Henry Ward Beecher was pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, from 1847-1887. Throughout those 40 years he not only pastored that church but he also had an extensive preaching and speaking ministry. During his lifetime he was known as “an oratorical giant”. He was considered the most popular and widely known preacher in the United States. He had a reputation like Timothy Keller, or John Piper, or Charles Swindoll, or Max Lucado have today.
Once I saw an advertisement in a magazine I receive announcing that the Plymouth Congregational Church, the same church Henry Ward Beecher was pastor of more than a century ago, was seeking a new pastor. As is typical for churches, the ad briefly described the church as well as the kind of pastor they were looking for. Nothing unusual at all. But it was the opening line of the ad that caught my attention. It read: “Henry Ward Beecher’s church in historic brownstone Brooklyn seeks its eighth pastor in 145 years.”
“Henry Ward Beecher’s church?” I don’t think so! Not to take anything away from Rev. Beecher, but that church is not and never was his. No church belongs to its pastor, or to a member, or to a group of members. In fact, a church doesn’t even belong to the entire congregation. The church belongs only to Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus, in Mt. 16:13-20, had to say about the church.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
“I will build my church,” said Jesus. Not “the church” but “my church.” The worldwide church, and each individual church belong to Jesus.
In our study of the basics of the Christian faith as described in the Apostles’ Creed, we come today to the phrase, “(I believe) in the holy catholic church.”
What I want to do today is answer four questions. First, what is the church? Second, what does it mean to believe in the church? Third, how do we demonstrate that we believe in the church? And fourth, why we can believe in the church.
So first, what is the church? What is this organization we believe in enough to attend on Sunday mornings and other times as well, and to support with our money as well as with our time, energy, and abilities?
The word we translate as church comes from the New Testament Greek word ekklesia. That is actually made up from two Greek words. The first, ek, means out of. The second Greek word is kaleo, which means to call. So literally the church is made up of those who by God’s grace have been called out. We have been called out of the world, out of a way of living that excludes God, and into a new way of living with God at the center of our lives.
In the New Testament the word ekklesia, or church, is used in three ways. In can refer to a small gathering, such as a house church that would have included a limited number of people. For instance, in Rom. 16:5 Paul made mention of the church that met at the home of Priscilla and Aquila. Today this meaning would apply to each local church. Then the word is sometimes used for all of the Christians in a particular town or city. Sometimes Paul began his letters with the phrase, “to the church of God in Corinth” or wherever. Finally, the word ekklesia can mean the universal church, or all Christians everywhere throughout history. In this sense, Eph. 1:22-23 says that God appointed Jesus to be head over everything for the church, which is His body. And so, we are members of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, we are part of the church in the city of Kuala Lumpur, and we belong to the universal church consisting of all God’s people.
One way that ekklesia is never used in Scripture is to refer to a building. We use it that way sometimes. We say that we are going to church or the church needs to be painted or repaired. But in Scripture the church always means the people of God.
The Creed affirms that we believe in a church that is holy. That means several things. In the first place, it speaks of its origin, for the church originated with God. Ultimately only God is truly holy, and this holy God has called a people to Himself and filled them individually and collectively with the Holy Spirit. Thus, the church is not a human idea. It is not the coming together of a group of people who thought it would be good to form a new religious organization. Its origin is in the God who is holy and thus calls His church to be holy.
In addition to the church’s origin, word holy describes the church’s character. “Holy” literally means “to be set apart.” God has called us out of the world and set us apart to live for Him and to accomplish His purposes. Because God has declared us holy by setting us apart for Himself, we are then to demonstrate holiness in our living and character. “Be holy because God is holy,” we are told several times in Scripture. So, we are to separate ourselves from sin, from all that hurts and destroys, and instead live according to God’s righteous standards and good will.
That the church is holy also points to the church’s function, which is to bear witness to the world of the Good News, of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Thus, we have a holy calling to fulfill. If we neglect this, we become like salt that has lost its savor. We have forfeited our purpose. So, we must always take seriously and pursue diligently our holy calling, for we have been set apart by God to proclaim to all people God’s love in Jesus Christ and to make disciples of all the nations.
Holy also refers to the church’s allegiance. The church does not belong to itself or to a denomination. The church may be part of a denomination but it is not owned by a denomination. The members of a church do not own it. There is a sense in which it is ours – we are fellow members of this body and responsible for the ministry that takes place here. But this is God’s church. “I will build my church,” said Jesus. We must always keep that in mind. The church is not a place for any individuals to push their personal agenda, but to collectively seek the mind of God. The church is holy because it belongs to and obeys the God who is holy.
Then we come to the word in the Creed that is perhaps the most confusing for us. That is the word “catholic”. “(I believe) in the holy catholic church.” We probably naturally think of the Roman Catholic Church. But that is not the meaning here. The word catholic actually means universal, which as we saw a couple minutes ago, is one of the ways the word ekklesia is used in Scripture.
So there is one universal church made up of all who profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. But while there is only one church, there are many manifestations of this one church. There are a number of different denominations, and then there are many churches that are not attached to any denomination. That really should be seen as a natural development over the years, for people are different will be attracted to different styles of church.
But in spite of our differences in styles of worship, church structure and organization, and even different viewpoints on various theological issues, we must always maintain our spiritual oneness, for we are all one in Christ.
Thus, we must guard against bad-mouthing another church or denomination. Of course, we will uphold what we understand as the truth, but we must do so respectfully and humbly, recognizing that no one person and no one church has all the truth. Therefore, we can learn from other kinds of churches. And we must always remember – what we have in common as those whose trust is in Christ is far more important than what separates us.
So that is what the church is. It is the people of God who have been called out of the world and a life of sin and selfishness to live for God. It is holy, Christ-like in character and set apart to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. It is both local and universal, and its primary loyalty is to God alone.
Now what does it mean to say, as we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed, that we believe in the church? Well, it means not only that we believe there is a church; that’s pretty obvious. Even those who never attend church would acknowledge that kind of belief in the church.
But to say that we believe in the church means we believe the church is the people called by God, and that God is working through this imperfect group of people to accomplish His will. Therefore, to confess, “I believe in the church,” is a statement of our commitment to the church. Because the church is the people of God called by God to accomplish the work of God, I am committed to the church.
So, we demonstrate that we believe in the church through our commitment to the church. It means we actively participate in the life of the church. We do that in different ways. The Bible affirms that God has given all of us gifts to use in service to the church. Whether we are gifted in teaching, leadership, worship leading, administration, showing mercy, offering encouragement, or whatever, if we genuinely believe in the church we will use our gifts in service to the church. Paul wrote in Eph. 4:13 that the church grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work.
To believe in the church means we support the church with our financial gifts so the ministry of the church can carry on. We also support the church with our prayers, for while God is at work in the church, God releases His power as we pray. Paul often wrote to the churches and assured them of his prayers for them. For instance, Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus (Eph. 3:16), “I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being.” To believe in the church is to pray for the church, both this local church we are a part of as well as all of God’s church throughout the world, that the church would indeed be strengthened by His Spirit, that we would be holy, loving, true to the faith and empowered for ministry.
Finally, if we believe in the church we will demonstrate that by our love for one another. The church not only has a mission to the world, but the church is a loving fellowship supporting one another. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, called to minister to and serve each other. This is central to our identity as the church. Rom. 12:10 encourages us, “Be devoted to one another in love.”
This is obviously a command; it is telling us to be devoted to one another in love. But it is also a gift, for the church is a place where we all can come and know we will be loved by our brothers and sisters. To believe in the church is to love our fellow church members, for in Scripture this is what God tells us His church is like.
So the church is the people of God called out of the ways of this world to live in relationship with God and for the glory of God. The church is holy, having been instituted by a holy God, and thus reflects that holiness in its character and in its service to God. To believe in the church means we affirm the identity of the church and we are committed to the purpose of the church. We demonstrate our belief in the church through our commitment to the church, using our gifts to build up the church, and help accomplish the mission of the church, supporting the church with our resources and our prayers, and loving one another even as Christ loves us.
The last question then is: why can we believe in the church? We all know from personal experience as well as from hearing of other churches just how often the church fails to be what God has called it to be. Maybe some of us have not only been disappointed but even hurt by the church. All too often we see individual churches that are stagnant, devoid of passion and spiritual vitality. Why believe in the church?
