We’re working our way through the Christian beliefs expressed in the Apostle’s Creed. Looking at what Christian’s believe, why they believe it, and why it matters. So far, we’ve covered what the creed says about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Today, we’re at the lines I believe in…the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.
Right off the bat, I want to clarify what the creed means when it affirms that the church that Christians believe in is “holy” and “catholic.”
When we say “Holy”, we are not saying the church is filled with a bunch of really righteous people who are nearly perfect. No, it’s quite the opposite. The church is not for perfect people, mostly because there is no such thing. The church is for broken and sinful people who are trying to find healing and a better way.
So why does the creed use the word holy? Because in the biblical context holy means “belonging to God”, or “set apart for God.”
The church is holy when those who are a part of her recognize that she belongs to God and not to her members. The church is holy when those of the church stop asking, “What do we want our church to do for us?,” but instead asks “What does God want His church to do for Him?”
One metaphor for the church suggested by several passages in the New Testament is that of a bride, and specifically Christ’s bride. Paul says a husband should love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Using this metaphor, the church is holy when she loves Christ and seeks to be faithful to Him.
So what about that famous word that has stumped so many, the word catholic? The word catholic means universal, throughout, everywhere. So in the creed, the word catholic is an adjective, a descriptive word. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the Creed was written in the 400’s, whereas the Roman Catholic Church began its existence in 1054.
The word was meant to be a reminder of the church’s unity because every community of believers across the world was bound together in the gospel. Despite any kind of differences, these communities were a part of one church, The Church, God’s Church.
Tragically, today there are many divisions within the Christian family – more it seems every day. We’ll likely see it here in the United Methodist Church in the near future. But Jesus predicted this would happen when He prayed in John 17 that God would make His followers one, as He and the Father are one. He tried to prevent the divisions among His followers by telling His disciples not to judge one another, and instead to love and forgive one another. Nevertheless, the church divided and continues to divide.
But despite this, our belief in the holy, catholic church is a belief that all who call upon the name of Christ and seek to follow Him as Savior and Lord, despite their denominational or nondenominational names, are part of one universal church. The Roman Catholic Church is a part of that one universal church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, nondenominational churches, and all the rest.
So with the basic understanding of the words holy and catholic, let’s consider what Christians mean when they say as a central part of their faith, that they believe in the church.
Last week, we learned that the community of believers, us, is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are the Church, not this building or any other building. The building is a great tool where the church meets, but The Church is actually the people.
There are two Greek words used in the New Testament for church. One means a gathering of people called together or an assembly. The other Greek word means “belonging to the Lord” (same as the word holy).
The first time we see one of these words used in the Gospels is when Jesus says to Peter,
“I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18 NRSV
By saying my church, Jesus is making it very clear that the church is His community of people who belong to Him.
Yet among the challenges many churches struggle with are issues of control. Who’s in charge? Sometimes pastors act as though the church belongs to them. Some denominations act as though the church belongs to them. Some church leaders or longtime members of the church believe or at least act like the church belongs to them. But the church is the Lord’s. That means that the driving mission, the most important thing every local church should be doing is discerning what Christ’s will is, and then doing it.
The church is God’s, made up of people whom the Lord claims as His own. I love how Peter says it, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” 1 Peter 2:10
And just as God designed the church to be His, He designed us to need that community. We are all designed to need each other. We are not meant to do this thing called life on our own. This is why God designed marriage, friendships, families. We need others to encourage us, challenge us, and care for us. This is the way we are wired!
As God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each a member of the Trinity in community with each other, we too are made for community. A wide range of studies have shown the importance of community. We are healthier, happier and live longer when we are in community with others.
And from a spiritual vantage point, we will never grow spiritually into the people God really needs us to be without the church because so many essential things to the spiritual life are lost when you don’t have a community of others who are holding your same beliefs, holding you accountable to those beliefs, helping you to grow, praying with you and for you, and overall giving structure to your Christian life.
In Galatians 6:10, Paul says to the Galatian church, “Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith.”
