Monday, November 15, 2010

Yes, we're the church together

I preached this sermon October 31 at my home church, Calvin CRC in Sheboygan, WI. Unlike two years ago, I did not get into trouble for my "liberal politics."

Oh, and special thanks to Cathy Smith. You can read some of her bloggings here. Something she wrote in a discussion on the CRC Voices list serve really made up the heart of my final point. When I read her comments, I knew I could never say it better than she did. After the service, a man in church I highly respect came up to me and said "I really appreciated the sermon--especially the part Cathy wrote." Thanks, Cathy!

“We Are the Church Together”

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Q&A 54, Heidelberg Catechism

Article XXVII, Belgic Confession

In just a moment, we are going to read together from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Go ahead and turn to it, if you’d like. 1 Corinthians is in the New Testament. First come the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Then come the books of Acts and Romans, and then 1 Corinthians.

Also, there are outlines available. If you would like one, raise your hand, and one of the ushers will bring you one. It might be useful to have one within reach. I printed Question and Answer 54 from the catechism there, and in just a moment I’ll be asking you to read along with me.

I. Introduction—“I am the Church…”

Old songs stick with you a long time, don’t they? No matter how old you are, you can probably remember songs you sang as a kid. Some of them are simple nursery rhymes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Jack and Jill Went up the Hill.” If you grew up in the church you certainly remember songs like “Jesus Loves Me” or “This is the Day.”

Back in my grade school days, after church all the kids would head down to the church basement. We could pick up juice and a cookie on the way, but we all gathered together in a big room to sing.

The whole church was invited—singing time was held between the church service and Sunday school. While the junior high and high school kids thought they were too cool to join in, many adults would join us. Often there were more adults than kids! Together we would sing Sunday school songs like “Fishers of Men,” “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” and “Do, Lord,” often doing the motions along with the singing. Once we were done, we would move our chairs, the adults would move around the movable classroom dividers, and we’d head to our Sunday school lessons.

One song I especially remember singing was called “I am the Church.” Maybe you know it. It was pretty simple. The chorus went like this—

“I am the church,

You are the church,

We are the church together.

All who follow Jesus,

All around the world,

Yes, we’re the church together.”

I’ll admit that one reason I especially remember this song is that it was one of my little brother’s favorites. He loved to sing it, but he couldn’t pronounce “church.” When he said it, it sounded like “tutch.” My other brother and I used to tease him by copying the way he sang it: “I am da tutch, you are da tutch…”

I thought of that song again this week. In our morning services Pastor Rob has been going through the Apostle’s Creed, that ancient statement of Christian belief recited every week in churches around the globe. Pastor Rob asked me to continue the series, and this week, we are up to “I believe in the holy catholic church.” So of course when I thought about what I might say about the church, the first thing that popped in my head was “I am da tutch, you are da tutch…”

And as simple as the song is, it contains a timeless truth. The first verse of the song says:

“The church is not a building,

the church is not a steeple,

the church is not a resting place,

the church is a people.”

To this day, I remember learning a lot about the church while singing that song. But it wasn’t just the words that taught me about the church. It was watching the people singing along. It was people like the crotchety lady who always helped in the kitchen and made sure we kids didn’t take more than one cookie; people like the elderly man who cried when he told us his son had left the faith and become a Buddhist; and people like the minister, who always had time for us kids and always let one of us join him at the exit to the sanctuary as he greeted the congregation after the service.

I’ve been a member of quite a few churches since then. But I first learned about the church from those saints who gathered every Sunday on High Mountain Road.

This morning, we’re going to look at another church—the church in Corinth. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in response to problems in that church. In some parts of the letter he can be pretty critical of the church folks in Corinth. But at the very beginning, he expresses his thankfulness for them and reminds them of what a blessing it is to be part of the church. Hear the word of the Lord—through Paul—in the first nine verses of 1 Corinthians:

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

Now pull out your outlines. On the top is question and answer 54 from the Catechism. I will read the question, and I ask that you read the answer together in response.

Q. What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?

A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.

And of this community I am and always will be a living member.”

The catechism, like the Apostle’s Creed, speaks of the church as “the holy catholic church.” Some other creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, add another word, the “holy catholic and apostolic Church.” This morning, let’s look at the church through each of those descriptive words: “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic.”

II. Holy

So first, “holy.” What does it mean to be holy?

