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Catholic And Universal
August 10, 1997

EPHESIANS 1:15-23, 1 PETER 2:9-10

The word in the Apostles' Creed which seems to cause the most difficulty for Protestants is the word catholic! In my wife Eleanor's childhood, the Lutheran Church had changed catholic to Christian. I don't know if they still say Christian, but most of Christendom has used the word catholic since 150 AD. Continuing the summer sermon series on the Apostles' Creed, this morning we study the phrase, the holy catholic church.

Note what the church is not!

The creed does not say that the church is a club. The church is not a club which chooses its members.

The creed does not say that the church is a building. The church meets in a building, but the church is not a building.

The creed does not say that the church is someone's domain. I had a very practical seminary education. My Sociology professor taught us, "When you are the pastor of rural churches in Minnesota, the first thing to do is to find the woman who runs the church." When we returned to Minnesota following graduation, I was appointed to four rural churches. He was right. Each was run by a woman. In the three small churches, it was easy for me to identify the woman, but it took a little longer in the town church which had 200 members. I had been there a few months when I went into the church building one day to discover one of our members painting the entry way. Painting the entry way had not been discussed at the Trustees meeting, nor had it come up in the Official Board meeting. Intrigued, I said to the man, "Oh, you're painting the entry way. Are you going to paint the basement also? It certainly needs it." He said, "I don't know. I'll have to ask Mrs. Jacobsen!" Aha! I found her! The system works well in small churches when the woman who runs the church has the best interests of the church at heart, and really desires to serve Christ. But, when the woman is impressed with her power and image, look out! A church that is not Christ-centered is ego-centered and sick.

Nor does the creed say the church is a business. A current temptation is to run the church as a business, using the latest business methodology, with the pastor as the manager, and the Administrative Council as the Board of Directors.

What the creed says is "the holy catholic church." Let's look at each word.

Beginning with the article the, which is singular, means there is only one holy catholic church. The church which stems from Jesus and his disciples is singular. We are either inside or outside the holy catholic church.

The next word is holy. No, the church is not a human institution, not a club, or someone's pet domain, or a business, or a building. The church has been set apart from the world. There is something very special about the church, something unique, sacred and holy. Wherever God is present, there is the holy. It is difficult to define holy because when we experience the holy, it is impossible to explain. There is something more than words. There is an undefined and uncanny energy, a sense of the imponderable and incomprehensible, an inarticulate feeling of something outside and beyond, removed and distant, yet at the same time near and fascinating. What we do in the church is holy. It is our loss when we take the things of God for granted as common and ordinary!

The next word is catholic. We are not affirming that we believe in the Roman Catholic Church, but in the holy catholic church. To say holy and catholic means that we believe our church goes all the way back to Jesus. We did not begin with John Wesley, nor with Martin Luther. The church began with Christ. The great saints-- Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Augustine, Joan of Arc, etc.-- belong to us, are part of us, are part of our catholic heritage.

Catholic also means universal. In Jesus' day, lines were sharply and clearly drawn between people, between Greek and barbarian, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. But, in the church there were no barriers. A Jew prayed every morning, "I thank you, God, that you have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman." What a revolution it was for the church to proclaim, Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." The church is catholic.

The next word is church. In order to get a clearer understanding of church, let's look at some of the biblical images used to describe the followers of Christ.

1) The flock of God, 1 Peter 5:2. The timeless favorite Psalm 23 pictures a flock of sheep with the Lord as our shepherd. I don't know about you, but I don't particularly like to think of myself as a dumb sheep, needing to be herded about by a shepherd and his dog! But, on the other hand, aren't we all in need of a shepherd? Take a look at the world today, and one wonders just how smart we are, and if we are capable of taking care of ourselves! Needing a guide, needing to be protected from enemies, the church is a flock. When I was an associate pastor, the senior pastor liked to say of himself, "I'm the shepherd of this congregation, and Doug is the crook on my staff!" But, the Lord is our shepherd who cares for the flock, calls us by name, and even knows the number of hairs on our heads! Of course, with some of us, that is no big deal! The church is a flock.

