Sermon: The Holy Catholic Church

Words can become weapons. Words that should unite us, that should defined our shared life are used to draw lines, divide, and separate.

In 1882, members of  the congregation of Pillar Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, entered the church with axe handles and chains, locking the doors and barring the consistory from entering the church. Concern over certain beliefs and practices of the consistory had spilled over into a forceful coup of the church. The consistory was banished and the church became Pillar Christian Reformed Church.

In the history of our own people, the word “Christian” became a weapon. The word that should have united us as brothers and sisters became ‘we are the Christian Reformed Church, unlike the rest of you.’ The RCA was certainly not innocent in all of this either.

‘Catholic’ is another of those words that became weapons. From very early on, the church can confessed itself as the ‘holy catholic church.’ However, it was only at the Reformation – five hundred years ago Tuesday – that the word ‘catholic’ became the dividing line between Rome and the Reformation. You see, ‘catholic’ is a word that simply means ‘universal.’ It was a way of talking about the unity of the church as one church across the world and across the ages. There are many churches in many different countries, but there is only one Church (capital C). To say you believe in the ‘holy catholic church’ is to say that Christ has only one body, the church, not multiple bodies in multiple countries. It is a claim about the unity of church as it belongs to Jesus Christ.

At the time of the reformation, the word ‘catholic’ became a weapon of Rome against the Reformers. Rome was the ‘catholic’ church, the true church, while we were seen as separate, as those cut off from the true church of Christ.

But ‘catholic’ is a word that belongs to all Christians.  If you are not ready to call yourself catholic at the moment, I hope that as we explore God’s word in Ephesians 4, you will be. For in this passage, Paul gives us two images that show us the beauty and challenge of being the ‘holy, catholic church.’ Ephesians 4, verses 1-16. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle, be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says,

‘When he ascended on high,

He led captives in his train,

and gave gifts to men.’

(What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly realms? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be preachers and teachers to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ might be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

Paul gives us two images of the church that will help us see the beauty and challenge of being the Holy Catholic Church: a body and a boat.

The first image we are given of the church is the body of Christ. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. Jesus Christ is the head of the body, believers are joined to him like limbs on a body. There is one body with different parts, one church with different gifts, joined together because they are joined to the head, Jesus Christ.

Even if there are differences in gifts and roles, there is a fundamental unity to the church. There is only one church, there is only one body. You cannot be joined to the head – Jesus Christ – apart from the body. This means, all who are saved are joined to the church – there are no Lone Ranger Christians. To be in Christ is to be a part of his body. This is why fleeing from fellowship with believers is spiritually dangerous. It would be like your hand, because it doesn’t like your elbow, doing its best to flee from the rest of your body. Either it will fail, because it is fundamentally connected with the rest of your body, or it will succeed and you have an amputation – your body suffers and, ultimately, that hand dies.

This image is brutal, but God is showing us the high stakes of unity and the immense cost of division. To cut yourself off from the church is to try to rip apart the body of Christ. To confess to believe in the holy catholic church is to say with Scripture that there is ever only one, universal church. Even as we stand visibly divided as a church, there is ever only one, true church. There is not a Roman Catholic Church, a Lutheran Church, a Baptist Church, and a Reformed Church as if these were all separate churches. There is only one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The reformation claimed that the true church exists wherever there is the pure preaching of the Word of God, the pure administration of the sacraments, and Christian discipline for the correcting of faults. Wherever that happens, there is the true church, even if it is a different denomination. The challenge of the ecumenical movement is in what ways can or can’t we recognize our brother and sister churches as part of the one, true church of Jesus Christ.

There is only one Church, just as there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Separation & Division, like a body being pulled apart at the joints, is painful, violent, and dangerous. We undertake division at our own peril.

Instead, we are joined together in this beautiful body of Christ, given different gifts, in order to grow up in Christ. The goal of the unity and catholicity of the church is the maturity of the church. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. When we are united to Jesus Christ, the head of the church, and joined and held together to our brothers and sisters in the church, we grow and are built up in love. God has even called and raised up office-bearers in the church so that the body of Christ might be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

We are joined together by Christ in order to grow together in Christ – to become mature. The mature body of Christ lives in true unity, working together in love, reaching out in love, growing in the knowledge of the Son of God, and, ultimately, looking more and more like Jesus Christ. This is the mature unity which is part of God’s purpose in uniting us as the church.

