************ Sermon on Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 54-55 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on February 27, 2011
Q & A 54-55
"I Believe the Holy Catholic Church"
I People Search for Community
A Here is a note from 1905. A man by the name of Paul Harris was lonely. He started an organization to capture the same friendly spirit he had felt in the small towns of his youth. An organization where he could experience fellowship and support. That organization is Rotary.
Here is a note from 1984. Its earning last year grew by an astonishing three thousand percent as it took in money by the millions. It owns land in the downtown of scores of important cities around the world. It owns thousands upon thousands of good arable farm land. With impunity it bribes and controls public officials by the thousands. It deals with international governments almost as an equal and even the American government hardly dares to attack or question it.
Am I talking about General Motors? One of the big oil companies? AT&T? IBM? No! This note is about the Unification Church – more popularly known as the Moonies.
Here is another note, this time from 1994. There is a church that is growing ten percent or more a year; it has a vibrant publishing arm; it has dynamic para-church ministries for the youth; it has solid educational institutions; it has healthy, evangelizing congregations. This time I am talking about the Mormons.
Here is another note, this time from 2004. The number one problem in Visalia is gangs. Most of our murders and shootings are gang related.
One final note, from last year. Facebook now has over five hundred million users. People spend over seven hundred billion minutes per month on Facebook.
B What does Rotary, the Moonies, the Mormons, gangs and Facebook have in common? They all meet a need for fellowship. A need for fellowship that is not met because of the loneliness and alienation caused by sin. People are trying to find love and fellowship and communion. As I said last time, when we looked at the Spirit, people want to love and be loved. And they are willing to do almost anything to achieve this. People are dying, they are literally dying, to find community.
At the beginning of the last century, the mortality rate among children under two years of age, living in orphanages in Europe and in North America, was almost 100 per cent. These children were being well taken care of physically. They had all the food and health care they needed. Yet they died in their hundreds.What does this tell us? Babies need touch, affection, love – what the church calls community or fellowship. No one can survive without giving love and receiving love. No one can live without touching and being touched.
Their physical needs were being met but no one was allowed to touch them. At that time, it was thought that cuddling infants would spread infections and make children morally weak.
In 1920, Dr J Brenneman, a hospital pediatrician, introduced a rule in his ward that every baby should be picked up, carried around and "mothered" several times a day. Death rates fell immediately.
Everyday suicides end a dreadful number of lonely lives. These lives might well have found meaning in the context of a true community. But it wasn't found, and they were lonely and alone, and they were sick of it, so they end their own life. And how many other lives are hollow and empty and meaningless? There are people out there desperate for love and community and fellowship. There are people in here this evening desperate for the same thing.
When we turn to the Bible we see that man is a social creature – he was created to have fellowship. God never meant man to be a loner. He created man to have fellowship with Him and with fellow man. Remember what God said: "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him" (Gen 2:18). People without community are like plants without water – they shrivel up and die.
No wonder sects and cults and gangs have such an easy time. No wonder Rotary continues to grow. No wonder Facebook is so popular. People are dying to get in; they are dying to belong, to be wanted, to be needed. People are hungry for community.
C At the heart of the Gospel lies a word for community. That word is "church." So, with the church of all ages we confess in the Apostles' Creed, "I believe ... the holy catholic church, the communion of saints." The Apostles' Creed, I want to remind you, is a summary of the Gospel and lays out for us the content of true faith.
II A Community Formed by Christ
A I am sure you realize that the idea of community is very important in the Bible: from the Garden of Eden in the beginning, to the children of Israel as a nation, to the church, to the Holy City or New Jerusalem at the end.
The message of the Bible is that the only place where a desperately lonely mankind can find true community is a place where Jesus is at the center. That, my brothers and sisters, means that community can only be found in the church.
If you were to ask me to pick one word to describe or define the church I would have to pick the word "community." The church is community. We confess that in the Apostles' Creed when we say, "I believe a holy catholic church, the communion of saints." This is not two separate articles of the historic Christian faith; this is one article. The holy catholic church is the communion of saints. The communion of saints is the holy catholic church.
I love the Catechism's description of the communion of saints. Our communion is first of all vertical – with God. But it also includes a horizontal dimension – we are to serve one another.
When we turn to the book of Acts we are given a beautiful picture of the church as community. It is fair to say there has never been a more remarkable community than the one in Acts 4. Not a single lonely person in the lot, no orphan or widow without a family. Lots of people but just "one heart and mind" (Acts 4:32). No rich, no poor, no welfare department; for they had everything in common so "there was no needy person among them" (Acts 4:34).
If you think about it, everything about the church is communal. It starts with our worship: we sing together, pray together, give gifts together, praise God together, listen to God's Word together.
The church's task is a communal task. It isn't individuals who are told by Christ to bring the Gospel. It is the church as community who is told to go to the farthest corners of the earth with the Good News.
The government of the church is communal. It isn't the minister who runs the show, nor one elder, but the entire consistory.
The Toyota corporation, before its recent problem with cars that accelerate and brakes that don't stop, was a good picture of the church! It used to be the case that when problems occurred everyone at the company felt responsible – from the janitor to the engineer to the salesman to the officers and board. Japanese society is very communal and takes communal responsibility. Likewise, the church is communal in every area.
That is why individualism within the church is so bad. There is no such thing as individual worship, or individual ethics, or being a Christian by yourself. That is why Christians can never stay away from church and turn on the TV instead.
B We further confess that the church is a community formed by Christ through His Spirit and Word. As I said the last time we looked at the Catechism, the Holy Spirit is a uniting, fellowshipping, joining Spirit.
For a mankind desperate for fellowship and community the Lord Jesus, through His Spirit and Word, forms the church – a place where true fellowship and community can be found with God and with man. It is important to note that this is done within the church. No one can be united to God outside of the church. And no one can find true community outside of the church.
III A Holy Catholic Church
A Throughout its answer, the Catechism describes for us the characteristics of the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, that we confess in the Apostle's Creed.
The community formed by Christ through the Spirit and the Word is one community. In the Creed we confess "a holy catholic church." According to the Catechism, she is a community. One community. You may wonder how we can be one community when there are over 33,000 different denominations worldwide? You may wonder how we can be one community when every week we hear of church fights and church splits? A plaque from the last church we served, the one in Waupun, explains how (HOLD UP PLAQUE). It talks of "One Faith, One Hope, One Lord." Listen to how Paul states this in his letter to the church at Ephesus:
(Eph 4:4-6) There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to one hope when you were called-- (5) one Lord, one faith, one baptism; (6) one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.A reminder that all true believers are one in Christ.
B The community formed by Christ through the Spirit and the Word is also holy. She is holy for two reasons. First, the church is holy because she has been called out. The church has been called out of the world. Called to be separate. Called to be different. Second, the church is holy because the Spirit lives within her. And, the Spirit works to make the church like Jesus – holy, sanctified, pure.
C According to the Apostles' Creed, the community formed by Christ through the Spirit and the Word is catholic. Many people have problems with that word catholic. Right away they think it means Roman Catholic. We should never let the Church of Rome claim the word "catholic" just for herself. We can claim the word too because "catholic" simply means all believers in Jesus Christ across the world and the ages.
The community formed by Christ through His Spirit and Word is catholic. One of the things this means is that she is worldwide. The church comes "out of the entire human race." She isn't only for the rich or only for the white. The barriers of race, color, ethnic background, social class, education, and occupation are effectively destroyed by Christ. The community of the church formed by Christ is meant to be color-blind and barrier-free. Remember what happened at Babel? Mankind was split and divided. Christ reverses Babel in the church – because a mankind that is split and divided is now united and joined in Him in true faith.
D There are many today who say the church is going downhill, that she is on the way out, that she will disappear. The communists made this boast. Those who do surveys predict this. Pastors preach this. But what is the actual case?
The Catechism, based upon God's Word, tells us more about the church as catholic – namely, that she is not only worldwide but that she is also "from the beginning of the world to its end."
As you may know, there has been a push to substitute the word "universal" in the place of "catholic." But the word "universal" is too limiting. Yes, the church is universal but she is also throughout the ages. Which is why we should prefer the word catholic because that means the church is both across the world and across the ages.
The church has been present from the beginning of the world to its end. The church was present already in the Garden of Eden. The church will still be present at the return of Jesus Christ. Unless Jesus comes first, the church will still be standing and working long after you and I have parted from the scene.
Why? Because the members are so faithful? Because she clings to the Word and fights sin? Of course not! If it were up to us sinful, frail creatures to preserve and protect the church she would have disappeared with the twelve apostles. The church has been present from the beginning of the world to its end because her God is so faithful and it is He Who preserves the church.
By the grace and power of God the church has remarkable survival power. Elijah found that out. Remember what he cried to God?
(1 Ki 19:10) "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."Remember God's response?
(1 Ki 19:18) "Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel--all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.""I reserve," says God. God preserves. God protects. God keeps.
We found that out with China. All Christian missionaries left China when the communists took over. At that time the church was small, struggling, maybe one million in number. Everyone assumed that church would be wiped out. Yet, when missionaries entered China in the early 1970s they found a church that was estimated at three million. Today, in spite of continued persecution, the number may be as high as one hundred and thirty million. God is using the foolish to shame the wise. While Christianity may be declining in the West, God is bringing a spiritual awakening in third world countries like India and China.
It is because of God's preserving power that the Christian can say with the Catechism, "And of this community I am and always will be a living member."
E We must never forget that it is God Who "gathers, protects, and preserves" the church. As Zechariah puts it,
(Zech 4:6) "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit," says the LORD Almighty.
We are on the wrong path when we put programs and ministries before the Spirit and Word of God. During the last thirty years I have seen programs come and go. I saw Evangelism Explosion and the four spiritual laws in the early 70s. Then came "Discover Your Gifts." Then we were told to imitate Dr Schuler and the Crystal Cathedral and the power of positive thinking. Then Bill Hybels and Willow Creek with its seeker sensitive approach. Today we are told to be purpose-driven like Rick Warren and Saddleback church.
It is God Who "gathers, protects, and preserves" the church through His Spirit and Word. Not man. Not programs. Not ministries. Not choirs. Not musical programs. Not films and plays. There is simply no substitute for the Spirit and the Word of God.
It is God Who "gathers, protects, and preserves" the church through His Spirit and Word. Which further means the church is not a voluntary organization. It is not something you decide to join. It is not your decision. It is God's election and God's action.
As I said before, in this sinful, fallen, broken world man searches for community, for belonging, for fellowship. But unless his search ends with the body of Christ, he will not find the true community for which he is searching and for which God made him.
As you know, last weekend Ruth and I went to Wisconsin to visit the last church we served. We've been separated by 2400 miles and 13.5 years. Yet, we felt right at home just like we feel at home here. Why? Because those within the church are the family of God and brothers and sisters of one another.
Is this family perfect? Of course not! Like every family on this broken and sin-filled earth she has fights and quarrels. What makes this family different and better is that she is filled with the Spirit and the Word. What makes this family different and better is that within her there is also to be found forgiveness. In spite of her faults and her sins, she is still God's answer – through His Spirit and Word – for man's loneliness and man's need for fellowship.
May the Lord bless us as His family – the family of God.
For your catholic church we thank You, Jesus.
For a church so holy that she may bear Your name we thank You.
For a church so warm in faith, hope, and love that to belong to her is a foretaste of heaven, we thank You, Lord Jesus.
You have called us to be members of her;
may our membership be alive and enriching as we share in You and serve one another.
Lord Jesus, keep Your church one.
Keep her holy.
Keep her catholic.
Keep her faithful and true.
To the glory of Your name as her head and king.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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