Know What You Believe – A series based on The Apostles’ Creed – Part 9
And 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.
A group of students were asked to list what they thought were the present “Seven Wonders of the World.” Although there was some disagreement, the following received the most votes, in this order: 1) Egypt’s Great Pyramids; 2) Taj Mahal; 3) Grand Canyon; 4) Panama Canal; 5) Empire State Building; 6) Saint Peter’s Basilica; and 7) China’s Great Wall.
While gathering the votes, the teacher noted that one student had not yet finished her paper. So she asked the girl if she was having trouble with her list. The girl replied, “Yes, a little. I couldn’t quite make up my mind because there were so many.”
The teacher said, “Well, tell us what you have and maybe we can help.”
The girl hesitated and then read, “I think the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ are: 1) To see; 2) To hear; 3) To touch; 4) To taste; 5) To feel; 6) To laugh; and 7) To love.”
Her comments brought a radical shift to the class’ discussion, and it has made me stop and re-evaluate my own list of the Seven Great Wonders of the World.
Do you know what has come out on top on my list? I have seen all but one of the “Wonders,” the Panama Canal, that made that class’ list. And I agree that some of these human capacities, which we take so for granted, do eclipse those physical wonders that crumble with time.
But I present to you this morning a wonder that combines that which is visible and dynamically spiritual, a wonder that eclipses all of these. It is the Holy Catholic Church!
I will be the first to admit that the visible church, both universal and in the form of its denominations and local congregations, has not always handled itself well. Some years ago, a colorful, outspoken British politician by the name of Lord Beothby wrote a book entitled What I Believe. In it he wrote:
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 summarized as dogma, persecution, secession, hatred, destruction, and fire. In fact, everything that Jesus loathed and denounced.
This was not an attack on Jesus Christ and His teachings. It is a scathing denunciation of the church, based on our observable pathologies. At times, we have propagated all that Jesus loathed and denounced. You and I who are committed to the church know that our history is not always what it should have been.
On the other hand, imagine the world the last 2,000 years without the church of Jesus Christ. Imagine the world today without the church. Try to imagine the life of Orange County without the church of Jesus Christ in its manifold expressions. Scratch out the presence of the church of Jesus Christ the last 2,000 years, and world history, as well as our present-day existence, would be the loser!
Contemplate the cast of characters that Jesus chose to mentor for three years and to whom He entrusted His post-resurrection commission to go into the world. You couldn’t have come up with a more unlikely group of, at the least, under qualified, and at the most, losers. This motley crew, this cast of characters had very little promise. They were the most unlikely people to transform the world.
Let me read to you a memo addressed to Jesus, son of Joseph, from the Jordan Management Consultants in Jerusalem, titled “A Staff Aptitude Evaluation.”
Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for management positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests, and we have not only run the tests through our computers, but also have arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologists and vocational aptitude consultant. It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have a team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability. Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and is given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership whatsoever. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is also our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau. James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic depressive scale. One of your candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious and innovative. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All the profiles are self explanatory. We wish you every success in your venture.
It was this group, less Judas Iscariot, that rallied around their crucified, risen, ascended Lord and, filled with the Holy Spirit, they went out and transformed the world. And the Holy Spirit has carried on that dynamic, church-building function to this very day.
You and I are both the beneficiaries of their faithfulness and the inheritors of their mandate.
The hymn writer caught so beautifully the delicate oscillation of human tragedy and divine triumph that has marked the history of the church with these words:
Though with a scornful wonder
we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by her heresies distressed:
yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
The Church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation,
by water and the word:
from heaven he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her
and for her life he died.
Just what is this Holy Catholic Church?
I. This Church is people – not buildings.
When I say the word church, what immediately comes to your mind? I know what comes to mine. It’s a quaint, colonial structure with a tall white steeple at the center of a historic New England town. Being raised in the Boston area, no one will ever erase that notion of the church from my mind.
Push me a little bit more, and I will describe for you the churches I have pastored. Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church is a modern theater in the round with eight entrances, symmetrically arranged, with the pulpit in the very middle, offering close-up, immediate eye contact with parishioners on all sides.
Then there is that magnificent Gothic cathedral, the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with those irreplaceable Tiffany stained-glass windows, twelve apostles – six on each side – accented by two additional expressions of religious art, one in the front of the church and one behind the pulpit.
Then there is what we have here at St. Andrew’s. A whole generation of young people has been raised here, and when you say church to them some decades from now, this will be the image that comes to their minds.
Are you aware that nowhere in the Bible does the word “church” ever refer to a building?
No, the word that is used is ekklesia. It literally means “those who have been called out to faith in Jesus Christ.” Another way of stating it is the “gathered people.”
This is a Greek word that came out of two worlds and has two backgrounds.
