believer in the Gospels. They were always bunching up to listen to Christ, pray, talk things over, and eat meals.
Even after the Crucifixion, when it became dangerous to be seen together, the followers of Christ kept gathering. At first, a handful here and there, but within a few weeks, 120 disciples were meeting to pray, study the Bible, and worship God through Jesus Christ.
PENTECOST AND AFTER
A Big Day for the Church occurred at the Feast of Pentecost, in the spring of 30 AD or thereabouts. The Holy Spirit was poured out upon these people, three thousand were saved in a day, and Luke tells us what they started doing,
They continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.
For a few years, there was something of an overlap between the Church and Israel. But by 70 AD, and especially 130 AD, there was no confusion whatsoever. Israel (as a people) had rejected Christ, while the Church had confessed His Lordship and become willing to die for it.
The Church we confess to believe in, therefore, is The People of God, in fellowship with Him and each other through faith in Jesus Christ.
THE CHURCH IS ONE
Later Creeds said the Church is "One". The Apostles' Creed doesn't use that word, but it doesn't need to. The words, the Church imply it is one.
This creates a real problem for some Christians, especially the ones I grew up with, who say How can the Church be one if the Bible often speaks of 'churches'? Or, How can an assembly be an assembly if it never assembles?
Let me concede they are right on this point: the word, churches appears far more often in the Bible than the word Church. We read of the seven churches of Asia, the churches in Galatia, the churches in Judea, and so on. So, if there is one church in Rome and another in Antioch, a third in Corinth, another in Jerusalem, and so on, how can the Church be One?
The answer is quite simple: The Bible uses the word in two separate ways. In many places, it means one particular church and not another-Rome and not Ephesus. But it also uses the term to describe all the People of God. The three places that occur to me are Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 3:21, and Hebrews 12:22-24.
On this rock I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages world without end.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of the New Covenant.
The first two verses cannot possibly refer to the church in Rome or the church in Tokyo or the church in Fremont, for if they did, these churches would have to exist from the Day of Pentecost until the Second Coming of Christ! And not even Rome claims that!
If the third verse stands for the local church, then we have to conclude that some of its membership roll is dead! I know many church members are 'dead'-but not in this way!
An easier way to understand the Oneness of the Church is to use the images of the Bible. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then every person connected to Christ is also connected to each other. If the Church is the Family of God, then every one who calls God, 'Father' calls each other 'brother' or 'sister'. If the Church is the Temple of God, then every member of it is one brick in the building.
I know this doctrine has been abused. Some have taken the oneness of the Church to mean their church is the only true church and every other church is a cult. Others have contented themselves by membership in the One Church without any commitment to a local church. These are abuses, no doubt about that, but you don't correct one abuse with another!
The fact remains, though there are millions of local churches in the world today, there is also One Church, to which all Christians belong (including the ones we wouldn't be caught dead with!)
THE CHURCH IS CATHOLIC
If One Church offends a few people, one Catholic Church offends people by the million!
A half an hour of study would take the offense away. When Americans hear the words, Catholic Church, we think: Roman Catholic. We think of popes and cardinals, priests and monks; venerating Mary, praying to saints, fingering rosaries, confessing to men, and the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Roman Church has used the word, catholic to its own advantage. But we ought to take it back, because we had it in the first place and they snitched it from us!
The word, Catholic, does not mean in communion with the Pope. It means Universal. It means God has a people from every nation, kindred, tribe, tongue.and time!
THE CHURCH IS HOLY
The Church we believe in is also holy. We say the Church is holy, but is it? A lot can be said against this word. We look at ourselves and see laziness and the love of money, bad tempers, stubbornness. We yell at our wives and disobey our husbands, we ignore our kids and defy our parents. We read the Bible without a thought in our heads and mumble our prayers. We say bad words, we laugh at dirty jokes, and we don't witness to the lost. In short, we look at ourselves and wonder how anyone could call us holy.
Then we look at the wider Church scene and see things are even worse-scandalous conduct is permitted and even cheered on, and false teaching is everywhere. How can we say holy church in the same sentence?
Because the Bible does.
The Corinthians had all the problems we do: false teaching, sexual misconduct, division, pride, misuse of gifts, even lawsuits against each other. Knowing all this, Paul still addresses them,
To the Church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.
When applied to the Church and its members on earth, holy does not mean perfect or nearly perfect. It means partly holy and partly not. It was Dr. Martin Luther who made the startling discovery that the Christian is,
At the same time, righteous and sinning.
What's true of the believer is true of the Church. We have much to repent of, but we are still in Christ and that means holy.
I'm tired of arm-chair quarterbacking! A fat fifty year old man slumps in his chair in front of the TV, swilling his beer, and telling the quarterback to throw deep or dump it off or run for the first down! If it's so easy to do, why doesn't he do it?
The critics of the Church are no better: they look at the church from the outside and tell us what we're doing wrong. Too much preaching, not enough outreach, bad singing, nothing for the kids! If they know so much about Church Life why don't they join us and do something about it? But if they did, we'd soon see they're no better than we are.
The Church is holy because Jesus Christ says we're holy. With all our faults, I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
At the end of this article, the Creed reminds us that the Church is not a building or an organization, it is the
The communion of saints.
When we hear, 'communion' we think of the Lord's Supper, and that is one use of the word. But here, it means fellowship or sharing. The saints are all Christians living and dead. All of us share in the life of Christ and therefore, we share life with each other.
Practically, this means:
Although we ought to love every Christian in the world, we have a special debt to our brothers and sisters in the local church, simply because they're the ones we know best and can help the most.
Believing in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, therefore, means far more than paying lip service to the existence of the Church. It means committing ourselves to the Lord's People. And that means loving them the way they are.
Let brotherly love abound.
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