To be holy means to be set apart for a special purpose. Usually, that being set apart means being dedicated to the service of God. It means exactly the same thing as “sacred” or “sanctified.”

In fact, when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and told them in verse two that they were “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy,” he was telling them that they were called to be saints. The actual word he used that we translate as holy was “saints.” Holy, saints—either way Paul is saying that the church has been made holy and set aside.

But of course the church isn’t holy by itself. It isn’t set aside solely to be different from other organizations, or to be just a little better than the rest. Paul says it right there in verse two. The church is sanctified in Christ Jesus.

That means that there is nothing about the church by itself that is good. We are only made holy, set apart, because of Jesus Christ. The whole reason for the church is Jesus himself.

As much as I appreciate John Calvin, I am not a big fan of the name of our church. I don’t like the idea of a church being named after a mere human being, even one who had such an impact on history. There is only one person who deserves to have a church named after him, and that is Jesus Christ. It is his gift of grace that allows the church to continue and prosper.

Paul thanks God for the church in verse 4, saying he thanks God “because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” And it is through Jesus that the church has been enriched in every way—in all our speaking and in all our knowledge. And it is because of Jesus that we are able to be called into fellowship with him.

And because of the grace of Jesus, because we can now fellowship with him and become one with him, the church receives some wonderful promises. Paul talks about these in verses 7 and 8 of the text. First, we do not lack any spiritual gift. Within the church, God has given every gift, every talent the church needs.

And not only that, but Jesus has promised to keep us strong to the end of time. No matter the challenges the church faces, whether from fights within the church or from attacks from the outside, God will provide the gifts and talents needed to stand strong, and he will give us the strength needed to gain the victory.

But being holy, being sanctified in Jesus Christ, doesn’t simply mean that we can sit back, assured that we have been set apart from the world around us, simply waiting for Christ to return. Rather, we have been set aside for a purpose. We are called as a church to respond to God’s grace to us. And that call is to be Christ’s agents, his hands in a hurting world. The church has been called to serve the world, spreading Christ’s grace to everyone who needs it.

That means making sure that everyone has the opportunity to hear the message of salvation. For a few of us, that may mean something as radical as moving thousands of miles across the ocean to translate the Bible into a language spoken by a few thousand folks in Papua New Guinea, or studying macroeconomic systems and designing the best possible ways to encourage economic development in the third world.

For many more of us it means witnessing to our neighbors and the others nearby who need to hear what Christ has done for you. It means living with less so we can share our abundance those who need it. It means walking alongside and mentoring people in jail or with addictions, or who didn’t have the same advantages as we did. And it means encouraging our leaders to take seriously our responsibility to the needy and weak in our society.

Being made holy, being set apart, doesn’t give us as a church license to simply hang out in our beautiful buildings and wait for Christ to return. It doesn’t give the church permission to ignore the masses in decay in hopes that they’ll just go away. It means being set apart to do the work Jesus began 2000 years ago—to continue the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God, of healing the sick and feeding the hungry. It is for the work of Christ that the church has been set apart, sanctified in Jesus, and called to be holy.

III. Catholic

Besides being called holy, we as a church are called a catholic church. Another word for catholic is “universal,” and some Christians, because of concern about confusion, sometimes substitute the word universal. And that is fair, since the word catholic simply means universal in extent, involving everyone. We are united in faith with all Christians, everywhere and in all times and places.

Paul recognizes the catholic nature of the church in verse 2 of our text. He addresses his letter both specifically and generally. Specifically, he addressed the church of God in Corinth. More generally, though, he also addresses his letter to “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.

The catechism writers focused on the catholic or universal nature of the church when they said that God gathers, protects, and preserves a community “out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end….”

Maybe today we are a little more aware than we used to be that the church is made up of people from the entire human race, regardless of the country we live in or our ethnic background. When my kids were younger, we sometime used the books You Can Change the World for our family devotions. You may have seen the books in our church library. They are the kid version of the “Operation World” series, in which we American Christians are encouraged to pray for Christians and people groups all over the world. They are an excellent resource, and I encourage you to check out the kids’ version for your kids and grandkids, as well as “Operation World” for your own devotions.

But even though we are more aware that we are united in faith with a church gathered by God out of the entire human race, I wonder how well we live that out in our everyday lives. Let me give an example. While the numbers from the 2010 census are not finalized, 2009 estimates suggest that the City of Sheboygan is now about 3% African-American, 8% Asian, and 10% of Hispanic origin. Yet our congregation doesn’t reflect those numbers. Few do. Why not?

