Archive for October, 2016

One Holy Catholic Church

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Almost every week in our church, we recite the Apostles C’reed.  The Apostle’s Creed has this one statement that always causes confusion:  “I believe in…the holy catholic church…”  A similar phrase is in the traditional text of the Nicene Creed:  “We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”  In the United Methodist Hymnal, both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed have an asterix after the word ‘catholic’ that indicates the word means ‘universal.’  So the Roman Catholic Church is that part of the universal church that is headquartered in Rome.  We could all rightly call ourselves ‘catholic’.  The church to which I belong is the part of the universal church called the United Methodist Church.

The church is universal in the sense that as Ignatius of Antioch declared,”Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”  Jesus Christ is the head of the church, the body of Christ, as well as our Lord and Savior.  Since the time of the Reformation, churches in the Protestant tradition, have understood the church to include the body of Christ including the whole company of believers, both in time and space.  So all believers that ever have lived, all that are alive now, and all who ever will believe are included in the universal church.

A picture of the universal church is expressed in Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom.  In Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field.  It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.  The Kingdom of God has small beginnings, but has grown to include people from every nation.

A second parable of Jesus also emphasizes the universal nature of the church, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread.  Even though she had put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”  (Matt. 13:33, 34)  This parable emphasizes the all-pervasive influence of the Kingdom of God in the world.

Having just returned from China, I had the privilege of attending the Beijing International Christian Fellowship.  In the service I attended, there was a great crowd of about 2,000 people “from every tribe and people and language,” and we raised our hands and were singing praises in every language.  It was a beautiful experience and picture of the church in Rev. 7:9.  John said, (Rev. 7:9), “After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. …”

Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.  For you have created all, and redeemed all.  You have established a church, calling it to be faithful in every time and place.  Draw together all who are one in Christ, that across the whole earth there may be witnesses to you, to the glory of your Name, O God, One in diversity, O God, Three in One.  Amen.  (Stookey, This Day:  A Wesleyan Way of Prayer, p. 86, 87)

 

One Holy Church

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“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” – Nicene Creed, 325  These 4 marks are considered the traditional characteristics of the true church:  one, holy, catholic (meaning universal), and apostolic.

How can we say that the church is holy?  The church is clearly a human institution with all of the flaws of any human institution.  This should be obvious given the list of sins that we see published in the newspaper.  The church is a human institution, because it is filled with sinners saved by grace.

However, the church is not only a human institution.  The church is also an institution that was founded by God.  The first mention of the church in the New Testament is by Jesus.  After Peter’s great confession of faith, Jesus said, “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.”

The word holy doesn’t mean what we think it means.  The word “holy” in the Hebrew is translated from the word qadosh.  God is the most holy.  The first mention of God’s holiness is in Ex. 15:11 “Who is like you among the gods, O Lord – glorious in holiness, awesome in splendor, performing great wonders?”  And the first mention of the adjective ‘holy’ is in Gen. 2:3, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.”

Holiness is one of God’s communicable attributes.  The traditional understanding of the meaning of qadosh is ‘set apart’ or ‘separated.”  So the seventh day, the Sabbath, was set apart by God as a holy day of rest.  (Ex. 20:11)  Likewise God’s people were set apart to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  (Ex. 19:6)

Likewise, the Greek word hagios means ‘separated’ (that is dedicated to God).  God alone is described in the NT as absolutely holy (Luke 1:49; John 17:11; 1 Pet.. 1:15, 16; Rev. 4:8; 6:10).  Believers are holy only in so far as they are devoted or set apart to God.  So the believers are called “saints,” i.e. “sanctified” or “holy ones.”  Sainthood is not an attainment, but the state into which God in grace calls all people.  Believers are called to sanctify themselves, (2 Tim. 1:9) to live a holy life (1 Pet. 1:15; 2 Pet. 3:11).  So Paul uses the metaphor of believers as “a holy temple” (1 Cor. 3:17; Eph. 2:21).  Peter describes the church as “a holy priesthood,” (1 Pet. 2:5), and “a holy nation.”  (1 Pet. 2:9).