It has a Hebrew background, what the Old Testament refers to as a body of people who are waiting for a message from God. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he gave those words to the assembly, the church, the gathered people.
It also has a Greek political background. The Greek city-states were highly democratic. Their governing body was made up of those who were citizens of Athens. A trumpeter went through the city streets, announcing the date, place and time of the meeting, usually ten times a year. The ekklesia consisted of those who heard and accepted the invitation.
Christian ekklesia, the Church, consists of all who have accepted the invitation, the call of God given in Jesus Christ to come to Him.
Jesus, prior to His crucifixion, looked Peter directly in the eye and said, “‘And 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).
This people is worldwide in nature. Jesus gave these instructions to His disciples after His resurrection and prior to His ascension: “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age'” (Matthew 28:18-20).
The church is also made up of individual local gatherings. As the disciples went out and established the church of Jesus Christ, we have frequent reference through the New Testament to the various individual gatherings of believers, such as the church at Jerusalem, the church at Antioch, the church at Ephesus, the church at Corinth, the church at Philippi, the church at Rome. We could carry out that same descriptive analogy, referring to the various churches right here in the Harbor Area, scores of churches, too numerous to list. Each of them is a local manifestation of the gathered people of Jesus Christ, the ekklesia, whether it is named Calvary Chapel, Saint James Episcopal, Mariners, Rock Harbor, The Crossings, or St. Andrew’s Presbyterian.
Each of these churches, then and now, met somewhere – in a house, a public building, under the shelter of a tree, or in the kind of facility we now think of when we hear the word church.
The church is not a building. The church is people. I love that little Sunday School song that goes like this:
I am the church
You are the church
We are the church together
All God’s people
All around the world
We are the church together.
II. There are several New Testament images for the church.
Let me just mention them with brief comment.
Image One: The Body of Christ. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5). In 1 Corinthians 12:12, we read: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” You and I are part of the body of Christ. Jesus Christ is the head of that body.
Image Two: The Building of God. It is not a physical building. It is a spiritual building, made up of “living stones.” You and I are these living stones. 1 Peter 2:5 reads, ” . . . like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” It goes on to refer to Jesus Christ as the “head cornerstone.” Of that building, all the stones are needed.
Image Three: The Bride of Christ. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:2, describes the church in these terms: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” Read Ephesians 5 and you will see the constant intermingling of the husband/wife metaphor as the Apostle Paul describes the relationship of the husband to the wife as the relationship of Jesus Christ to his bride, the church. We are to give ourselves sacrificially for our wives, even as Jesus Christ has given himself sacrificially to the church. And there is to be a fidelity of relationship between the two. Of course, the classic Old Testament reference at this point is that of Hosea, whose wife became a prostitute. He remained faithful to her, even as she went whoring off after other men. Reference to the Old Testament is how the people of God, His bride, went whoring off after other gods. We are the bride of Christ and are to be faithful to Him. Yet we too are seduced by the gods of our era into unfaithfulness.
Image Four: A Flock of Sheep. In Acts 20:28-29, the Apostle Paul is quoted by Luke as referring to the church as a flock of sheep, with the elders and pastors being those who watch over the flock, protecting them from “savage wolves.” Jesus referred to himself as being the Shepherd of the sheep.
Image Five: The Family of God. Paul writes to the believers at Ephesus, alerting them to the fact that they now belong to a family. They are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and also “members of the household of God …” (Ephesians 2:19). Look around this room. Look into the faces of each other. You know some of these people here. Some you do not know. Imagine anything that could get this group of people together on a regular basis. It wouldn’t be a sporting event. It wouldn’t be a political rally. It wouldn’t be a musical concert. It wouldn’t be a PTA meeting. This local community of believers called St. Andrew’s is the local family reunion. It is linked to other family reunions that are going on right now all over Orange County and, on this Lord’s day, throughout all the world. The Bible says that the Lord “putteth the solitary into families.” That’s what His church is.
This imagery can go on. Hopefully this helps you get a feel for the church. If there is any common theme that brings these images together, I would say it would be the word TOGETHERNESS. Every one of these images focuses on the person and the work of Jesus Christ. We are brought together around Him. We are not in isolation.
One of my friends, Stuart Briscoe, had a request of the architect when they were building the sanctuary of their new church in Elmbrook, Wisconsin. He asked the architect to build a special room for a certain group of people, quite large in number, that didn’t take up much space. The architect looked at him and said, “Who are these people?” The response was, “These are the people who say, ‘Sorry I won’t be able to be at church on Sunday, but I will be with you in spirit.'” Briscoe underlined the fact that the church is the people of God gathered together, needing each other, not just there in some kind of nebulous, abstract, sentimental “in-spirit” kind of way.
III. Here are some questions frequently raised about the church.
Question One: Who gets to belong to the church?
