Thursday, February 04, 2010

one, holy, catholic and apostolic

Christians in the early centuries had experienced the presence of the resurrected and living Jesus, they had collected his teachings, they gathered, as he commanded them to, to remember him in the meal, and they were challenged and convicted, as he had also reminded them, to love one another. They came together not on the basis of their race or ethnicity, not on the basis of their social or economic class, not on the basis of their political preferences or recreational inclinations, but for a very different reason: they had made a profession of faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and they had become a part of his body, which came to be called, over time, the church, which literally means, “the gathering”.

In these early centuries what came to be called the New Testament, the gospels and the letters, were passed around in these communities, they were read aloud and copied and transmitted from generation to generation. The letters to the church in Corinth, located in Greece, were an example of this. There were conflicts in these communities, disagreements about ideas and morality, struggles for power and control, and so there was a need to define who the people were and what their coming together meant. In the fourth century, in 325, the earliest of our common creeds, the Nicene Creed, was formulated. It did not take the place of scripture, but gathered up some of the important convictions in scripture into a summary that could be memorized and explained.

I love the Nicene Creed, what it says about a God who creates all that exists, seen and unseen, what it says about Jesus, who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven….and became truly human….what is says about the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. And I love what the Nicene Creed says about the church: one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and that is what I want to focus on for a few minutes. What is the church, and why does it matter?

First, the church is one. The unity of the church is grounded in the One God (Deuteronomy 6), affirmed by Jesus (Mark 12), and in the teachings of the apostles in Ephesians 4 (there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism). This unity is a gift of God (I Corinthians 12), and is never a human achievement, right or claim. The practical expression of unity is the love of God and neighbor. Our complacency with division indicates a lack of love, and is finally a barrier to the mission of the gospel in the midst of unbelief; I pray, we hear Jesus saying in John 17, that they may be one, so that the world will believe that you have sent me.

It is true that we are connected with each other in the one body. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. I watched the memorial service for Sam Dixon a week ago Friday, the director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Sam died in the earthquake in Haiti, attending the same meeting at which Pam was present. They had talked that day. I had been in a meeting with Sam earlier in January. I had asked him, given the demanding work that you do, “how do you find renewal?” He talked about being in churches and the energy he drew from people. We were not close friends, but we knew each other, and we had very close mutual friends, and a few of those are members of Providence.

I watched his memorial service streamed on the internet, it was held at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh. Pam and I have very close friends in that church, we have had members to move to Raleigh and join Edenton Street, and we have also had wonderful folks move from there to Charlotte and join Providence. It was a very moving service to watch, even from a distance, and as I was listening the words and the music, I thought of Paul’s affirmation: in the body, when one suffers, all suffer, when one rejoices, all rejoice. I certainly felt the second part of that scripture when Pam returned and was greeted on that first Sunday morning following the earthquake.

In the United Methodist Church we have a term for this: the connection. It expresses our unity, our oneness. The Methodist Church is Providence, but it is also the Charlotte District and the Western North Carolina Conference and then it ripples out to the ends of the earth: it is Africa University and the Cap Haitien Methodist Church; it is Duke Divinity School and Aldersgate Retirement Community; it is every church I have served, from a rural gathering of the saints who actually used the Broadman Hymnal to the majesty of “Holy Holy Holy” in this place.

We are one. But it goes far beyond being a Methodist. The One body of Christ includes all who profess the name of Jesus: Catholic to Pentecostal, house church to cathedral, urban to rural, conservative and liberal, if we must use those words! There are not many churches; there is one church, because there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Second, the church is holy. We could ask a question at this point. Is the church holy? I remember early in our ministry an evening in which Pam and I had dinner with two women, sisters, who were the daughters of a minister and had grown up in a parsonage. It was an evening I will never forget----they rehearsed, through our four hour conversation, one negative experience after another across a number of churches---judgmentalism, mistreatment, inhumanity.