2) A spiritual house, 1 Peter 2:5. The church is not a building, but a spiritual house where each of is a living stone, with Christ as the cornerstone upon which the entire house is erected and stands. In the church, each one of us has a place, like the stones in a house, and the removal of a stone destroys the beauty of the house, and weakens the structure. But, the whole structure collapses when the cornerstone is removed, and the cornerstone is Jesus Christ. The church is a spiritual house.

3) God's people, 1 Peter 2:10, "Once you were no people, but now you are God's people." A basic human need is to belong. We are created by God to belong to God. No longer are you a nobody. You are a somebody in the church. You belong. You are one of God's people. Unlike clubs which choose their members, a church does not choose its members. Whoever confesses Christ as Savior and Lord is welcome to membership. All of us together comprise the people of God. A church building had a sign in front which read CH--CH. What's missing? U R! When you are missing or not functioning, the people of God are not complete. The church is God's people.

4) Family of faith, Galatians 6:10. The church is a family, a family with God as our parent-- our mother and father-- and Jesus as our elder brother. Jesus created a group of people in fellowship with himself and in fellowship with one another. They lived together like a family. They walked the countryside, talked, shared, prayed, and ministered to people. They were a family with a mission. The fellowship they enjoyed was not the purpose of the family. Doing God's work was the purpose of the family. As they did God's work together, they became a family. The church is a family.

5) Bride of Christ, Revelation 21:2. I don't know how you men like the idea of being a bride, but being a bride is a highlight for most women. From the time they are born, daughters and mothers plan the wedding. Even families who are not well-to-do plan and save money for years so their daughter can wear a wedding gown and be the star, the center of attraction, one time in her life. The church is the bride of Christ, dressed up, eyes shining, face smiling, full of irrepressible joy. Aren't most weddings joyful? Where did we get the idea that church is no fun! The church has an intimate, loving relationship with our groom, Jesus Christ. Think of a wedding, reception and honeymoon. That's what it's supposed to be like in church. The church is the bride of Christ.

6) Body of Christ; Ephesians 1:22-23 reads, "the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." The church is Jesus in the flesh. The Holy Spirit puts on flesh, bones and blood in the church. You've heard the old poem, but it still says it all,

He has no hands but our hands

To do his work today,

He has no feet but our feet

To lead them in his way.

He has no voice but our voice

To tell them how he died,

He has no help but our help

To lead them to his side.

To those of you who are visiting today, let me tell you what a wonderful church this is. Let me give you just one of many examples of how this congregation, as the body of Christ, does God's work. A few weeks ago I preached in Mt. Pisgah AME Zion Church at the service honoring their pastor and family. I told them how proud I was of my congregation. The day after the fire at Mt. Pisgah, I offered Pastor Billy the use of our Social Hall for Sunday School, Worship services, and business meetings. I did not consult with the Trustee Chair or the Lay Leader. I didn't even call Mrs. Jacobsen! There wasn't time. But, not one member of our church (at least not in my hearing) complained of my action. The response of this congregation was, "There is a need and, of course, we shall respond."

The church is the body of Christ, doing his work in the world. Do you see what happens when you are not active in the church? The body of Christ is crippled, a hand is missing, a foot is missing. How can a body function when its members are missing?

A father and his five-year-old daughter planned a trip to the baseball game for months. It was her first major league game. Both of them anticipated the big day with great pleasure. Finally, the day came. They walked through the huge parking lot, looking at all the tailgate parties. They entered the stadium, and walked up long flights of stairs. When they reached their level, the little girl gasped and giggled to see the huge playing field far below them. She was thrilled, her eyes big with wonder. Then she was handed a promotional baseball glove from one of the attendants. She looked at the glove, her eyes grew moist. Her chin drooped, and she cried and cried. Her father was beside himself, wondering what had happened. Finally she sobbed, "I came to watch. I didn't know I had to play."

I'm sorry, but you came to play! The church is the body of Christ. No one is here to watch. Every member of the body is needed. We are all players. We've all been handed our bat and glove, told to suit up, get in there and play the game. If we don't play our part, the body of Christ will never win a game!

I believe in the holy catholic church, the flock of God, a spiritual home, God's people, a family of faith, the bride of Christ, and the body of Christ.

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris