I Believe in the Holy catholic Church and the Communion of Saints (August 18, 2019)
Revelation 7: 9-17
I Believe in the Holy catholic Church and the Communion of Saints
I invite you again this week to turn to page 882, the Apostles’ Creed, in the hymnal as we begin our sermon today. As we talked about last week, the Creed was the statement of what we believed. It was a way for Christians to say who was in our group and what it meant to be in our group. And I want to say it together now.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit The holy catholic church The communion of saints The forgiveness of sins The resurrection of the body And the life everlasting. Amen.
So let’s talk about that word the word that I have been making you say for the last several weeks, that I try and make sure I remember to say myself: catholic. What does the word catholic mean in the creed? Here the word catholic has a meaning of universal, has a meaning of everywhere, has a meaning of “the true church.” Basically it is a sense of including all that are part of the church of Christ. That’s what the word catholic really meant: the true church. Theologians call it the “invisible church.” The visible church, the church you can see, has divisions. It has conflict. But the invisible church, they say, is that which everything visible is built upon, where we’ve placed our foundations. That is where God is really at work. That is the true Church, the catholic Church, little c. Big C Catholic Church is part of that visible church; little c catholic Church is that thing which underlies it all.
When most people look at the church they don’t see the invisible church, they see the visible church. And when they see the visible church, they often will ask me “how can you believe in the holy catholic church? Or a holy universal or united church? The church I see looks neither Holy, nor united; it is full of hypocrites (where I usually respond there’s always room for one more), it is judgmental, and it is very very divided.”
Of course, when we say we believe in the Holy catholic Church, we are not saying with that we believe in (and here believe means trust in) we are not saying that we believe in what you can see. We are not saying that we believe in our fellow believers. We are not saying we believe in our specific denomination, the United Methodist Church. We’re not even saying we believe in our specific local church here in Spring Hill. We are saying we believe in a vision that was cast by Jesus to have a unified group of people who believe in the Savior, who are following the work of the Holy Spirit, and that ultimately, when all is said and done and we look back after the end of the world and ask “what was the church?” we are saying that we believe they will look at it and they will say that the church, overall, had a positive impact on history. That doesn’t mean that each individual Christian, each individual pastor or priest, or even each individual era of the church will have a positive impact; but rather that when you look at it all the church will have had a positive impact. We believe that because the church is holy.
Let’s talk about the word holy. Holy does not mean perfect. In modern times we’ve come to misunderstand this word. The word holy does not mean perfect, it does not even mean good. The word Holy means to be set apart for God. When we say we believe in the Holy catholic Church, we are saying that that invisible church that underlies everything, that is the work of God in the world; that group of people is set apart for God. And being set apart for God, seeking to follow God, therefore it is worthy of being trusted.
I think we catch glimpses of this invisible church throughout our lives. You can catch a glimpse of this church when a United Methodist church, and a Lutheran church, and a Baptist church come together and have VBS together. You can catch glimpses of this church when so many of our local churches join together to operate a food pantry, and to make sure that the food pantry is stocked; when all of our churches come together to ensure the children have school supplies in their backpack for the beginning of the school year. You can catch a glimpse of it when we all come together in one giant worship service in fall festival for so many years. It’s that invisible church that you can see when we set aside our differences in order to worship the Lord together. That’s the church that the Spirit is calling us to be members of. That’s the church Christ is actually at work in.
The word church comes from the Greek word for just an assembly of people. It was actually a secular term, almost a political term, for a group of people. And in the Scriptures when it is used, the “church of Christ” means “the group of people gathered together for Christ.” That’s what the church is. And if the church is a group of people gathered together for Christ, set apart for God therefore being holy, what is it that Christ and God is wanting the church to do? That’s a valid question.
It’s been said that the church is the only organization in the world that exists for the benefit of those who are not members. When you join the church, you do not get anything. You give up things. We are not a country club with benefits of membership. Rather when you join the church you give up the right to have the best parking spots, you agree to serve in some capacity throughout the year, you agree to have conversations with others about coming with you on Sunday morning even if the conversations might be a little difficult, you agree to taking meals to homebound members. When you come up here and you join the church, you say that you promise to serve the church with “your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.” You’re agreeing to do all that. Now, you can do that as a visitor, but you don’t have to. As a member you’re expected to serve each other and the world in this way.
