Apostolic Confession - Holy Catholic Church
Apostolic Confession - Holy Catholic Church
Read Ephesians 2:14-22
As we continue our studies on the Apostles’ Creed, we come to a phrase that is considered one of the most two difficult ones in the Apostles’ Creed. An expression that has caused much perplexity, but it is a phrase filled with glorious truth! “I believe in the holy catholic church.” Our Scripture is from Ephesians 2. There are many passages of Scripture that describe the Church, but the apostle Paul, as he is writing these dear believers at Ephesus, sets down these main principles concerning the Church of Jesus Christ.
Reading of Ephesians 2:14-22.
(Transcription of audio file from 00:28 to 01:32, and 01:52 to omitted.)
Last evening I was visiting a church family at the hospital and I happened to have on my clergy I. D. A man at the hospital saw the I.D. and saw that I was clergy, and he came to speak with me. He said he wasn’t part of any one particular church of our community, that he’d had difficulties and that some Christian people from various churches have been helping him and praying for him. And he in his own way wanted to just express appreciation to someone that represents the Church of Jesus Christ. As I’ve reflected upon that, I certainly can say anew this day that I believe in the Church. The fuller wording of our Apostles’ Creed is that “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” What does this expression mean? What is its significance for our lives and for our fellowship together as the people of God?
We see first of all that the identity and character of the church is that it is described as “holy.” The Church is depicted as the “holy” Church. In the Scriptures there are many metaphors, many figures, used to depict and describe the richness and fullness of Christ’s Church, His body – a temple, a household, a bride, just to name a few. But the adjective used by the framers of this Creed is that the Church is holy.
The Church’s Identity←↰⤒🔗
There are two aspects to the Church being holy. The first is that holy, or holiness, describes the identity of the Church – who and what the Church truly is. The expression “the communion of the saints” is not a phrase that introduces extra-biblical categories. The word ‘saints’ to describe the Church as God’s people is not seen in the modern sense that we might hear of to describe a saint today as someone who has done great and marvelous deeds or performed vast and mighty miracles. No, this idea of the people of God as a communion of saints is rooted very firmly and deeply in the Old Testament as the people of God – that God called out of this world to be His own people – that He would be their God, and indeed they would be His people.
The New Testament understanding of the church is in continuity with this Old Testament understanding as the Church as the people of God who were called out, who were separate from the world. We’re described as a Church – as a Church indeed that is holy, or a Church that is called out or separated. It is that Old Testament sense of holiness, of being set aside from the ordinary, from the profane, for holy use. So at the heart of the identity of the people of God, His body the Church, is that we are those who have been set aside for God’s glory, for His honor, for His purpose. The very word that’s used to describe the word ‘church’ in the New Testament is a word that means “call out from”. And God, in His rich mercy and in His great love, has called out people from the darkness of this world.
The Scriptures remind us in the book of 1 Peter: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” That is our identity as the people of God: as those who are called out, set aside, holy. Paul, as he writes to the troubled church at Corinth, reminds them of this as well: “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” And as the temple was set aside for holy and sacred use, so are the people of God. In our passage here in Ephesians 2, we read in verse 19 that we are “fellow citizens with the saints.” That we are those indeed who are “members of the household of God”. The Church is holy.
A friend of mine loves to read science fiction. And I went through a craze in High School where I would devour science fiction. And you know, the great fantasy of science fiction is what is true of the Church; and that is: as members of the Church we are, as it were, aliens. We are those of a new world order. As Paul describes here in Ephesians, the work of Christ’s grace was to bring those who were part of the Old Testament covenant (the Jewish people) and those who are now grafted in by faith into one body as a new man. And our home, our citizenship (as we are reminded here), is related to the Lord and related to being saints of the people of God and members of God’s household. And so we are aliens – not that our astral home is another planet, but that we are, as it were, from heaven! Our God has worked His grace from heaven in our hearts and our lives, such that we are described as a new creation in the book of 2 Corinthians chapter 5. I believe it is the state of Virginia that is celebrating their 400th anniversary as a remembrance and observance of Jamestown – that first permanent colony in the new world. And the Church is, as it were, a colony – a colony of heaven in an occupied land.
The Character of God’s People←↰⤒🔗
The Church is holy. This speaks not only of its identity, but it also describes the character of God’s people. The Church is to be holy, just as Christ our Lord and our Savior is holy. This is really ironic to me, because the very foundation of our faith is that we are spiritually bankrupt, that we are impoverished, that we are those who are broken and weak and who need cleansing and forgiveness. The real glory of the gospel, of the work of Jesus Christ, is described in the book of Hebrews: is that the Church is the assembly of those whose “hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscious and our bodies are washed with pure water.” Or as Jesus said, “You have already been made clean by the Word which I spoke to you.” The glory of the gospel is that we – an unclean people who cannot have access to God – are cleansed and forgiven by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And the greater glory of the gospel is that we are not only those who are forgiven, but we are transformed by His grace. We are changed to become more and more like Him. He has given us His own Spirit – the Spirit of holiness. And He is at work in our lives causing us to become more and more conformed to Him as His image. More liked unto Himself.
Last evening when I was at the hospital, I was going to see a family in which there was a new son born. It was a wonderful and joyous event. This family (as most families do) were discussing how this son had the features of certain aspects of the family. This child was only a few hours old and they were discussing the features of the face and the fingers and the eyes and even the belly of this child. It had a particular resemblance to one family’s characteristic there. In the family of God, we are to have a family resemblance. We are to be like our elder Brother. We are to be those who share with Him in His holiness. That is His work of grace and mercy in our own lives, as we grow in our faith, as we know Him and have embraced His truth and are being changed to become more and more like Him.
Certainly the Church is very far from perfect. We are in the process of being changed, but a day will come where the Church, the bride of Jesus Christ, will be perfected and presented without spot or wrinkle. On that day, the very presence of evil and sin, the very things that we hate and despise within us, will be removed and we will be with Him. We will be sharers with Him in His glory. Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 1:15 that “as He who has called you is holy, you also be holy in all of your conduct.” So this calling, as we profess and confess our faith, that we believe in the holy catholic Church, we are giving ourselves that we might grow in holiness and help present one another in Christian growth, that we might mature in our faith and become more and more like Christ.
Our identity is that we are holy. As we are identified with Jesus Christ, we are set apart as God’s people. We are also to be holy in our character. This passage before us in Ephesians speaks of how God is at work joining us together, “being built together as a dwelling place for God”.
The Church is holy – His body, the people in which He dwells. But we are reminded in our creed this day that the Church is also described as catholic. “I believe in the holy catholic Church”. What is the composition and what is the mission of the holy catholic Church?
The Composition of the Catholic Church←↰⤒🔗
This phrase ‘catholic’ on all appearances may seem very, very confusing. You may be wondering yourselves why would a Presbyterian or a Lutheran or a Methodist affirm belief in the catholic Church? You will notice on the cover of our bulletin today where the Apostles’ Creed is outlined, the word for ‘catholic’ in describing the holy catholic Church is written with a small letter ‘c’, the lower case. This refers not to a church organization or institution – not to the Roman Catholic Church with a larger capital, uppercase ‘C’. The word ‘catholic’ comes from two Greek words: kata (according to) and hólos (the whole). And so it means “according to the whole”. Maybe a better word for our language today is “the church universal” – that’s probably a better description. The Church is broader than the boundaries of our own congregations. It is broader than our own particular denomination.
Some denominations do not see it broader than their own. I can remember when I was quite young that my mother would receive letters from her uncle. Her uncle way out west who sent letters urging her to leave her church because she was not a member of his denomination – which was seen as the only way to heaven. Well, Dr. Francis Junius of Holland describes the catholic, or universal, church in these terms: “The holy catholic Church is the congregation of them all, who by the grace of God, are called together in Jesus Christ to have eternal life.” This congregation looks to the Westminster Confession of Faith and it describes the universal church which is invisible: “consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered together, and they are one under Christ the Head thereof.” The universal, or catholic, Church is here equated with the invisible church.
There is a distinction between the visible church – the church that can be observed and seen, that passersby could see on a particular day of worship; names of people who are written on rolls of different congregations of these different churches. This is all part of the visible church. In the 4th century, Saint Augustine termed the church “corpus permixtum” – a mixed body. The visible church of Jesus Christ contains, as Jesus taught, both wheat and tares; both sheep and goats; both those who genuinely know Christ and have embraced His grace and love and worship Him in spirit and truth, as well as those who “profess Him with their lips”, but their hearts may indeed “be far from Him.” And since we cannot observe the heart – who truly confesses and believes in Jesus Christ – we speak of the church that is invisible. The church invisible are all of those who have trusted in Jesus Christ, who have embraced Him and the gospel that He brings. Those who have lived before whose soul and spirit are now with the Lord who are part of the church triumphant, as well as those who are numbered among us today throughout the earth who profess faith in Jesus Christ – the church militant, who is advancing the gospel and the cause of Christ –, as well as those who believe in our Savior in generations to come. This is the Church universal. This is what is meant by the catholic Church. All who profess with Simon Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. The composition of the Church catholic, or Church universal, is all who believe in Christ.
The Mission of the Catholic Church←↰⤒🔗
And we come finally to: what is the mission of this universal Church? I’ll just mention two components of the mission of the Church universal. The first is that of worship. As we see even here in our passage in Ephesians 2, that we are “being joined together into a holy temple in the Lord”, the temple of God’s people. We render praise and adoration both in this world as well as all eternity. Peter underscores this as well: “You yourselves likewise, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable through Jesus Christ.”
The second mission of the Church is that we have been entrusted with the message of life, with the gospel. And we have been given the great privilege of taking this gospel – the saving power in grace of Jesus Christ – to the world. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul reminds us that he has given us this “ministry of reconciliation”; that we are “ambassadors for Christ”, as if God were making “His appeal through us”. The Church has done great and mighty things over the course of time. The gladiator fights were put to an end because of the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ. Infanticide in ancient pagan world came to a halt. Slavery and the role of women and children have been lifted up. In many ways we have seen the mighty working of Christ’s Church.
As we come to an end of our reflection on this, we must ask ourselves: “Do I know the Savior and His love? Am I one who has embraced Christ? Am I in the Church universal – the catholic Church?” My father was raised in the Church. He was a leading board member of the Church, had been baptized and had taken part of the sacraments, and it wasn’t until he was fifty years of age that God opened his eyes and he came to understand the work of Christ. So as we consider the holy catholic Church, we must evaluate our own hearts before the Lord and we must give ourselves to the most important organization and organism in the world: the body of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ. I believe in the holy catholic Church.
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