The Holy Catholic Church (Apostles' Creed Pt. 9)

Unity, by Nelum Walpola

TEXT: John 17:20-23; Ephesians 4:1-6

Line by line we are making it through the Apostle’s Creed, and the line we are looking at this week is easily the most misunderstood line in the whole thing. “I believe in the holy catholic church. I remember when I first learned the creed. When I got to this line, good Scotch Protestant that I am, I would always close my mouth, picking back up with the Communion of Saints. It didn’t seem like I should be affirming the Catholic church unless we were going to talk about all the others, too.

I know I’m not alone in that. In fact, so many other people think about the line that way, that when they printed the Creed in our hymnal, they put a little asterisk next to the word “catholic” in order to explain what it really means. The word “catholic” with a small “c” means universal. John Wesley once preached a sermon called “The Catholic Spirit.” He was not talking about the spirit of the Roman Catholic Church. He was talking about the universal spirit...the Holy Spirit that allows us to see everyone universally as our brothers and sisters, much as we talked about last week.

When the church in Rome was thinking of a name for itself, it adopted the name “Catholic” because they wanted to make a statement saying that they were the one universal church. They weren’t, even then, but that’s beside the point. If we said, “I believe in the Roman Catholic Church,” that could be more problematic since we would be naming one church but not others. But we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church” to make a much deeper and broader statement. “I believe in the holy catholic church” says that we believe that all Christians everywhere are really one, universal church.

On its most basic level, saying you believe this part of the creed means that you can’t automatically designate the members of some other church or denomination as going to hell. I’ve said before that we really can’t do that to’s not our decision...but this sentence acknowledges that we believe all other Christian churches are, at a fundamental level, of the same faith as we are. So if you have a strong hatred for some other church or denomination, this line says that Christianity doesn’t teach such a prejudice. In a sense we ARE affirming the Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Baptists and Presbyterians and Pentecostals and UCC and any other church founded on faith in Jesus Christ. We are saying that we are all connected...we are all one holy, catholic church.

Now, as even the most cursory glance will tell you, if we believe that, it’s awfully hard to tell. Churches often seem to be so into marketing and promoting their own particular name brand of faith that the heart of the Gospel suffers. God forbid that I should ever be more committed to making someone a United Methodist than to helping someone become a Christian. And yet it happens. This line reminds us that bashing other churches is not what our Christian faith teaches.

One of the interesting things about Christianity is that it has room within it for both unity and plurality. Like Judaism and Islam we believe in just one God. But we believe that the one God is expressed in three equal yet distinct the God who creates from heaven, usually designated Father; as God who comes to earth and relates to us in human flesh, the one we call Jesus, the Son; and as the Holy Spirit, which is in and through all living things, bringing particular gifts and powers to each.

It’s the same thing with churches. We believe in the holy catholic church. We believe in only one church...the church of Jesus Christ...yet we believe that one church has many manifestations. Now when I say that, please realize that this is not the passage telling us how to relate to those who are not Christians. That came last week in “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” This passage recognizes that even in the earliest days of the faith, we couldn’t even get along WITHIN the Christian faith, let alone outside.

And yet, unity as Christians is clearly what the Bible teaches. In Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, he prays that all of his followers would be united, that both those alive then and those who would come later would be one...finding their unity not in doctrines but in a common love of Jesus.

This past weekend I was away in Worcester doing a stewardship workshop. The keynote speaker for the event was Dr. Leonard Sweet, and he talked about the reason that so many people are connecting to Mel Gibson’s The Passion when they don’t particularly connect with the Church. He said, and I agree, that the church has almost completely forgotten that we are not founded on a set of principles or doctrines. We are founded on a person...Jesus Christ. Nobody these days is particularly interested in propositions, but they are very interested in relationship, which is what the Christian church is uniquely positioned to offer, if we will but remember. At the core of our faith is not a “what,” but a “who.”

Paul says the same thing in Ephesians and in other places when he talks about the Body of Christ. We are all one it or not. The hand may not really understand why the gall bladder exists, and the mouth may be completely baffled at why the stomach keeps yelling about what the mouth keeps sending in. But they are all part of one body that has one common purpose. That is the image of the holy catholic church...a organic unit.

What we learn from Paul’s image of the Body of Christ is that church unity is not some utopian ideal that we strive for but never attain. It is not something we can ignore and say we don’t want any part of. It is our reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed b the Nazi’s said it well in his work, Life Together. He said Christian community is not “an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

For me, that means learning to get along with other Christians is not an option, and church splits are nonsense. There might be a rift in the family, but you are still it or not. It is as crazy to say, “we’re not part of your church anymore” as it is for your arm to proclaim that it is no longer part of your body.” We are all bound together in one body, and if those body parts don’t work together, the whole body falls to the ground in a heap. If we refuse to work with another church, our work is hindered. We can still do some things, just as those who have no use of their arms or legs learn to do a lot with a pencil in their teeth. But anybody can tell you it is sure a lot easier with arms and legs that are fully functional.