Here Paul uses another metaphor for the church – the church as a family. Nearly 100 times in the New Testament, the apostles addressed the Christians they were writing to as brothers and sisters. But the idea of the church as a family comes with responsibilities: Families care for one another, work for the good of one another, and support one another.
And in that same letter, Paul instructed the members of these newly formed churches to “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
We often use the word fellowship, but can you define fellowship? It doesn’t mean just hanging out with your church friends. It means getting to really know others, be in relationships with them, and actively caring for and encouraging them. Basically it means to be a family.
This was the purpose of the church – to foster, build, and serve as a community of people devoted to one another in brotherly and sisterly love, bound together by a common faith.
It reminds me of the story in Mark 2, when four friends of a paralyzed man carried him to a house where Jesus was teaching. They couldn’t get in because of the large crown, so the friends hoisted the man onto the roof top, tore the roof off the house, and lowered him down in front of Jesus.
Mark tells us that Jesus was so moved by their faith and loyalty that He heal the paralyzed man. It wasn’t the man’s faith that led Jesus to heal him. It was the faith and determination of his friends.
Again, this is what the church is meant to look like. Community, acceptance, support, and love. I mean, just think about it, isn’t it great to think, you don’t ever have to do this on your own?
Now I know there are dysfunctional families and in all honestly, there are some dysfunctional congregations too. In some ways, I think every church is a bit dysfunctional. That’s because churches are made up of imperfect people. We’re going to get it wrong sometimes, preachers and lay people alike.
But when the church is striving to be the church as God intended it, she’s the most beautiful community in the world, a community that seeks to live selflessly, encouraging and blessing others, a community where you can be excepted as you are and where you will find family who will welcome you, stand by you, and love you no matter what.
Caring communities are made up of people who go the extra mile, who give up their time to serve others, who go out of their way to bless others. It only takes a handful of people like that to inspire a whole group to do the same.
Sometimes churches forget what it means to be the church. We don’t need people who will stand by and criticize. We need people who will lovingly roll up their sleeves and model and radically live what it means to be the community of Christ.
Occasionally, I hear people say they don’t need the church. I want to ask them: Really? You don’t need encouragement from others, blessings of worship and of communion, a message drawn from scripture, or a congregation that is like a family, stands together and has a greater impact on the world as a group then they could ever do alone?
But even if they could find some way to gain all these benefits without the church, I would still say to them: If you are a follower of Jesus, it’s not just that you need the church but that the church needs you! There are people at the church that need you to show up, offer a word of encouragement to them, teach a class, lead a support group, or stand at the door and welcome people.
The church was not a human invention, it was founded by God. It’s the temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s a community that belongs to Jesus. Yet we live in a time when so many people are opting out of the church.
Frequency of church attendance by Christians is down. Younger generations are dropping out or are never attending to begin with. This may be in part because the church failed to be the church. But I think there’s more. We forgot to teach what the church is and why it matters. We’ve lost sight of the fact that the church isn’t an optional add-on to your faith, but an essential part of being a Christian – something Jesus created to fulfill His mission.
For instance, Generation Z (ages 9-25) and millennials (ages 25-40) are the least churchgoing part of the United States’ population. Yet they are craving a community of deep friendships, bound together by common values, with an interest in positively affecting the world.
That’s precisely what Jesus intended the church to be! Yet Generation Z is known as the most depressed generation according to studies from 2019. Could that be because they are missing a good, healthy, encouraging, loving community?
But let me be clear, the church isn’t just about community. Listen to the words of Paul from
1 Corinthian’s 12:27
“All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.”
This image of the church as the body of Christ is really important. I take it to mean that the church is literally Christ in the world today. We are meant to continue the ministry that Jesus began. Jesus did say, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” John 20:21
Immediately following this, “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit” John 20:22. Here again we find that the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit is essential to the church if it’s going to fulfill Christ mission in the world.