This topic was raised in the last few months in our denominational magazine, The Banner. Maybe some of you read it. In September, someone wrote an editorial asking “Is Separation Always Sin?” The writer of the article was Timothy Palmer, a North American missionary working in Nigeria. He agreed that it is beautiful when Christians from different ethnic groups worship together. But, he raised some concerns about the Belhar Confession, a new confession being considered by our church.

The Belhar condemns any “forced separation on the grounds of race and color.” That part is a no-brainer—there can be no doubt by any Bible believing Christian that the old system of apartheid in South Africa was abhorrent to God. The practice of redlining certain neighborhoods in Chicago to try to prevent African-Americans from moving in was the work of the devil.

But the Belhar also seems to reject any separation based on race or ethnicity and claims that any separation between peoples and groups is sin. Palmer isn’t so sure. He argued that there are sometimes valid reasons for people to worship separately.

One reason often cited is the language barrier. In a church like ours that places the Word of God at the center of worship, it would be hard to justify allowing people to go through an entire service not understanding what is going on.

But as someone recently noted in a letter in response to Palmer’s editorial, most churches are fairly quick to add a sign language interpreter when two or three people need it. But not many churches interpret their services into other languages unless a high percentage of the church needs it. While doing so might not be convenient, he argued that it needs to be done for the sake of hospitality.

He then asked an important question. Are we, as a church, striving to reflect the fact that God has drawn his church from every nation by whatever means possible? Or are we just trying to justify our cultural comfort zones or ethnic preferences?

Obviously, the answer to that question is complicated. We can’t settle it easily. But perhaps we should work to make our church better reflect the diversity of our community. After all, we confess that we are united in faith with a church gathered out of the entire human race.

Of course, the church is even bigger than all three dimensions of the globe. The catechism says that God gathers, protects, and preserves a community “out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end” that is “chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”

Another one of our confessions says even more about this. Article 27 of the Belgic Confession reminds us that the “church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects.” It goes on to remind us that “this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small in the eyes of men—as though it were snuffed out.” And it gives the example of the “very dangerous time of Ahab,” when “the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand men who did not bend their knees to Baal.”

This reminder should give us hope in God’s grace to his church. No matter how tough things seem, God will preserve and protect his church. There will always be followers of Christ. While it may be true that the church in the West—in Europe and North America—is declining, maybe even fading away, God will preserve and protect his church. And because we are united to Christ in faith through his grace, we know we are and always will be a member of that church. We are and always will be united to a church drawn out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to the end, a universal church, a holy catholic church.

IV. Apostolic

Just briefly, I want to touch on one more aspect of the church. I mentioned before that many of our creeds, including the oldest one, the Nicene Creed, describe the church as holy, catholic and apostolic. While it is good to be reminded, we probably know to some extent what it means that the church is holy and what it means that the church is catholic, or universal. But what about that last word—what does it mean that the church is apostolic?

In our text this morning, Paul starts out by identifying himself as “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.” We often refer to Paul as an apostle.

The word apostle means someone who is sent out. It actually comes from the same root word as postal—the postal service is a group of people who are sent out to deliver messages to a large geographical area. Apostles are kind of like postal carriers—they are sent out to deliver a message.

But the message of the apostles was not just a bit of news from a cousin in Jerusalem being sent to a distant relative in Corinth. The message of the apostles was the gospel of Jesus Christ—the message of grace and salvation and sanctification, of being made holy, through Christ. It is what Paul in verse 6 calls “our testimony about Christ,” a testimony that was confirmed in the lives of the people who make up the church, both in Corinth, and everywhere around the world.

The twelve apostles were sent by Jesus to be witnesses, to preach the gospel of grace that Jesus had given them. All of them had personally met Jesus—all but Paul by being his disciple before his death and all including Paul seeing him after his death and resurrection. Each of the twelve was personally called by Jesus to follow him and commissioned to be preachers of the gospel of grace that Jesus personally taught them.

As personal witnesses of the gospel, they became the foundation of the church—the holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We see this in Ephesians 2:20. There, Paul speaks of the church as being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”

When we confess that the church is apostolic, we are saying that it is founded on the gospel of grace to which the apostles were eyewitnesses. And we are confessing that the churches to which we belong today are directly descended from the churches we see in the book of Acts, the churches formed by the apostles. The Gospel Jesus gave to His apostles to preach to the churches is the same Gospel we preach today.

