Summary: The catholic/universal church is the fellowship of all believers gathered, set apart, united in faith, who belong to Christ.
“I Believe” Sermon Series on the Apostles Creed
“The Communion of the Saints” I Corinthians 12:12-27 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
“I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” Right upfront, let’s define “the church”: It is the fellowship of all people gathered, set apart, united in faith, who belong to Christ. Regardless of what we may think of organized religion, which often appears to take on the form of bureaucracy, the “church” is a community of believers that includes, yet goes beyond, denominational labels.
Our former Conference Minister, Cliff Christensen, once stated in a public forum, that he was looking forward to the day when there would no longer be any Congregationalists. He was not being disloyal; rather he was stating his desire for unity among all believers. When I served as an Army Chaplain, I conducted generic Christian worship services and I didn’t check people’s dog tags at the door, meaning I wasn’t especially concerned as to what labels people had. My own dog tag simply read “Christian”. The admin clerk insisted I had to list my actual denomination, so I said “Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.” He dropped his jaw and said, “OK, it’ll be ‘Christian’!” When we stand before the throne of God, our relationship to Christ, not our labels, will be what matters. Church is important, but we have to understand that each local Christian church is a part of a larger fellowship. There’s only one true church—the fellowship of all believers.
Some people have “churchianity”, a form of religion, but they lack true saving faith in Christ. Being on the church roll does not make anyone a Christian. Corrie tenBoon said that a mouse in a cookie jar isn’t a cookie. We may have a certificate of church membership, but our true, spiritual credentials, are within. And while I believe it’s important to belong to a local body of believers, it is genuine, authentic faith that saves, not membership.
The Apostles Creed refers to one “holy catholic church”. In order to clarify any misunderstanding, we substitute the word “Christian” for “catholic”, to show that we’re not under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. But we are part of the “holy catholic church”, which isn’t an exclusive body. It’s what is called the “invisible” church, which takes many forms. The word “catholic” means “universal”, which is what Paul is getting at when he describes the church as the “Body of Christ”. God has joined us to each other (regardless of our denominations) by uniting us in Christ. We enjoy both unity and diversity. What unites us in Christ is greater than that which divides us. The pieces are different, but the Spirit fits us together. Unity does not demand uniformity. If we can agree on Who Jesus is and what He accomplished, and the authority of the Bible, if we concur with the Apostle’s Creed, we can agree to disagree on most anything else.
Paul compares the community of people who believe in Jesus to an organic human body, a complex, living organism with varied parts--each part essential to the optimum working of the interdependent whole. Where do you and I fit into this arrangement? We need to discover our place in the church, where we can function in harmony with others to make the Good News known. The church is the great lost-and-found department.
When we’re connected to the Body, we’re able to function. When a hand is amputated, it cannot function on its own (Here’s the hard part of my sermon--I’m now preaching to those who aren’t here!). It’s hard to be an effective follower of Christ when you’re not connected to the Body of Christ, the church. Only as part of the body are we useful; we are dependent on the other parts of the Body of Christ. In Him and through Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, we can function harmoniously.
Jesus prayed that His church would be as one (John 17). Seeing all the different kinds of churches, Christendom may appear fragmented, but consider church diversity as you do restaurants: some are ethnic or regional; some focus on steak or seafood. All churches have distinctive traditions, doctrines, and styles of worship, which set them apart, but not in an exclusive sense. To think of one’s church as having the only correct belief and practice is cultic. I also use the restaurant image when people tell me they don’t attend anymore. When they say they don’t go to church because they had a “bad experience” at one, I tell them I once had a bad experience at a restaurant, so I don’t ‘eat-out’ anymore! What do you do if you get a lousy meal or bad service? You go somewhere else. John says of those who depart, “They went out from among us because they did not really belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us” (I John 2:19).