Answer: Anyone who repents of sin and puts your faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Another way of putting it is, you and I need to be “born again” by the Spirit of God, adopted into His family. We are told that we are to confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus, and believe in our hearts He died for our sins and rose from the dead in victory over sin and death. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter said the same thing in these words, that we are to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Anyone who has accepted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is automatically part of His church.
Question Two: What does it mean to be holy?
Answer: The Greek word is haggios, which literally means “different.” That which is holy is different from ordinary things. The Bible is different from other books. The communion table is different from other tables. The Sabbath is different from other days. The church is different from other assemblies of people. In our vision statement at St. Andrew’s we refer to ourselves as being an “uncommon” community. That means we are to be different from the yacht club, the country club, the Rotary, PTA, and our lives should be marked by the difference the Holy Spirit makes in our life. We are set apart for God.
Question Three: Why in the world do we use the word “catholic”?
Answer: We are a community that is universal in nature. This isn’t referring to the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the word catholicity, by its very intention, is much broader than any one particular expression of the Christian faith. Remember, in the first century, religion was a nationalistic thing. There were the gods of the state: Greek gods, Roman gods. Even today, a lot of this talk about whether or not the Ten Commandments should be in public places or not ends up being an issue of whether or not we are going to have “civil religion.” I have noticed, throughout my 40 years of pastoring, that when I am requested to give a prayer at a public event, more often than not in recent years, I have been specifically asked to not pray “in the name of Jesus Christ.” The community wants a prayer. It wants a kind of sanitized, respectable religion, which in the very process of stripping the name of Jesus Christ reduces it to a parochial expression of what is now religiously acceptable. Catholicity speaks to the universal body of believers, past, present and future, no matter what their race is, what their gender is, what their economic philosophy is. We bow before the crucified and risen Christ, proclaiming Him to be Savior and Lord. Paul, in Galatians 3:28, enunciated a Magna Carta when he declared, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is catholicity. It speaks against every kind of apartheid division that separate brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Question Four: What about denominations?
Answer: Denominations are fine, as long as they do not get in the way of the oneness that is ours in Jesus Christ. How sad it is if one group of people control every expression of Christian witness and faith in a region of the world, in a country or in a local community. We need the various types of church organizations, whether it be Episcopal, Congregational or Presbyterian. We need the various denominations that help us give organization to mutually collective individual expressions of faith. What we don’t need is people who are born again by the Spirit of God, who reverence the Bible as His authoritative Word, carving each other up in self-destructive fighting over the non-essentials of the faith. The Bible does not prescribe one authorized type of music, worship or church organization. Thank God for the various expressions. Hopefully we are able to function in ways that are ecumenical, that transcend our differences, joining hands across denominations as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Question Five: What is our mission?
Our mission is to carry out the commissions that Jesus gave to His disciples in those last words that are recorded in Matthew, Mark and Acts. Here at St. Andrew’s we have tried to refine them into a mission statement that incorporates four very specific biblical activities: worship; witness; nurture and service. We say it in these words:
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is endeavoring to be the family of God together in joyful, Christ-centered worship and is committed to: leading men, women, and children to a personal saving faith in Jesus Christ; building ourselves in the faith; and serving others here and throughout the world.
Worship is crucial to this. Evangelism is crucial to this. Nurture is crucial to this. Service is crucial to this. Neglect any one of these four and you are in trouble.
When you join St. Andrew’s, I urge you to keep your eyes on Jesus Christ and involve yourself in regular worship, the fellowship of a covenant group, adult education, and some kind of servant ministry – both within the church and outside the church. It is a different way of saying the same thing.
The other day I read about a fellow by the name of Peter Weedfald, senior vice president of strategic marketing for Samsung Electronics. He prides himself on working eighteen hour days, seven days a week. When asked how he keeps up such a hectic pace, he responded that it was simple. Several years ago he began weaning himself from both sleep and food. He figures that if he sleeps only four hours a night and doesn’t take time out to eat breakfast and lunch, he will have more time for other things. “I figure that if I sleep four hours, and everyone else sleeps eight or nine, then I can add another ten years of time to my life,” he said. “I may die at 85, but compared to everyone else, I’ll really be 95.” We read that, we smile, and pity a fellow whose life is so unbalanced. We say that he is “burning the candle at both ends.” I doubt that he will make it to 85.
In contrast, the church of Jesus Christ is made up of people who understand what it is to have balanced living, to live in community together, to whom worship is central. Sharing our faith is so important, and deepening our knowledge of the things of God and our relationships to brothers and sisters is so nourishing. Our life is enhanced by the Sacraments, and we go out to serve others, even if they do not share our faith in Jesus Christ, and we do it at home and throughout the world in the name of Jesus Christ. We realize that we are not unique to this in our generation. We are part of a company of men and women, past, present and future, who take this privilege seriously.
Let me share three final statements.