The Gospel calls us to serve Jesus in His church, just as Jesus called His first apostles. And when we preach the Gospel of the apostles, we are assured that we will not “lack any spiritual gift” as we eagerly await Christ’s final return as King. And we are assured that he will keep his church strong to the end, because the God of the gospel of grace is faithful. We are part of a church that is holy, catholic, and apostolic.

V. Grace!

Yet, somehow, even though we confess that we are part of a church that is holy, catholic, and apostolic, we sure don’t act like it, do we? We argue about minor things, like style of music, and become angry over something designed to glorify God. Instead of extending grace to each other, we pass judgment on each other over little things like the exact timing of the creation or who to vote for. Sometimes church seems more like the description that writer Annie Dillard gave in her book of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk. This is how she described one of her experiences:

“Week after week I was moved by . . . The terrible singing I so loved, the fatigued Bible readings, The lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, The horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came; we returned; we showed up; week after week we went through with it.”

But notice, even with the pervasive imperfection of her church, Annie Dillard kept showing up.

I mentioned earlier, that even though Paul starts 1 Corinthians on a positive note, thanking God for his gift of the church in Corinth, he moves quickly to criticism. In verse 10 he starts a section decrying divisions in the church. Later on he deals with reports of sexual immorality within the church at Corinth, lawsuits among church members, and divisive debates over propriety in worship and whether Christians can eat food that had been offered to idols. And yet Paul returns at the end of the letter to his initial theme—his love and thankfulness for the church, and his desire to visit them again, hopefully for more than just a short visit.

The church is imperfect. After all, it is made up of imperfect people, people who have received God’s grace, but are still working out the gift of grace in their own lives.

Sometimes people are thrown off by that imperfection. I had a secretary who for many years refused to join the church because of all the hypocrites. It seems that whenever something bad happens within the church, the naysayers are there attacking the church. And look at the divisions within the church—there are thousands of separate denominations, each seeming to claim that they have the right understanding of Scripture. Our own denomination was born out of schism, and has suffered two major schisms in the last 85 years or so. We all seem to think we have a corner on the market on knowing what God wants. And in doing so, we forget about grace.

So as a church, we need to remember the beginning of Paul’s letter to that oh-so-imperfect church in Corinth, a church not so different from our local congregation, or from the church as a whole. We need to remember that we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. We need to thank God for the grace given us in Christ Jesus, and rely wholly on it.

I have a friend named Cathy—a friend I’ve never met in person, but a friend indeed. Cathy is a former teacher and a writer. She writes for Christian Courier magazine and maintains a blog of her writing. Recently, in a discussion about some of the divisions in the church, Cathy said something that really sums up what we need to do as a church in the face of our divisions, our sins, and our imperfections.

She said:

“We have to go back again and again to what Christ did for us. It's not our "understanding" or "obedience" that brings us hope, but being cleansed and reborn in Christ…. If I am completely wrong about my interpretation of Genesis or my take on [women in church office], praise the Lord, I still belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. I'm trusting in his work. The confused peasants in the Middle Ages who worshipped bits of wood allegedly imported from Golgotha, if they believed in the Lord, still belonged. My descendants, who may inhabit purification pods and live digital lives in environmentally-safe cocoons, if they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, will belong. It's that smaller than a mustard seed spark of faith that matters, not our understanding, nor our obedience…. We will disagree about that stuff, but we can still love one another in the Lord and try to be conciliatory, patient and gentle with one another… If a church… focus[es] on Christ’s sufficiency, daily and weekly, we can allow each other a lot of working room and space for our humble attempts at understanding and obedience.”

VI. Conclusion

We started with one song this morning—“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.” I want to finish with another song, one of my very favorite hymns—“The Church’s One Foundation.” We’re not singing it this morning, because it is one of the hymns we’ll be singing tonight over at First Church. I hope you’ll join us there tonight, as we celebrate the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation together with Christians from several other congregations. It will be an excellent opportunity to celebrate God’s faithfulness and grace toward his church.

But back to “The Church’s One Foundation.” The title says it all, doesn’t it? The church’s one foundation isn’t agreement on a set of specific doctrines. We aren’t sanctified in Christ because we know more doctrine than the guys down the street or because we are the most obedient to God’s law or because we are more faithful to a particular human interpretation of Scripture.

Rather, “the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord.” “With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.”