In the United Methodist church we try to work this concept into the actual structure of the denomination. We talk about being a “Connectional system,” and our belief is that what happens to one of us happens in some way to all of us. The central unit of the United Methodist Church is not the local church. It is the Annual Conference, which is a collection of United Methodist Churches in a region. In our case it is five hundred and some churches in New England. Each local church is one part of the larger body. And each Annual Conference is part of the entire body of United Methodists around the globe. In the Body model, local churches are cells, Annual Conference are body organs and parts, and the General Conference is the whole body.

What the creed is saying is that even for United Methodists, it doesn’t stop at the General Conference. The whole body is all churches of all stripes everywhere. Learning to cooperate and work together is the only way that the Body of Christ can adequately function at all.

Think of the bloodshed that could be averted in Northern Ireland if it really sank in that we were one holy catholic church. We Protestants would have nothing left to protest. The Bible makes it clear that unity is a reality, not an option. No matter how strongly you and I disagree about something, we are still stuck in the same body with each other. We can make that co-existence miserable or we can learn to get along...or if not get along at least function together so that our particular body part doesn’t become dysfunctional. No matter how much you may dislike another branch of the Christian faith...and perhaps with very legitimate can’t perform an amputation. We have to learn to live with each other.

It seems like we are always coming at this the wrong way. To go back to Bonhoeffer, we think of getting along in unity as an ideal, so we keep trying to think of different ways to structure the ideal. We try to weed out the people who don’t the church world we do this through splits that form a new church or denomination. We think if we can just get all like-minded people together, or all nice people together, we won’t have any problems and things will go smoothly.

The Bible says that when we do that we are deceiving ourselves. Our bodies will not function well if we progress so far in genetic engineering that we can turn the whole body into a giant hand. It might write really well, but it sure isn’t going to walk or eat or think about what it is writing. We might get to a place in our social engineering that we shut out all those who disagree or who are disagreeable; but in doing so, we will have amputated our ability to preach the Gospel.

One of my primary goals for St. John’s is to have a Christian community with widely divergent views, perspectives, and backgrounds that can still come together in love, united by love of God in Jesus. And I have to say that as a church we have done very well with that. We have dealt with some very difficult issues over the years and we don’t always case you hadn’t noticed. But agreement is not the ultimate goal. Love is the goal. Working together to help others learn to love God, themselves, and each other.

Now I realize it’s easy for me to say that agreement doesn’t really matter. As pastor of the church, when there is disagreement about how something is done, the Book of Discipline says I get to say how we will do it. I realize that it is much easier for the person in the power position to say that agreement doesn’t really matter. I also don’t mean to gloss over the fact that sin in the church is very real, as the recent scandal in the Roman Catholic church as well as difficulties here have shown us. Disease in the body must be dealt with.

The point is simply to say that whether we are diseased or dysfunctional or simply immature, we are still part of the body. Whether we understand the function of another person or church in the Body of Christ doesn’t make them less a part of the body. When the body isn’t functioning, it takes a lot of prayer and discernment to determine whether we have disease, dysfunction, immaturity, or simply difference...but we have to realize that what is happening in one part of the body affects us all, and how we respond to a broken part will affect all of us for the rest of our lives. If I set a broken bone improperly, that bone will give me problems for the rest of my life.

I hope this is making some sense. What I want you to come away with is the sense that our unity with all those in this room as well as with all those in any other church on the planet is organic. When those four Baptist missionaries were killed in Iraq last week, it was our body that was attacked. When Protestants attack Catholics, it is a is the body attacking itself.

Jesus himself prayed for our unity...”The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The bottom line is the functioning of the Body in telling the world of the love of God. If we are not even able to love each other, our message of God’s love for all people sounds like hypocrisy rather than truth.

And that is how our love of God becomes the uniting factor. I may or may not get to a place where I can love and truly appreciate someone. That is my goal, but I may or may not get there. It is my love of God, however, that says to me... “It doesn’t matter how you feel, Anne. God’s message to the world is compromised if you don’t learn to work together.” If the Body is standing still because one leg wants to go East and the other wants to go West, God’s work is also at a standstill...and the work of God is resurrection and life.

It is my love of God, primarily, that motivates me to work toward the health and wholeness of the Body or Christ. Mostly the church has been like a paralyzed body claiming that we can run marathons. We have to show the truth we are proclaiming. For the love of God we must get the body in shape...through exercise of the spiritual disciplines. For the love of God we must keep healthy and take any signs of disease to the Great Physician in prayer. For the love of God we must let each part of the Body be free to do what it does be sure there is training enough and freedom enough for the Body to function as God designed.

And when the Body of Christ can move through the world, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Kingdom can come and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

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