Weekly Sermons

I Believe in the Church
Sermon for Sunday, 31 March 2019

We continue our series on Adam Hamilton’s book “Creed: What Christians Believe and Why.” First we talked about our belief in God, creator of heaven and earth. We talked about our belief in Jesus Christ and what a relationship with him means to us. Last week we talked about the Holy Spirit, God’s active voice that leads us, comforts us, and speaks God’s will to us.
Today we’re talking about the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. I’ll begin with a question. When I say “Church,” what comes to mind? Do you see the sanctuary where you are sitting? Do you see the cross and flame on the front of the building? Or do you see the people sitting around you? When we think of the church, we need to expand our image to more than the building. Of course the building is important. It is where we gather to worship, to fellowship, to meet, and to work. But the church isn’t this building. The church is all of us, the people. We are the church. That is an important thought to keep in mind as we talk about our belief in the church.

So what does it mean when we say we believe in the holy catholic church? When many people look at the church, they don’t see anything holy or catholic. Studies show that young people stay away from the church because they see hypocrisy and judgment. They claim to follow Jesus who opened the table of grace wide yet work to exclude certain groups of people from his church. They claim to model how Jesus cared for the poor and marginalized but only seem concerned about keeping the doors open for themselves. 

It’s important to understand what we mean when we say we believe in the holy church. The church isn’t holy because we’re all perfect. You may have heard the phrase the church isn’t a country club for the perfect but a hospital for the sinner. We’re all sinners in need of redemption and grace. The word “holy” in the biblical context means belonging to God or sacred to God or set apart for God.  So the church is holy when those who are a part of her recognize that she belongs to God and not to her members. It’s not about what the church can do for us but what we can do for God through worship and mission.

We say we believe in the holy catholic church but we’re not talking about the Roman Catholic church. The word “catholic” comes from a compound Greek word that means in essence “everywhere.” It includes the Roman Catholic Church, but it also includes Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists and Lutheran and non-denominational churches of every shape and size. Every community of believers who gather to worship, fellowship, care for the community, and share the love of God are part of the same church. One church belonging to God to do God’s work in the world.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he charged the disciples to carry on the work he started. That task wasn’t just left to Matthew, Peter, James and the other original followers. That task is left to us as modern day disciples. We are continuing to be the hands, feet and voice of Jesus, to do the work he started. That’s why we serve meals every Sunday to anyone in need, why we open our doors to recovery groups, why we make birthing kits for women in Serra Leone, why we help people make ends meet with grocery cards and assistance with rent or utilities, why we support UMCOR. It’s all about doing the work of Jesus in the world. That’s why the apostle Paul often referred to the church as the body of Christ. It is more than a social club. It is being Jesus in the world.
One of the most important role of the church is to create community. That is why I believe in the church and why I’ve dedicated my life to serving the church. Like the song says, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. We are wired to need one another. Even people who see themselves as strong and independent realize they can’t go it alone. The church is a place where everyone belongs, are welcomed, are valued. In nearly every church I’ve served, there have been a few people who felt they didn’t fit in anywhere they went. Some were painfully shy or socially awkward. Others had been deeply hurt and found it hard to trust. But at church, they felt at home. Church gave them a place to belong.

Our Gospel lesson this morning offers a good analogy to what the church means to us. The prodigal son. The son who squandered his inheritance on wine and women and good times finds himself broke and alone. He understands that he’s made a mistake, that he needs to go home and make amends with his father. He hopes his father will let him in, maybe treat him as a slave. So he goes home. His father doesn’t greet him with, “I told you so,” or “Look what the cat dragged in.” He runs to him, wraps his arms around him, and celebrates his return.

In my first appointment, a young man stole a check from the church, forged it, and cashed it. He was prosecuted and served some time in jail. When he was released, he didn’t want to come back to church. He was ashamed and thought people would shun him. I encouraged him to come to worship. When he finally worked up the courage to walk into the sanctuary, he was greeted with hugs and cries of “It’s good to see you. We’ve missed you.” The church was home for that broken young man, a place where he could be forgiven and welcomed and supported.

Our church operates as a family. We nurture one another, support one another, encourage one another. When someone is sick or has surgery or has lost a loved one, the casseroles are delivered, the errands are run, the cards are received. It is beautiful to watch. And it is beautiful to receive as I have these past two weeks. This is what the church is meant to look like. The church is God’s answer to our basic human need to belong, to be accepted, to be supported and loved. And this church does it well.

When it comes to “the communion of saints,” you may think of the sacrament of communion, the taking of the bread and cup. The words communion and community have the same root meaning, the Latin communis, meaning participation by all. The notion of the saints of the church comes from Paul’s letters to Christian communities. Paul didn’t mean that church members are saints, those without sin. In the Christian sense, the word saint refers to both a present reality and a higher calling. 

John Wesley talked a lot about grace. He saw grace beginning at birth and continuing through and even after death. Prevenient grace is God’s wooing us into relationship. Justifying grace is saying yes to that call. Sanctifying grace is moving toward perfection, but not in the Martha Stewart sort of way. Christian perfection is living a life of pure love the way Jesus did. Wesley believed it was possible to be fully sanctified in this life but most of us don’t. We aren’t wholly sanctified until death. 

The communion of saints ties us with all who have gone before us and have reached sanctification. We hear it in our communion liturgy. When Christians worship together, we enter into one of those “thin spaces” where heaven and earth meet. It reminds us that we are part of a continuing legacy of disciples dedicated to Christ, to doing his work in the world. As we sit here now, we are surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses who taught us about faith – our parents, grandparents, their parents, all the way back to the original disciples who walked the earth with Christ and carried out his ministry after his death. It reminds us that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. And it assures us that we will gather with the saints who have come before us when we enter into eternal life.

I know we all hear and read a lot about the decline of the church, especially in mainline denominations like ours. But the church matters, and it will continue to matter. I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to the church if I didn’t believe that. The more we do to share the love of Christ in the world, the more we show how important the church is, especially for those who don’t fit in, those who are on the outskirts of society, those who need love and acceptance exactly as they are. We are the church. You are the church. And the world needs us.