The church is often depicted as being brothers and sisters to each other in Christ. If we take that literally then we are to be family to each other because we are all called together for Christ. And in Scriptural times that was a very literal thing, because people would be disowned from their family for becoming Christian. We don’t have that problem in the United States of America. People don’t disown you for becoming Christian, usually. But this is actually becoming more and more of an important thing in the body of Christ now; because, while people aren’t being disowned by their family, family is becoming so geographically spread out. It’s common anymore for you to be several states away from your brothers and your sisters, or maybe even your parents. It’s not unheard of to be nations away from family. And all of a sudden this concept that we are to be family for each other becomes so powerful again. It could happen that our relationships in the church are more fulfilling than those we have with our blood family. And we can also help and can be there for each other when we need to be.
When my grandmother passed away we buried her next to her parents in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. And no one in the family lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. So my mother went to her pastor, and her pastor called the conference office with a Great Plans, who called the conference office with the Oklahoma conference, who called the pastor of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, who met us at the cemetery and did the service. They were all family for us. I’ve heard of people in the United Methodist system falling ill several states away and, through our system, they were able to be visited in the hospital so many states away from home. Someone was there for them in their time of need because we are family with each other.
Families care for each other, and they care about each other. They carry one another’s burdens, to use the scriptural words. And you are expected to do that in 2019 too. That’s why we have the joys and concerns with the microphone: so that we know what all burdens others are carrying so that we can come alongside them and carry them with them. Look around you see who is in need, physically or mentally. See who is lonely and be family to them. Do not wait for others to do it; take the initiative; do it yourself. Because that’s what you call to do.
Going along with this is the line that we believe in the communion of saints. This says not only that we trust in the communion of saints as an idea, but also that we believe it exists in the present. Now by saints here we do not mean those officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Rather we are referring to the term saints the way that Paul uses it in Paul’s letters. Some of his letters are addressed “to those called to be saints.” So we define the communion of saints as the group that have followed the call of God, who answered the call of God to be saints in the world, to be a part of the invisible church. That may or may not be the same people who are in pews on Sunday morning, but it is those recognized by Jesus as having been saved.
We see a vision of this group in John’s letter of Revelation that was read this morning. Take note of the fact that group is of any race and background. No one race or background is given preferential treatment. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, rich or poor, male or female, slave or free. It doesn’t matter; they’re all together as one group of people saved by Christ, called by Christ, and serving him. Perhaps that should be the way we treat each other on earth as well.
Their actions are simple: they praise God and leave the rest to Jesus. Notably it is Jesus who get the final say on who is in and who is out. Not me as a pastor in granting membership or not granting membership; rather, as we see in several places in the gospels, not everyone who is in the church is in the communion of saints. That’s part of the difference between the visible and invisible church: we have some weeds among the wheat. That is always a sobering reminder for me.
We are told that this communion of saints have gone through a great ordeal, but they are to be rewarded. And they are to be rewarded notably, at least in the language of the New Revised Standard Version, not really because they went through the ordeal but because they center their life on the Lamb. And because center their life on the Lamb, therefore they went through the ordeal. That centering on the Lamb is displayed in how we treat other people and how we live day to day.
Saints do the little things for other people. They donate blood, they serve at the food pantry or shelter, they donate to the Red Cross, they donate to flood relief, they read with students at school, they get supplies for the backpack drive, they make a nurse smile at the nursing home. I contend one of the most powerful things we can do as Christians is when we find ourselves in a nursing home or in a hospital bed that we are the one that makes the nurse smile. We are the one that brightens their day, that gives them joy. And you don’t need any kind of physical attribute to do that. You can do that up until the day you die. In short you don’t have to be Mother Theresa to be a saint, you all can be. You just need to listen to the Spirit’s guidance; for the Spirit seeks to move us to a more saintly place every day.
Lastly, I wonder if there are those present today who need to be reminded of what the word communion really implies. When you are in communion with someone, it means that they are with you. And when we say we believe in the communion of saints, we are saying that we believe in all the saints who have gone before, and all the saints will come after us, as well as all the saints present today. We believe that all of us are in one community, all the way back to Peter and all the way to the last Christian. This provides the basis for you praying for your children, for your nieces, for your nephews, for your parents, for your grandparents, and for those that have gone on before. No one‘s really gone. If they were in the communion of saints then they still are in the communion of saints and they are with us. And when you sit here and worship, this is the closest you’ll be to them. You can still hold them and love them and be in communion with them here. It’s one of the most powerful things about the belief in the communion of saints. Rest in that knowledge. And seek to continue to be in the communion of saints by serving all brothers and sisters in Christ here on earth, honoring those are gone before. And as you do, you’ll be making that invisible catholic Church more Holy every day. Amen.