Remember, church is not just about “me.” I am afraid there is too much consumerism in organized Christianity these days. We want to go to a church where our needs can be met, forgetting that there are people who unselfishly teach Sunday School, serve as elders and deacons, sing in choirs, usher, function as Stephen ministers, stuff the printed sermons, arrange flowers for weddings, decorate the sanctuary for seasonal observances. I know people that just expect all this stuff to happen and haven’t given any thought that they have any role to play in the life of the family. Church is not just about “me,” it is about us.
Remember, church is also a place of hospitality. A friend of mine attended St. Andrew’s for a few weeks as a pastor in between calls. He said, “John, as wonderful as is St. Andrew’s, let me tell you my experience. Each Sunday, I went into the plaza for a cup of coffee and stood there, drifting from one to another. Week after week, not one person came up to say ‘hello,’ introduce themselves or encourage me to feel at home. Finally, I went over to another person who I saw in a similar situation, introduced myself to that person and found out that he, too, was a visitor.” My heart broke when I heard this. I know that, because of our covenant groups, we meet out on the plaza, and it is fun to just get in our own little circles with the people we know. You and I are called to turn those circles outward and to welcome others into this family, whether it’s a one-time visitor or someone who could become personally part of this community. We also are privileged to invite others to come to church of us. Most of us are here because, at some point, someone invited us.
Remember, it’s the Holy Spirit who ultimately brings us together.
In the first week of October, I was flying from Boston to Chicago to Orange County. I was jammed into a window seat, three large people with our knees almost against our chins. At the last moment, I asked the stewardess if I could trade in some of my frequent flyer miles and upgrade. She nodded her head and, a few minutes later, I plopped down in a roomier seat. The person next to me took one look at me and said, “This is God at work.” She told her story of disillusionment with Christian leaders and churches she had previously attended. At Cape Cod that weekend, her sister had urged her to go back to church. She had said, “If I ever did, I would go to St. Andrew’s, Newport Beach.” When I saw you walk by the aisle, I said, “God’s trying to tell me something. Now I really believe it when, suddenly, out of all this crowded plane, the stewardess has put you here beside me.”
We talked about life, about faith, about a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. We talked about the church, the humanity of those of us who are leaders and yet the fact that God still works through His church. Her final words were, “I will see you tomorrow morning.” And she has been here every weekend since. She has just gone through lay ministry training. She wrote an E-mail to Sharon Corzine, which I have her permission to quote.
In it she describes her discouragement with organized religion, the fact that she hadn’t been to church for five years. She tells how she never lost her faith, but had one reason after another for not reconnecting. She had come to St. Andrew’s once or twice, but never stayed. Her sister prodded, even nagged, saying, “If you aren’t going, you aren’t growing.” Occasionally, she would even put down in her appointment book under Sunday morning, “Church, 10:15.” Or just write “Church!” She never did go. Then she goes on to say:
Recently I visited my family on the East Coast again. My sister and I were again discussing church, or the lack of it in my life. She was actually the one discussing it and I was listening. I told her that when I did go back to church that I would go to St. Andrew’s. I told her that I enjoyed minister John Huffman’s messages, that I had several acquaintances who I admired who regularly attended . . . that there was a hope and a joy in the congregation that I sensed. Yes, when I went to church again, that’s where I’d go. She gave me a tolerant, big sister smile and said she would keep me in her prayers. This was on Thursday night.
The following Saturday, I flew home to Orange County. During my layover in Chicago, I walked around the airport to stretch my legs. As I passed a newsstand, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye at a man who looked very much like John Huffman. It was so brief that I just laughed and thought that St. Andrew’s must be on my mind.
Then as I sat on the plane waiting to take off, a man walked past me to his seat. This time I thought, “That really does look like John Huffman . . . what a coincidence!” Before we took off, this very same John Huffman lookalike spoke to the flight attendant about a seat change. Since I had the only empty seat available, he sat next to me just as the plane was ready to taxi away.
I was almost speechless . . . but not quite. After I cleared up his identity, I told him the story of the conversation with my sister just 2 days ago. John said, “You know, this was not an accident!” We both knew that even though we had our individual reasons for being on that plane, God placed John in that seat next to me . . . to give me the most personal invitation back to church that I could have ever imagined . . . to connect again with the family of God, to serve, and to grow. I have never felt more special in God’s eyes.
Did I come to church the next day? You bet I did. Have I been attending every Sunday? How could I not? And I am doing it joyfully, not out of obligation. This event has made me smile every day since.
This is what the Holy Spirit has been doing for over 2,000 years. He has been helping people come to faith in Jesus Christ, and He has been in the business of placing them in community, in relationship with other believers in the “Holy Catholic Church.”
This is one of a series of sermons based on The Apostles Creed. Additional sermons from that series will appear in Preaching On-Line in March, April and May.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching.