************ Sermon on Nicene Creed ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 14, 2012
Nicene Creed 14
"We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church"
"We believe ..." says the Nicene Creed. We believe many things that the world can only smile about. We believe things for which the world even mocks us. According to Hebrews, we believe things we do not even see (Heb 11:1).
For instance, we confess that God is the Creator even though, at times, the world appears random and meaningless. We believe that God is Judge, even though evil always seems triumphant. We believe God is a gracious Savior even though we humans do not appear worth such infinite concern. We believe that Jesus took on our flesh even though many scoff at the idea that God would save a broken humanity through the broken body of a crucified Messiah. We believe God sanctifies us with the Spirit of Christ even though we remain poor, sinful creatures.
Do you hear what I am saying? Those who regularly and devoutly recite the words of the Nicene Creed assert truths that seem contradicted by most of the available evidence.
We see the exact same thing when we come to the section of the Nicene Creed that speaks of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We confess one thing but the available evidence appears to contradict this. We confess, as our bulletin cover puts it, that the church is "Where God's love shows and our faith grows" – even though at times the evidence appears to contradict this too.
I We Believe the Church
A Now, what are the central doctrines of the Christian faith? What must a Christian believe? What beliefs are essential? If we would take a poll, most Christians would point to the Trinity; the doctrines of Creation, Fall, and Redemption; the incarnation; the Holy Spirit and Pentecost; the return of Christ as Judge.
I suspect that a poll of most Christians today would not include what Nicene says about the church as part of their Gospel confession.
This is the result of an emphasis on the individual in our age. The Gospel today is viewed as dealing exclusively with individual salvation. The individual receives an altar call. The individual is called to repent and believe. The individual is called to grow in the faith. Within this kind of mindset, the confession of the church is not seen as an essential part of what Christians live for and die for.
We see this kind of mindset reflected in the title of a recent book. The book's title? "UnLearning Church." The church is seen as old-fashioned and irrelevant and even perilous to our spiritual growth. Because of this, there is even a growing trend among "church-growth" groups to name their churches anything but "church." I looked up a recent church yearbook and come across names like, "Solomon's Porch," "River Rock," "Love Song," "Christian Life Center." Not only do they refuse to publicly acknowledge that they belong to a denomination or federation, but they act as if they are ashamed of "church" as part of their name.
We also need to admit and confess and realize that as a corporate body, an institution, and a community that has passed through almost two thousand years of history, the church has been and is a large stumbling block to faith. The church, through the ages, has been driven by the fleshly passions of lust, avarice, malice, and pride. While on vacation I read a book on the House of Borgia during the 1400s and 1500s. This papal family with roots in Venice included popes, cardinals, bishops, and many other church leaders. It was a tale of adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning).
B As Christians we confess that the church – the word used by the Greek New Testament simply means "assembly" – this gathering of frail human beings is God's chosen instrument for the work of transforming the world. How can we make this confession?
As Christians we confess that outside of the church there is no salvation. Seen this way, salvation is not first of all a matter of one's eternal destiny; rather, it is a matter of belonging to the people of God. The answer to the question "Are you saved?" is not "Yes, I am going to heaven," but "Yes, I am among the people God is saving." How can we make this confession about such a fallen institution?
As Christians we confess that the church is a family. But what have we learned about family in our study of Genesis? We have learned that family is all messed up because of sin. We have learned that this thing we call marriage and brotherhood and sisterhood and parenting is fallen. We have learned that conflict is normal and to be expected in families.
A new word entered our vocabulary a few years back – the word "dysfunctional." We have been labeling families as dysfunctional ever since. Genesis makes clear that this is the truth for all of our families. And, sad to say, it is true for the church as well.
Church is a family. But she is broken, like everything else in this life is broken. So, how can we make this confession?
The answer lies in the four marks of the church taught by Scripture and highlighted by Nicene.
II The Church is One
A First, based upon Scripture, the Nicene Creed confesses belief in ONE church.
