This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship in October 2009. To listen to this sermon, just click on this link – Justin 10/09.
I Cor. 1 “I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church” 10/4/09
“I Believe in the holy catholic church.” What do we mean when we say this phrase of the Apostles’ Creed? What are we claiming to believe in here? Do we mean “I trust in this institution called the church”? That can’t be it, because we’ve all known churches that were unworthy of trust, and no church, not even this one which we love, is perfect. Besides, that would make this phrase of the Creed completely different from all of the other phrases, which are about the Triune God and what HE has done, not about human institutions achievements. When we affirm “I believe in the church,” we are affirming that God has done and is doing a mysterious but powerful work in this world. He is calling together a new people who are already made holy in Christ and who somehow, despite their divisions and differences, are ONE group across the whole world. These people are called to reflect God’s love and holiness to the world around them, showing the truth of what God is doing both individually and corporately. We are reminded of this in the first verses of I Corinthians 1, as Paul and Sosthenes begin their letter to the group of Christ-followers that Paul had started in Corinth.
The Church Has Been Made Clean In Christ Given the very serious problems that plagued the Corinthian group, we might expect Paul to emphasize their moral laxity, pettiness, confusion, injustice, and pride, or even to deny them the status of a “real” church at all. But he knows that despite their sin, the identity of this church is rooted in what Christ has done for them, not vice versa. He begins not with how far they still have to go, but with the bedrock fact that they are sanctified in Christ! They have heard and responded to the Good News: that Jesus took their sin and folly upon himself, and that by God’s powerful verdict they are as clean as Christ. Everything else that the church is commanded to do flows out of this.
When we look at ourselves, at our particular church, or at any branch of the worldwide church, we should not start with a checklist of wrongs or shortcomings.We should start (and continue!) with a humble realization that we, and they, have been graciously included in God’s new people. If God’s offer of grace is being accepted, then sin no longer has the last word about a church’s identity. Christ and his perfection get the final say. How would it change our interactions with other Christians if our first thought about them was, “This person has been made holy and is empowered by the same Lord who’s working with me”?
Having Been Made Holy, We are Called to Be a Holy People But our cleansing by Christ does not mean that everything is as it should, or will, be. Paul tells the Corinthians that they were called together by God for a reason. They are called to be saints…called to be a Holy People. Not “it would be a good idea if you shaped up,” but “God himself has called you specifically to be the people you were meant to be, reflecting God’s perfect love and justice to the world.” In other verses, Paul and other NT writers say that this is one of the main reasons Jesus came. Titus 2:14 says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” That is why Paul & Sosthenes can spend much of the rest of this letter pleading with the Corinthians to change their ways. God is going to make the church become in action what he has already made it to be.
The good news that God has shown his love for us in Christ is not meant to make sin insignificant to us. It should make us see the weight of our sin which took Jesus to the cross. It should show us the shame that Christians bring on their Lord’s name with unholy behavior. It should embolden us to face our sin and struggle against it, since we know that God’s power is within us now, changing us into the people we should be. This change is not automatic nor is it easy, but we have the promise of God’s continuing presence and forgiveness for those who seek it. The church, worldwide and throughout history and right here, has often failed to act as God wants it to act. We confess our sins together each week, each month, because we know we are not yet what we should be. Confession reminds us that sin is deadly serious. Every individual church is in danger of turning into something un-Christian (see the warnings to the churches in Revelation 1 to 3). But though individual churches come and go, for good or bad reasons, God does not abandon the community he is building. We’ve been promised that Jesus is with his church to the end (Matthew 28:20), and that the God who has started a good work in his church will stick to the job until it is done (Philippians 1:6).
We Are United To the Worldwide Church By Our Shared Lord Even in those early years, just 30 years after the Resurrection, the Christian church was in danger of splintering apart. Christians in Corinth were beginning to brag about which Christian teachers they followed, or which special gifts made them better than other Christians. Paul will spend much of the letter talking about this, but he lays the foundation for his correction in the very opening of the letter. In the second half of verse 2, he reminds the Corinthians that they are partners with “those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…their Lord and ours.” He and Sosthenes are living examples of this…a former Pharisee and a synagogue leader starting a church that included many Greeks and other Gentiles. The old boundaries between people are being broken down because the Master they both serve is now the most important thing.
But can the church really be “together” now, as so much time has passed and as it has fragmented into many denominations, churches, and even groups of various convictions or preferences within churches? In part, yes, it is still united by a shared connection with Christ, who has not changed. But in part, we have to say “well, no, it isn’t as unified as it should be. It has been fractured for good reasons and for bad. It isn’t living out the unity that it should show to the world.” But what can our little group do to work toward unity?
Repent of the Myth of Self-Sufficiency Our particular assembly of Christ-followers, Peace Hill Christian Fellowship, doesn’t exist on its own. The truths about Jesus that we tell to each other have been passed down, or learned, from other churches, other Christians, friends, families who raised us, books, websites, sermons, etc. The songs we sing have almost all been composed, sung, cherished, and passed on by churches from around the world. Even our Bibles are products of Christians throughout the centuries who copied manuscripts, preserved them, worked hard to translate them into English, etc. What Paul says to the Corinthians later on in this chapter could be said to us too: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?” (I Cor. 4:7) All our knowledge and learning and our examples of how to be a Christian were given to us, generously, just like God’s grace. It would be utter arrogance and short-sightedness to think of ourselves as a self-sufficient church.
Work & Pray for Unity If God’s People really are “one,” we must reflect this in the way we treat other churches and ministries. Our methods may differ; our cultural expressions of worship may differ; our convictions on small (or even large!) matters may differ, but if they “call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, if they worship Jesus as God’s Son and seek to obey his commands, then they are partners with us in serving the same Lord. We don’t get to choose his servants for him. We should pray for them, speak well of them (rather than gossiping or mocking), encourage them, share with them, work together with them on larger projects that no church can do alone, and learn from them. We should not see ourselves as being in competition with them, but family members (Matt. 12:50), or comrades in the same fight.
The Lord’s Supper we celebrate today is not disconnected from the topic of the Church. We need this constant return to Jesus, the one who gave his life to turn sinful and divided people into forgiven, unified brothers and sisters in God’s house. Come and eat together, sharing this connection with the Lord who gives us the strength and graciousness to be unified.