The reason, and the only reason we can believe in the church is that as our passage from Mt. 16 declares, the church belongs to Jesus and He is building His church.
And you know what? Jesus loves His church. He is committed to His church. When we own something, we take care of it because it is ours. It may be a child who has her first bicycle, or a teenager who has his first car, or the young couple who have purchased their first home. Whatever the case, when we own something, we take care of it because it is ours.
The church, including this church, belongs to Jesus. And while we are far from perfect, while we all too often stray from and even rebel against our owner, and while we even sometimes tell Jesus, “Don’t bother me now!” Jesus loves this church. Jesus is committed to this church, for it belongs to Him. And like that child polishing the fenders of her new bike, like that teenager giving his car its first tune-up, like that couple envisioning how they want to decorate their home, so Jesus is committed to taking care of His church. “I will build my church,” said Jesus.
What did Jesus mean when He said that He would build His church? That means several things. Obviously, it means that Jesus is going to draw people to Himself and thus to His church. While God uses us in evangelism and outreach, the fact is that no one could come to Christ unless he or she is drawn by the grace and mercy and love of our Lord. Jesus is building His church as through the centuries the church has expanded to include people on every continent, and as individual churches welcome and receive more people into its fellowship. Jesus builds His church by drawing more people into it.
But it’s about more than just numbers. There’s much more to it than that. When Jesus says that He will build His church, He also means that He will be molding and shaping the church, strengthening the church, helping us to grow as His followers. Jesus is committed to building His church not only in breadth but also in depth as it relates to the quality of our lives and our discipleship.
He’s talking about building His people on the inside. He has in mind the strengthening of our faith so that it is alive and strong. Jesus wants to build His own character into us so His character truly is a part of us and is reflected in our day-to-day living. Jesus wants to build us into a people who know the reality of His transforming love and power in our lives, and who then in that love and power seek to transform the world. Jesus is building His church into people who desire Him above all, are fully surrendered to Him, who bear the character of Christ, and who serve Him whole-heartedly.
But while Jesus is building us, obviously we are not fully built or developed yet. That work must go on as we continually yield to His working in our lives. Jesus builds His church, His people, but we must cooperate with Him, opening our hearts to Him and allowing His Spirit to bring us to maturity. It’s like Paul writes in Phil. 2:12-13: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
We don’t work for our salvation for that is a free gift from God that we receive simply by responding to God in faith. But then we are to work out the implications of our salvation. We seek to grow in faith, Christ-like character, love and obedience. We strive to discern God’s will for our lives, in big things and small things, and then to the best of our ability we live out His will.
We cooperate with God. We open ourselves up to His power so we become who He created us to be and so we can accomplish all He has for us to do. This is part of what Jesus meant when He said He would build His church; He is building us as we seek to work out the implications of our salvation.
Jesus wants to build this church into a community that experiences the fullness of life in Him. Jesus wants to build this church into a people in whom the reality and the character of Christ has truly taken form so that we might be as Christ to each other and to the world. We could never become this kind of people on our own or in our own strength, but we can face this building process with confidence and anticipation because Jesus is committed to His church and He works in us so we can work out our salvation – as individuals and as a church. He will do His part, and if we do our part by being open, yielded, available, and committed we will experience His ongoing building in our lives, not only individually but as the church. Jesus is building His church – not apart from us, but with us.
As this church will soon be entering a time of transition and change, perhaps going for a period of time without a pastor, it is good for us to remember whose church this really is. It’s important to keep in mind who is the One that is steadfastly committed to this church.
Jesus owns St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. This is His church, so we can trust Him to take care of it. There is no need to panic if we go through a period of time without a pastor. Jesus will not abandon His church. We can be sure that He will bring the right pastor at the right time to serve His church.
And we can be confident that in the meantime Jesus will be at work in the lives of all who are here and in the overall ministry of this church. As important as a pastor is, Jesus is not dependent on a particular pastor to accomplish the work He wishes to do in His church. He can carry out His purposes for this church in a host of ways and through a variety of people, including everyone here. And He will do that, for He has promised to build His church.
We can confidently believe in the church at large, and we can believe in this particular church, because Jesus is building His church. And He wants to involve all of us in that glorious process, and we can be a part of that if we but yield our hearts, minds, and wills to Him.
Let us commit ourselves to that purpose.