Paul talks about this oneness in his letter to Ephesus. He marvels that a church with Jewish roots includes Gentiles. For, as you know, Gentiles were excluded from citizenship in Israel and were foreigners to the covenants of the promise. They were without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus those who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. In Christ, the wall of hostility has been abolished. Consequently, Gentiles no longer are foreigners and aliens but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household (cf Eph 2:11ff).
Take a look at how this oneness comes to expression. The church today is made up of the widest range of people you could possibly imagine: people from all nations of the world; people who have come out of the drug culture; people who have never touched drugs or alcohol; people who smoke and people who don't smoke; people who can only give a penny or a chicken and people who give millions; people who are Democrat, Republican, Independent and from the Green Party or Tea Party; people who hate ice cream and people who love ice cream; people who can barely read and people who have written books. You name them, the Church of Jesus Christ has them!
There are over 33,000 different denominations yet they are all one if they confess, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4, one faith, one hope, and one Lord (Eph 4:1-6).
Seen this way, the church is like God: she is one even as God is one. She has replaced Israel as "God's elect people." She alone possesses eternal truth. She alone represents Christ in this world.
Seen this way, from the outside, the church is one.
B There is also another way in which the church's oneness comes to expression. We are talking about the church from within. The church is one because she lives a life of unity. In Luke's picture of the first community of believers in Jerusalem, the note of unity is struck again and again:
(Acts 2:44) All the believers were together and had everything in common.It is this unity that Paul has in mind when he exhorts his readers to:
(Acts 4:32) All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.
(Eph 4:3) Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.It is this unity that Jesus prays for in His great high-priestly prayer of John 17:
(1Cor 1:10) I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.
(Jn 17:21-23) that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you ... (22) I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: (23) I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.God the Father and God the Son loves it when we live in peace and unity with one another. They love it when we don't fight and quarrel with one another. They love it when we fellowship with one another: in worship, in Bible Study, in picnics, in meetings, in Kingdom activities, in music nights.
C The church is one, but within this unity there is also diversity. As I already mentioned, there is diversity of people. There is diversity of gifts (cf Eph 4:7-12). There is diversity of practice in matters that Paul calls indifferent (cf Rom 14, 1 Cor 8).
Paul sees, in other words, that unity is not the same as uniformity. It is not one size fits all. Remember what Henry Ford said about the Model T? "You can have any color you want, so long as it is black." One size/color fits all. The church is not this way. Indeed, the unity of the Spirit allows diversity.
Throughout the centuries, the church has wavered between the extremes of uniformity and diversity. At one extreme is uniformity. Unity is understood completely in terms of sameness, not only in belief and morals – a good thing – but also in ritual and practice – not necessarily a good thing. At the other extreme is diversity. Not every form of diversity within the church is legitimate.
III The Church is Holy
A Second, based upon Scripture, the Nicene Creed confesses belief in a HOLY church.
God's command, "Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy" (Lev 19:2), was addressed to the people of Israel as a whole. God is holy and His people as a whole were to be like Him. This demand for holiness extends in the New Testament to the church of Jesus Christ (1 Thess 4:3,7).
I want you to notice something about holiness. It does not apply simply to the behavior of individuals; it also applies to the character of the community. The community of Israel was called to be holy. Likewise, the church as a community is called to be holy. Indeed, the title "the saints" applies to all ordinary members of the church rather than an elite class within the church (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 6:1-2; 2 Cor 1:1).
B What is holiness? With God, it means He is different and separate from all created things; He is wholly OTHER. With Israel, the ritual laws of sacrifice and cleansing expressed bodily and visibly that the nation of Israel is different from all other nations. Like the God she serves, Israel is different; she is holy. Similarly, the church is called to be separate and different. Did you know, the Greek word for church, "ekklesia," simply means "called out ones." So Paul instructs us to be and act different:
(2Cor 6:14-1) Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (15) What harmony is there between Christ and Belial ? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (16) What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." (17) "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."
