We Believe in the Holy Catholic Church
Sunday, April 12, 2009 -
“We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hades; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen”
The creed seems to move from the divine (“We believe in God the Father Almighty”) to the very ordinary (“We believe in the holy catholic - universal - church”). One seems so perfect and pure and transcendent. The other seems so earthly, problem ridden, and ordinary. It’s one thing to hold up the being of God, the Maker of heaven and earth. It seems quite another to magnify the virtues of the very ordinary, perhaps run down, needing paint, full of squabbles, nearly empty on Sunday night, First Presbyterian, or First Baptist, or First Pentecostal church on Smith Street in some small town in Saskatchewan.
Whatever most Christians think of the church, they certainly don’t put it in the same category of importance and emphasis that they would put God the Father, or Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, or the Holy Spirit. Getting people to just come to church (especially when the warm days of summer come along) is quite a challenge.
We all know how easy it can be to profess the importance of some things. But the church doesn’t have the place of honor it once did in our society - not even with those who profess faith. More and more people ask the question, “Can’t I be Christian without belonging to the church?” And usually there will follow the standard observations: Jesus is so pure and loving. I’ve been in the church. It’s a cold and difficult place. It’s full of hypocrites. The people are so judgmental. Look at all the denominations! How can this be the united Body of Christ? I’ll just read my Bible and pray and live a pure life following Jesus all by myself, thank-you. I don’t need the church. I love Jesus. It’s organized religion I can’t stand!”
And there’s something else here: Why do the formers of the creed have to tell us they believe in the church? Other organizations don’t do this. If you belonged to the Flat-earth Society you may well tell me you still believe in a flat-earth. In fact, I would expect you to tell me that. But I would be surprised indeed to have you come up to me and tell me you believe in the Flat-earth society. In other words, we are more accustomed to thinking of the church as the group doing the believing rather than the church being the object of belief.
All of this relates to that frustrated Christian who wants to follow Jesus without committing himself to the church. Because, just as any person can believe in a flat-earth without actually joining the Flat-earth Society, this Christian thinks a person can hold the beliefs of a Christian without ever committing to a local church. And if that’s all the church is - a group of people who collectively hold certain beliefs and ideas - then you can do that without ever committing to any church. But the whole point of the creed - and the point of this teaching today - is that is not at all what the church is.
1) ENTRY INTO THE CHURCH IS A SPIRITUAL WORK AND JESUS CHRIST IS THE ONE WHO DOES IT
The word “church” is used in different ways in the New Testament. Sometimes it refers to a local congregation of people who gather together to worship at a specific place and time:
1 Corinthians 1:2 - “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours....”
1 Thessalonians 1:1 - “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”
So here Paul talks about specific congregations - specific gatherings of people. You could name the locations. You could count the people. At other times the word “church” is used to describe a spiritual entity, a people of God not limited to any one place, time, or organization: Ephesians 5:25 - “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her....” Here Paul is talking about a church that is universal rather than local. This church doesn’t congregate in one location.
Any local body of people will always be a mixture of true Christians and some non-Christians. But this universal church is made up of only true believers. Almost anyone can attend and call any local church his or her home. Jesus alone gives entry those who belong to the universal church. We can’t always tell who is in Christ’s church and who isn’t. One day Jesus will make that obvious: 2 Timothy 2:19 - “But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.’ Only the Lord knows who is in His church and who isn’t. This is not an organization you can join like the National Geographic Society. Being in a local church doesn’t guarantee participation in Christ’s universal church.
2) WHILE ONE CAN BE IN A LOCAL CHURCH WITHOUT EXPERIENCING GENUINE CHRISTIAN CONVERSION ONE CANNOT BE IN CHRIST’S UNIVERSAL CHURCH WITHOUT BEING COMMITTED TO A LOCAL CONGREGATION OF BELIEVERS
While it is true that attendance in a local church doesn’t save anyone, it is also true that, in the New Testament, being saved and being joined to a local church are treated as hand and glove events: Acts 2:46-47 - “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
The thing to notice here is that these verses describe the activities of a local church congregation. This is the body of believers in Jerusalem. And the thing to notice here is that when people were saved they were described as being “added to their number.” Significantly, the church that’s being talked about is the local church that met at Jerusalem. In other words, being “added to their number” was a big part of what being saved was all about. Now, going to church didn’t make these people Christians. But being saved is consistently followed by attachment to the local church. In fact, the commitment of Christians to a local church is so important in the mind of the New Testament, it isn’t left to impulse or whim, or personal desire. Christians are commanded to commit to a local church:
Hebrews 10:23-25 - “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
This verse has great relevance. Underscore those words, “...all the more as you see the Day drawing near”(25). These words refer to the place the visible, local church must have in the time-table of the Christian. In other words, as time passes, as society gets increasingly secular in its outlook and people find less and less time for spiritual disciplines in their schedules, involvement in the local church needs greater and greater emphasis, not less and less emphasis.
The flow of these verses from Hebrews indicates that “holding fast the confession of our hope” (23) will not be a possibility for people who neglect their commitment to the local church. Anybody can start out with a confession of hope and faith in Jesus Christ. But (and this is the whole point of the passage) that confession can’t be maintained in seclusion from the rest of the church. Christian maintenance involves more than personal devotion, or personal will-power, or highly maintained family devotion and godliness in the home. Personal Christianity needs the church to survive.