Fundamentally, the church, the body of Christ, is holy, because Christ is holy.  The Christian community as the body of Christ is called to reflect the holiness of our Lord in the world.  We are called to exemplify holiness.  We are called to be a holy church.  The fact that we so often fail in being holy, being sanctified, should urge us on as God’s holy people to be sanctified in all our relationships.

As God’s holy people, we should exemplify and glory in our different-ness, particularly when our beliefs and biblical ethics conflict and are at odds with this world.  The holy church is supposed to be like salt in the world (Matt. 5:13), flavoring the entire world.  The holy church is meant to be a light to the world (Matt. 5:14), spreading the light of Jesus Christ to the whole world.

O holy God, our help and our hope:  Holy is your name, unlike every other name we know.  Holy are your ways, beyond the reach of earthly imperfection.  Holy are your people., called by you to show the world a new way, a new hope.  Strengthen us to be your holy people.  Give us more of your holiness by your Holy Spirit, who lives in us and is sanctifying us, and making us your holy people.  Make us into the image of the body of Christ.  Amen.  (Lawrence Hull Stookey, This Day:  A Wesleyan Way of Prayer, p. 84)

 

One Church

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I just got back from a trip to China.  In my devotional today, they asked us to consider the four characteristics of the church as stated in the Nicene Creed:  “We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”  

The Nicene Creed suggests that “We believe in the one church…”  In the face of the multitude of denominations we have in the US, and the various conflicts that we have even within a denomination, then how can we honestly proclaim, “We believe in one church”?   The body of Christ seems ever more divided.  Yet, there is a unity of church that is spiritual and substantial despite the apparent divisions in the body of Christ.

In Ephesians 4:3-6, speaking to the church, Paul says, “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.  For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope in the future.  There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all.

Paul’s emphasis on God’s acceptance of both Jews and Gentiles (2:11-3:6) is now applied ethically.  In the church,  we are to accept one another.  We are to have unity in the body of Christ.  Paul’s exhortation to unity is based on the fact that there is one body of Christ.

I think we exaggerate the unity of expression in the New Testament, as if there was only one way that church was done.  So we have churches today that think they can recapture the way that church was done in the book of Acts.  But instead, I think the picture we get in the epistles and the book of Acts is that there was a variety of expressions of the church.  There were distinctions even in the churches founded by Paul, between the church in Ephesus and the church in Corinth.  There were churches that seemed to have a more Jewish character as opposed to the Greek culture of the Gentile churches.

The same is true today.  I attended a church in Beijing that was founded by American Methodists in the 1870’s.  Asbury Church in the Chongwenmen District felt as comfortable to me as any Methodist Church in the US.  Although they have their own unique worship expressions, music and hymnal, yet many of the songs are the same as in the United Methodist Hymnal.

And the other thing that I observed, the church was full.  They have some 6,000 in regular attendance, with over 40 home groups.  And they are baptizing 600 Christians a year.  The Church is alive and going strong in China.

Paul’s exhortation that there is one body and one Spirit is as true today as it was when he wrote it almost 2,000 years ago.  The same Spirit in the church in Bowie, Texas is the same Spirit who is leading the revival in China.

Whatever the differences there may be between our expressions of faith, whether Chinese or American, Baptist or Methodist, etc., we all share one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.  The same God who is in me is also in each and every believer.  This is the source of our unity, and one day, we will all come to maturity and unity.  This is our prayer, as it was Paul’s prayer:

Ephesians 4:13–15 (NLT) This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.  14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.

Wesley is reported to have quoted this saying, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”  We should have this same attitude today.

As you are one, O God, make the people of your new covenant one.  Help us to distinguish between what you deem to be essential and what we find to be merely convenient and comfortable.  Strengthen us for the hard work of overcoming differences we have wrongly held and cherished for generations, disagreements that undermind our efforts to share the Gospel message of reconciliation.  Bind up the wounds of your church and make it truly one body, through Christ who is its head.  Amen.