1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of His power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In Him and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13 I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom His whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, 21 to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into heaven.
He is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.
We continue our series today by turning our focus towards the life and the mission of the Church.
The first thing I want to deal with is the word ‘catholic’ in the Creed, as the use of this word has created much confusion and controversy over the years.
You will have noticed that it is not spelt with a capital C. What we are talking about here is the universal, catholic Church – not the Roman Catholic Church.
The word catholic means quite simply, universal.
God sees one ‘holy, catholic church’.
By holy, we mean ‘set apart’. The church that Christ founded is set apart and called to God’s purposes. Regardless of our denomination or particular statements of beliefs, we are all united in Christ and are called to be His people here on earth, for the benefit of others.
And, by catholic, we mean universal. The creed is a statement of belief in our being one, set apart, universal church, that transcends every man-made divide. It’s a reminder that, Protestant or Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist, we are all one in Christ.
And we certainly need to be reminded of this. It’s easy to get so caught up in our particular denominational bubble, that we end up cutting ourselves off from all the other expressions of the Church. We become blinkered, and we also all too often start to think that we have everything right and ‘they’ don’t. We start to feel superior. In other words, we open the door to pride.
We are to love the Church of Jesus Christ, not criticise it.
This one line in the Creed reminds us to humble ourselves and see the Church that God sees. And there’s only one of them. There is only one body of Christ. There is only one bride of Christ.
However… Some people regard the Church as an article of belief, while sadly there are many who see the Church as an obstacle to belief.
There are many people who are more than happy to surrender themselves to Jesus, but have little or no inclination to become involved in the life and the witness of the Church.
And there are even those who believe that the worst thing which ever happened to Jesus and the Christian faith, is the Church.
Robert Boothby was a colourful and controversial English politician in the last century, and this is what he had to say about the Church: “The history of the Christian Churches has been one of atrocious cruelty. All of them have done untold harm to the world. The traditions of the Christian Churches for centuries can be summarised as dogma, persecution, hatred, destruction and fire. In fact, everything that Jesus loathed and denounced.”
Interestingly enough, he does not oppose Jesus Himself, but he makes the point that in his opinion the Church has a history of counteracting all that Jesus taught.
Now this is a scathing denunciation on the Church (and there are countless other quotes with similar sentiments I could have used), but those of us who belong to and love the Church have to admit that our reputation is not good. The Church (or to put it more accurately), the people within the Church have not always portrayed the love of Christ in the way He would want us to.
And this is a problem for the Church. Instead of representing Christ to the world, we have been regarded as an obstacle to faith, and if we were to be completely honest, much of the criticism aimed at the Church is entirely justified.
So what is the Church, or to put it more accurately, what is the Church meant to be?
We need to start out by understanding that from God’s perspective, the Church is a good and glorious thing. The Church is the bride of Christ, and Jesus gave Himself for us – the Church. Jesus loves the Church.
Our Old Testament reading from Genesis today applies very much to the modern Church.
Just as God told Abram that all peoples would be blessed through him, the world is to be blessed through the Church today.
How the world sees the Church is an entirely different matter, and our challenge is to change the wrong view the world has of us, but as far as God is concerned, His Church is a glorious thing, and this is the foundation which we are building on today.
Do you want to be an effective witness to the love of Christ?
Then a major part of your witness needs to be from within His Church.
On the Alpha Course Nicky Gumbel, when speaking about the Church, says “The freelance Christian, who would be a Christian but is too superior to belong to the visible Church on Earth in one of its forms, is simply a contradiction in terms.”
God forbid that any of us should consider ourselves too superior to belong to, and be involved in the life and witness of Christ’s Church…
So what do we mean when we say that we believe in the holy Church?
Essentially, when we look at the ancient languages of Biblical times, we can describe the Church as something which belongs to God, and is called out from the world to be set apart for His purposes – to be holy.
We have heard this many times, but it’s worth repeating: The Church is not a building or an institution, but rather a people who belong to Jesus, and who are committed to His mission for the Church.
Church is not somewhere you go. Church is something you are.
So what are we to do as the Church? We can’t possibly answer this question in such a short time as we have today, but I want to look very briefly at three verses in Ephesians which will help us.
“God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)
Last week we looked at the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, and the primary means of His work is through the body of Christ – the Church.
God does some amazing things through the lives of individual believers, but He does far more when the Church is obedient to Him and the prompting of His Spirit.
Secondly, Ephesians 3:10-11. “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Our task as the Church is to proclaim the wisdom of God, the message of hope and salvation, according to His eternal purpose. We are not primarily called to make life easier for the oppressed and the underprivileged (although that is certainly part of what we are called to do.) In James 1:27 we are told “to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” In this congregation we understand this call, and I hope we continue to be obedient to God in this area of ministry.