The church is holy. She is set apart by God and for God. This indicates the church is not a human institution that we take or leave as we have need of it. When we as individuals are made into new creatures in Christ, we are immediately brought into a new household and new nation. We don't have a choice in the matter.
We are like Eve. When Eve was created, she was not created as the first independent woman. She was not smoking Virginia Slims in the Garden of Eden and checking out Adam to see if he was the right guy for her. No, she was created as his wife. She had no choice. This was simply who she was. By virtue of our new life in the Spirit, we are set apart as the people of God, the church. That is who we are.
C Holiness is something we are and holiness is something we are called to become. We have been sanctified through the gift of the Holy Spirit and baptism (1 Cor 1:2; 6:11; Eph 4:30). Yet, as you all know, holiness is a struggle. The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want (Gal 5:16-18).
IV The Church is Catholic
A Third, based upon Scripture, the Nicene Creed confesses belief in a CATHOLIC church.
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.
B The church is catholic. This means she not only crosses geography but also time. She is to be found from the beginning of the world and will last until the end. Though at times she may appear very small in the eyes of men – even snuffed out – yet the Lord preserves her and keeps her. For example, during the very dangerous time of King Ahab, the Lord preserved for Himself seven thousand men who did not bend their knees to Baal.
And so, the church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain persons or certain times. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world. She is catholic.
V The Church is Apostolic
A Fourth, based upon Scripture, the Nicene Creed confesses belief in an APOSTOLIC church.
What does this mean? First, it means the church continues in the teachings and morals of the apostles. Remember what was said about the early church? "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42).
What is the apostles' teaching? What did the apostles preach and teach? What was the content of their message? What did they say to the people? In one word, they preached the Gospel. And the Gospel, of course, is centered on Jesus Christ. The apostles talked and taught about Jesus. In his Pentecost day sermon Peter said, "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth ..." (Acts 2:22). As Peter demonstrates, it is impossible to preach the Gospel without proclaiming Christ.
I spent some time this past week looking over the apostolic sermons that we find in Acts. We can distinguish four elements in these Gospel messages: First, the Gospel events. At the center of the apostles' proclamation was the death and resurrection of the Lord. Second, the Gospel witnesses. The apostles appealed to two witnesses: the Old Testament Scriptures fulfilled by Christ and their own eyewitness experiences. Third, the Gospel promises. The apostles proclaimed the promise of forgiveness (to wipe out the past) and the gift of the Spirit (to make us new people). Fourth, the Gospel demand or response. The apostles proclaimed that the Gospel of Jesus demands a response of repentance and faith (cf Stott, The Spirit, The Church, And The World, p. 80-81).
In their teaching and preaching the apostles present us with an example to follow. For the church, like the apostles, must proclaim Christ. The church, like the apostles, must proclaim the fullness of the Gospel message. The church, like the apostles, must be true to the Word of God. That's what it means to be apostolic.
B What does it mean to be apostolic? To be apostolic also means to be witnesses. The apostles – and the church through the apostles – was given a command to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. An apostolic church, in other words, is a witnessing church.
A church that does not witness, a church that sends out no missionaries, a church that looks only inward, is not an apostolic church.
The church is one, the church is holy, the church is catholic, and the church is apostolic.
These four marks of the church describe an ideal that the church has never and will never fully realize. So, do we leave her? Do we criticize her? Do we throw up our hands and give up and check out?
Keep in mind the Bible's perspective: the church, though broken, is the bride of Christ. We must embrace the awed humility of the woman who has somehow been chosen as wife by an incredible man. Like her, we know we mess up. Like her, we share in a life that is greater than anything we could have imagined or achieved on our own. Our focus is not ourselves – never ourselves; instead, our focus is on the majesty of our great and awesome bridegroom.
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 apostolic, keep her faithful and true.
To the glory of Your name as her head and king.
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