But if there is a mature unity, there is certainly also an immature one. Paul holds forth this beautiful vision of a mature, united body, because the church in Ephesus was not mature. Instead, Paul says they were infants. Every bump and bruise caused them to cry as if the world was ending. They chased after every new fad of faith, only to drop it five minutes later. They were gullible and taken in by hucksters and charlatans. They were – and this is the second image Paul gives us – like a boat tossed in a storm. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.

The church is like a body, but is also like a boat in a storm. There is the temptation, knowing the high cost of division, to seek unity at all costs. This is the impulse to ignore the deep divisions and significant differences of direction that exist between congregations and denominations. It is the kind of false unity that ignores whether the boat is headed toward the rocks, or how bad the storm is raging, because all that matters is that we are all in the same boat. Paul calls this being infants. It is immaturity that does not care where the ship is headed, that does not discern between what is good and what is best, that does not test the teaching presented, but swallows everything whole. Paul likens this immaturity to a boat tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind.

Division is dangerous, but so is immaturity. A faith without an anchor in the gospel of Jesus Christ will be dashed against the rocks when the storm comes. A church that does not row in the direction of the kingdom, whether the winds are at its back or in its face, but simply drifts along on the wind and waves, will ultimately crash.

Christ has joined us together in this holy catholic church and given us ministers, elders, and deacons, so that the body of Christ might be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

The call of God’s word is to avoid the false purity that separates and separates, tearing the body of Christ into pieces. The call of God’s word is also to avoid the false unity that loses the gospel and runs the church aground. The historical record shows that the church has not done this well. We have, at times, united in a polite, false unity that masked serious heresy and false teaching within the church. But more often, we have split and split and split. In particular, this is a sad, painfully common occurrence within the Reformed churches. We, as a people, have erred on the side of purity, over against unity and peace.

This is why, in some sense, ‘the holy catholic church’ is something we confess in faith. The unity of the church across the nations and across the ages is not something we see with our eyes, but something we believe because of Jesus Christ. It is something perceived only through the eyes of faith.

Yet, how shall we live if we believe it is true? How can we live as a mature body, not sacrificing unity, purity, or peace in living out the calling we have received from Christ?

Paul gives three commands to the Ephesians that remain true for us. First, be humble. Be completely humble and gentle, be patient, bearing with one another in love. We will never become a mature body in Christ if we do not begin with humility. Humility before God and humility toward one another enables us to be gentle, patient, and bearing with each other in love. When we start with pride, or a belief that we have completely mastered this thing call the Christian faith, we break far more than we build. Humility is the first step toward love, which is the way God binds us together as the church.

Second, Paul urges us to continue to grow in Christ and use our gifts. to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ might be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Humility creates that teachable spirit that enables us to grow in our knowledge of God and his Word as well as grow in love toward God and our neighbor. When we grow and use our gifts to serve others, we are working toward that mature unity that Christ calls for in the church.

Lastly, Paul urges perseverance. Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bonds of peace. Unity, purity, and peace takes work. So be patient and keep working. We are blessed in this congregation by the incredible work God is doing in us and through us, but we are not there yet. We are not there yet until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

We are not there yet. God is not done with us, this small pocket of the holy catholic church at the corner of 120th and Q. So be humble, keep growing and serving, and keep at it.

In 2012, Pillar Christian Reformed Church was reconstituted. What was once the site of great division, became a ministry of reconciliation. In morning worship, those events of 130 years earlier were re-enacted with a different end. Chains and axe handle were brought into the sanctuary, but instead of locking people out, the chains tied together the axe handles to form the base of a new baptismal font – One Lord, one Faith, one baptism. Pillar Church had become a dual-affiliated church – Reformed and Christian Reformed at the same time. The place of division had become a place of reconciliation.

May the church keep working faithfully until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attain gin to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

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