I left wondering---what am I getting myself into? Of course, the church is a human institution, and most of us are some combination of saint and sinner. The church’s sins are often spread out before the public: clergy misconduct, financial scandal, racism, exclusion of certain people, unbelief. Some of our sins are more hidden---competition with other churches, or

So what does it mean to say that the church is holy? The church as an ideal is holy, and yet even scripture confesses that “we have the treasure [of the gospel] in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4). One dimension of this holiness is that the church is set apart for a particular purpose; this is variously defined as word and sacrament, the body of Christ, and as a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. This holiness is both personal and social, evidenced by prayer and service, action and contemplation.

The church is set apart to do what only it can do: to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ, through words and through actions. For this reason the church is not a business, and the church is not exactly a non-profit agency either. It has a different bottom line, and that is how we will stand before the great judgment of Matthew 25. At times we will join hands with others of good will to ease suffering or to be a voice for those who have no voice. At times we stand against the culture, against what is popular, because we are “set apart”. This requires an inner strength, a discipline. But this is a mark of the authentic church; Paul came back to this, over and over again, in I Corinthians. In an immoral culture, he called the followers of Jesus to holiness; in a deeply divided society he reminded those who had been baptized that they were one.

Third, the church is catholic. I remember attending church as a teenager, and we would come to the place in the Apostles’ Creed where we would say “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church”, and there was always a slight hesitancy in that deep south congregation. In our hymnal there is an asterisk, beside the word catholic, with the explanation at the bottom of the page, “universal”. And while we may not understand, when we say those words, what we mean by catholic church, they are deeply embedded in our tradition as Methodists.

One of John Wesley’s most famous sermons was entitled “The Catholic Spirit”. He said, in that sermon,

“if your heart is as my heart, and you love God and all humanity, I ask no more: give me your hand”..this love, implied for Wesley, the following---treating each other as a brother or sister in Christ, praying for each other, provoking one another to love and good works, loving not only in words but in actions and in truth. And he said, in a very revealing and profound sentence: “So far as in conscience you can (retaining still your own opinions and your own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God, and let us go on hand in hand.”

The church is catholic, or universal, in that its core identity is found in the whole and not merely in the fragments of its local expression. This resonates with Paul’s image of the body in I Corinthians 12 and his meditation on love in I Corinthians 13. Yes, we are one in the Lord Jesus; but we express that faith in a variety of ways, and it is a beautiful thing when we can join hands with Christians across all kinds of lines and do the work of God. Indeed, I am convinced that this is what pleases God the most. Only then are we truly the one body.

Fourth, and finally, the church is apostolic. The church is apostolic as its life is traced to the teachings of the apostles. Now I am not talking about a literal apostolic succession, with the Pope being the historical successor to Peter of the New Testament, although this would be the conviction of Catholics, and I can appreciate their tradition. The church is a family tree whose roots go down deeply into the apostles teaching about the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, and how this event has already changed the world. I think of words at the end of the second chapter of Acts: they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

What was the apostles' teaching? Well, they did have a need to answer that question, and so these short summaries circulated, first the Nicene Creed and then the Apostles Creed. The tradition of the apostles certainly has, as its core, the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican expressions, and each stream has shaped the Wesleyan movement. This living tradition contains many of the resources that sustain our faith; at the same time, there is always a need for reformation, for prophetic witness, for what my friend Greg Jones calls “traditioned innovation”.

The church is apostolic as it carries on the teaching of the apostles; but it has another meaning. To be an apostle is literally to be “sent” into the world. “As the Father has sent me”, Jesus says in John 20, “so I send you”. The mission of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transmission of the world”. In November Providence changed, by church council action, its vision statement, from “To be the body of Christ, glorifying God and serving others” to “A growing body of Christ, glorifying God and serving others”.

To grow as at the body of Christ is to be a force for unity in the world, and not division; it is to be a sign of God’s holiness and light and not darkness; it is to know that the church is universal, more than our own local church, it finds expression in many languages, cultures and forms; and it is to draw life from the core teachings about who Jesus is. And as we come to know these teachings, we realize that the treasure of the gospel, contained in our earthen vessels, is not only for us; we are sent into this world to offer the greatest gift, which is love.

When the church is authentically the church Jesus calls it to be, we are one, holy, catholic and apostolic.


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