Jesus came two thousand years ago to show us the way, the truth, and the life, to suffer, die, and rise again to save us. And before His departure, He gave His disciples the Holy Spirit and called on them to be His ongoing presence in the world, to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
If we’re going to be the body of Christ, continuing the ministry of Jesus on this planet, if we’re going to be disciples, it would probably do us well to look at exactly what Jesus did when He walked this earth. Matthew summarize it up pretty well.
35 Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. 38 So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.”
If you want to prove God’s existence, show it by your actions. As part of the church, act as the body of Christ in the world. It’s our works of mercy, compassion and service that will draw people to Christ – it’s not the gospel tracks or theological debates.
There are 2.38 billion Christians in the world. That’s about 1/3 of the world’s population, in fact up it’s by .18 billion since 2019 and is the largest faith community in the world.
Imagine the potential if everyone was a part of a community, seeking to do God’s work. Imagine how the world would be different if every church were seeking to continue Christ’s work in the world around them.
Here’s how Peter describes the church, “You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his amazing light.” 1 Peter 2:9
We show the goodness of God by our love, compassion, and kindness. This is what it means to be the body of Christ. That’s how we show it was Jesus who called us out of the darkness and into His amazing light.
14 “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”
In this way, our actions become a compelling testimony to the world about the truth and power of the Christian Gospel.
COMMUNION OF SAINTS
The Apostle’s Creed goes on to speak of the communion of saints. The term “communion of saints” refers to the whole community of faithful followers of Christ, the living and the dead, the past, present and future.
It’s important to realize that the saints in the New Testament we’re not those who had been idolized by the church once they were dead. Rather, Paul referred to all Christians as saints. He addresses many of his letters either to the saints or to those who are called to be saints.
Saints are not perfect people, remember there is no such thing. Saints are people who devote their lives to God, who seek to be God’s people. It’s a call to completely surrender to God and become the people God intends them to be. The calling to be saints and the process of becoming saints are what is meant by the term sanctification. Last week, I touched briefly on this when I talked about prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace (being transformed).
Sanctifying grace is not something we can simply just try harder to do…we should try, and we should poor ourselves into the task, but ultimately the process of being transformed, of being sanctified, is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.
This is what Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 3:18
18 So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.
If we look at those we call saints throughout the history of the church, most are ordinary people who yielded their lives to God and through whom God worked in remarkable ways. People whose lives came to be defined by the way that they loved.
I know so many ordinary saints, people who daily seek to love their neighbors, show kindness and compassion for those who are hurting, sacrifice themselves for others in ways that may never be publicly known.
Ordinary saints take 30 minutes off work to donate blood and help to save a life.
They visit prisoners at the local prison.
They visit the elderly who have no family.
They find ways to bless others without seeking recognition.
They have a heart of compassion.
These ordinary saints pay attention each day, watching for moments when God needs them to reach out to someone who needs care.
They think less and less of themselves and more and more of others as they grow.
They seek to avoid evil and to do all the good that they can.
They practice the things that help them grow in love for God and others.
I’m not the saint I want to be, but I’m on the journey, aided by the Holy Spirit and the church.
And meanwhile, we learn from the saints around us and the ones before us. In Hebrews 11, the author describes the heroes of faith that came before his time. Then in chapter 12, he begins….
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. 2 We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.
One thing to mention about the “communion of saints,” I believe that we’re never closer to the saints before us (those in heaven), than we are when we worship. I think this is what Charles Wesley was thinking when he wrote the poem that later became the hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
Glory to God, and praise and love be ever, ever given,
By saints below and saints above, the church in earth and heaven.
When Jesus came, He didn’t simply call individual disciples; He formed a community, a family, people chosen to love and continue His work in this world. This assembly was meant to be a foretaste of heaven, a place where people care for one another, encourage one another, and build one another up. And it’s also meant to be a community empowered and led by the Holy Spirit so that it can actually continue to be a presence of Christ in the world.
The church is holy because she belongs to God and is set apart for God. She’s catholic (universal) because in the eyes of God there is only one Church, though it is made up of many tribes, nations, and denominations.
God’s church is a communion of saints below and saints above, bound together as members of God’s family. I believe in the holy catholic church and the communion of saints!