March 15, 2009

The Essentials

What all Christians believe and why it matters

Part 9: I believe in the church



Many people today say yes to God, but no to church.  “I believe in God, but I want nothing to do with the church.”  Or, “I’m against organized religion.”  If someone says that to you, invite them to church and say, “You’ll love us; we’re very disorganized!”  The Apostles Creed says “I believe in God,” and then it says, “and in the holy catholic church.”  Wow!  The creed puts believing in the church right up there with believing in God.  Why?  Is it really that important?  That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

          Greeting: The church is a family, and this is our weekly family reunion.  Hug your brothers and sisters.




          Today is part 9 of “The Essentials: what all Christians believe and why it matters.”  We’re working our way through the Apostles Creed, the oldest and most widely accepted of the ancient creeds of the church.  A creed is a summary of core beliefs.  It doesn’t give everything Christians believe, but it gives the essentials.


The Apostles Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

    Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

    He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.

    He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
    whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.


I believe in the Holy Spirit,

    the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,

    the forgiveness of sins,

    the resurrection of the body,

    and life everlasting.  Amen.


1. What is the church?

          The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, which literally means “called out ones”.  It was the word for a public assembly.  The leaders of the community would be called to a public meeting to decide civic affairs-they were the ekklesia, the assembly, the called out ones.

Although the word is used over 100 times in the New Testament, Jesus used the word only twice.

Matthew 16:18 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 want you to notice several things from this verse.

  • The church is built on a rock. What is that rock? The name Peter means “rock”. So the Roman Catholics believe Peter is the rock on which the church is built, and that here Jesus confers upon him special authority, making him the first Pope. Protestants will argue that the rock is Jesus Himself; or the truth of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God; or that Peter is the representative of the apostles, and the church rests on their teaching. I think that Jesus is the rock the church is built on. 1 Corinthians 3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. And in Ephesians 2:20 Paul refers to the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus being the chief cornerstone. The church is built on the rock of Jesus Christ, and on the teaching of the apostles about Him.
  • The church belongs to Jesus. He calls it “my church”. It doesn’t belong to you or me, but to Him, and so it’s a holy thing. It’s His church.
  • Jesus will build His church. To all the doomsayers who predict the church’s demise or who worry that we’re losing ground, I want to remind them that Jesus promised to build His church. And for 2000 years, He has done just that. The church continues to grow and spread around the world. In 1900, 80% of all Christians lived in Europe and North America. In 2000, 60% of all Christians lived in Asia, Africa and South America. Jesus is building His church.
  • And the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Jesus guarantees the ultimate victory of the church over the forces of death and evil.

In the second verse where Jesus uses the word “church, He is speaking about confronting a brother who sins: first you go in private, then take a friend. 

Matthew 18:17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Here Jesus assumes that the church will discipline her members.  Even though discipline has been abused or misapplied by some churches, one of the benefits of being part of the community is that we’re not doing this alone; we are encouraging and helping each other, and when necessary, getting in each others’ face.

ILL: This week in our Bible reading we read Galatians 2.  The apostle Peter came to Antioch to visit the mostly Gentile church there.  But some Jewish Christians, who believed that you had to keep the Jewish law to be Christians, influenced Peter and he reverted to his old Jewish ways and stopped hanging out with Gentiles.  Even Barnabas was swept up in his hypocrisy.  But Paul saw that they were not “acting in line with the truth of the gospel.”  They were out of line, and Paul called them on it publicly.  I was talking about that story with a friend on Wednesday night, and he immediately said, “If I’m ever out of line with the truth of the gospel, you can call me on it anytime.”  How many of you feel that way?  “Likewise,” I told him.

I don’t think of discipline as an ugly thing; it’s a beautiful thing.  It means that someone loves me enough to call me on my junk and help me change.  That’s part of belonging to the church. 

          Even though Jesus didn’t use the word much, He started the church and clearly intended it to continue and thrive long after He left.

Mark 1:16-18 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.

Jesus called them, “follow Me”, and they did.  And when they followed Jesus, they automatically joined His band of followers.  They joined a group, a team, a church.  No one followed Jesus alone; it was a group experience.  This calling, “follow me”, created the church-the ekklesia-the called ones.  After Jesus’ ascension, His followers continued to meet together.  Here is one of the first descriptions of the early church.

Acts 2:42-47 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This beautiful description of the life of the first church has been a model for Christians ever since.  Notice that they devoted themselves to:

  • The apostles teaching-which we now have in the New Testament. They learned the Word so they could grow spiritually.
  • The fellowship-the word means “sharing”-they shared their lives and their goods with each other.
  • The breaking of bread-what we call communion or the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. They worshiped together.
  • To prayer.

And notice the result: “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  This church was growing rapidly.

          So let me give you a definition of the church from these verses:


The church is people

  • who are called to follow Jesus
  • who gather together for worship, teaching, fellowship and mission.


The church is people.  It’s not a building or a place.  It’s people.  This (building) is not the church; you are the church.  The fact that the church is people is what makes her beautiful and awful at the same time.  Because the church is people-imperfect people, sinful people, stubborn people, selfish people…like me-because the church is people, it can be a mess!  This is why there are no perfect churches, and I tell people that if you ever find one, don’t go there because you’ll ruin it! 