There are tremendous social, emotional and economic needs everywhere we look, and we must make a difference where we can, but our primary focus must always be on God’s eternal purpose.
And what is His eternal purpose?
Paul answers this question perfectly in 2 Corinthians 5: “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God has committed to us – His Church – the message of reconciliation.
Our number one task is to proclaim that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, comforting the lonely and all those other things are good and noble causes, and we must keep doing them, and doing them better.
But more importantly, the hungry, cold and lonely need to know that there is a God who loves them so much that He gave His only begotten Son for them, so that if they believe in Him, they will not die but have eternal life. That is God’s eternal purpose.
Thirdly, Ephesians 3:20-21. “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
This sums up perfectly the purpose of the Church: To bring glory to God.
If we do what we are called to do as the Church, and if we remain faithful to God, His Spirit will continue to empower us. He will continue to bring lost sinners to salvation through the evangelism of the Church, and the incorrect perceptions of what the world thinks about the Church will be corrected, and all for one purpose and one purpose only. To glorify God.
This is why it is such a tragedy that some people who claim to love Jesus want to have nothing to do with the Church.
“I don’t want organised religion. I don’t want people in the Church telling me what I can and can’t do. I want it to be just Jesus and me.”
Well that would be fine, except that Jesus loves His Church, gave His life for His Church, and He is still committed to building His Church through the ongoing work of His Spirit. And it is in the Church where God is glorified.
That’s what we mean when we say that we believe in the Church, and this is why I agree wholeheartedly with Nicky Gumbel when he says that a Christian who is too superior too be connected to the Body of Christ – the Church – is simply a contradiction in terms.
I believe in the Communion of Saints. What do we mean by that?
We are reminded in the Creed that not only is there one Church, but also that we are connected to all the saints throughout the ages. This reminds us of our call and our need to remain connected to the Body of Christ.
Simply put, we need each other as the family of God.
So what is a saint then? Unfortunately there is often a misunderstanding of what this term means. For many, the saints are those who were martyred in the name of Christianity, and those ‘stand out’ Christians who have done more for the work of the Church than your ‘average’ Christian.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In Paul’s opening greeting in 1 Corinthians he writes “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The ancient Greek word for saints is ágioi which comes from the Greek word for holy, and is related to the word ‘sanctified.’
So if we read that verse again, the clear implication here is that Paul is addressing the Corinthian Church and its members as saints.
Now if you have done any research on the early Corinthian Church, you will know what a ragtag bunch of misfits they were. They had huge issues because of pride and bickering within their congregation, and especially among their leadership.
But yet, they are called saints – sanctified, and called holy.
If we go to chapter 6, Paul writes to these saints in the Corinthian Church, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.”
What a motley crew they were. That’s what these saints were.
So what happened to them?
Let’s read on in verse 11: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
They were totally transformed by the Spirit of God. They were called out from the depravity of their sin, sanctified, made holy and set apart for Christ.
They became saints, and as the Church these former idolaters, adulterers, prostitutes, homosexual offenders, thieves, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers now belonged to the Communion of Saints.
And so do we. The saints are those who are called out from the world, to be the Church. We are the saints. We are part of the communion of saints, so if you look around you this morning, you will see that you are surrounded by saints.
Many of us incorrectly understand saints to be a kind of super-Christian who is or was better than the rest of us. The New Testament however describes all followers of Christ as saints. Anyone who is a part of Christ’s church is a saint.
In the same way that the Church is holy, the saints are the holy people who make up that Church. This being set apart is not to be understood primarily as being set apart from the rest of the world, but rather as being set apart for the rest of the world.
This goes right back to the call of Abram in Genesis 12 where God called him and set him apart, telling him that, ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’. People are chosen not for the exclusion of others, but for the inclusion - blessing - of others.
As the Church, the communion of saints, we are to be a blessing to the world.
What an amazing privilege it is to be part of this universal, set apart Church and to be one of saints, set apart to be part of God’s great plan to redeem and restore all humanity.
Let’s look at the example of the early Christian Church from Acts 2:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Are we doing these things? Are we devoted to the fellowship, the life and the witness of the Church?
If we’re not, we’re not being obedient to the Spirit of God, and I’m afraid that the world has a point when it sees us as more of an obstacle to faith, rather than a people who collectively are an effective witness of the grace and love of God.
We should not allow our vision and understanding of Church to be limited to our particular denomination or this building we come to each Sunday morning. Let’s enlarge our vision and keep sight of the universal Church - the body of Christ - that we are part of. And may we always remember - and celebrate - our connection to the saints throughout the ages.
We are One.