ILL: Blake, our administrator, recently invited a friend to church, and the guy said, “I can’t come; I’d feel like a turd in a goldfish bowl.”  Isn’t that a great image?  I think lots of people feel that way-that the church is a collection of really good, really religious people.  I told Blake to tell the guy that our fishbowl is full of turds; he’ll fit right in! 

If you’re looking for the perfect church, you’re in the wrong place; we’re full of turds, starting with me!  Our church-every church-is full of imperfect people. 

          How many of you have ever been disappointed by the church or hurt by the church?  How many of you have ever left a church?  Our community is full of de-churched people-people who have left the church. 

ILL: How many of have seen the city bus that asks, “Did you used to go to church?”  They advertised a website where you could take a survey and tell why you left church.  The number one reason, cited by almost 55%: “turned off by the attitudes or behaviors of members of the group.”  They found an imperfect church full of imperfect people-they met some turds!

Ray Pritchard said, “If we knew the naked truth about every other person in the church, and they knew the naked truth about us, we’d all run screaming from the sanctuary.”  But while we’re all imperfect, that’s not the big deal we have in common.

          The church is people who are called to follow Jesus.  We’ve all answered the call, “follow me.”  We’re all trying to follow Jesus.  Again, we don’t do it perfectly; sometimes we don’t even do it well.  But that’s what we’re trying to do: follow Jesus.  That’s what makes us the church: we’re followers of Jesus.  But the church isn’t just a bunch of individual followers.

The church is people who are called to follow Jesus who gather together.  You can’t be the church alone.  That’s an oxymoron.  The very word “church” (ekklesia) means an assembly, a meeting of people.  You can’t be the church alone, because the church is people gathered together because of Jesus.  John Wesley said, “to turn Christianity into a solitary religion is to destroy it.”  Christianity is a team sport; you can only do it together. 

ILL: My dream as a kid was to play quarterback in the NFL; my hero was Fran Tarkenton, the great quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings.  The only things I lacked were size, speed and talent-I was no good-other than that, I would have made it.  I spent hours practicing, throwing a football into garbage cans and through tire swings.  All those hours of individual practice were good, but they weren’t playing football.  Why?  You can only play football with others, with a team. 

Christianity is a team sport; you can’t play it alone. 

It’s popular to say, “I don’t go to church, I am the church.”  I know what they’re trying to get at when they say that-that being a Christian isn’t just a weekly event, but a 24/7 lifestyle-and I say “word!”  The church does exist both as a gathered people and a scattered people.  We gather for teaching, fellowship and worship.  We scatter for mission.  We come together to be fed and fueled, and then go to live it out and take Jesus to the world.   It would be wrong to think the church only exists when it is meeting together.  Most of the church’s work is done when it is scattered.  Every Christian is a minister (servant) and your main ministry (service) probably doesn’t happen at church, but at home, at school and at work.  I think that’s what people are trying to say when they say, “I don’t go to church; I am the church.”  

But it’s poorly put.  I do go to church in the sense that the church is people gathered.  We meet together because of Jesus-and I go to the meeting-and you can’t be the church alone, only with others, so I do go to church.  And I am not the church; I am part of the church, I belong to the church, but I am not the church by myself.  So I’d say, “I go to church; I belong to a people who gathers for worship, teaching and fellowship.  And I belong to a church that scatters for mission into the world.”

The church is people, and I said that’s what makes it beautiful and awful at the same time.  Augustine in the 5th century wrote that the church is like a hospital full of sick people who are desperately hoping to be cured.  A hospital is an awful place, full of sick people.  It’s also a beautiful place, full of healing.  That’s the church-beautiful and awful at the same time-full of sick people, sinners, who are getting healed.

So the creed says:


I believe in the (one) holy catholic (and apostolic) church.

I believe in the holy catholic church.  Later, the Nicene Creed added the words “one” and “apostolic”. 

The church is one.  There is one church made up of all the followers of Jesus all over the world and throughout history.  If you are a follower of Jesus, you are part of this one church.  This is sometimes called the church universal.  It includes every variety of Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. 

ILL: I have five younger sisters, all married with different last names than mine.  So when we have a family reunion, there are Wittwers, Mumeys, Roths, Petersons, O’Days, and Hiaasens.  We have different names, but we’re one family.

The church is like that.  There are hundreds of different names-Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Lutherans, even Foursquares-but we’re all one family.  The church is one.

          The church is holy.  I pointed out that the church is holy because it belongs to Jesus.  “I will build my church.”  It is the bride of Christ.  I know the church has lots of faults-I’ve addressed that-but when I hear someone taking too many shots at her, I remind them, “Don’t forget that you’re criticizing Jesus’ bride.”  Husbands, how do you feel when someone attacks your wife?  You get the picture.  The church is holy-she belongs to Jesus.

          The church is catholic.  The word “catholic” here is small c-not Roman Catholic, capital C.  The word “catholic” means “universal.”  This means it is for everyone, that the one church includes all nations, tribes, tongues and races.  As we read in our Bible reading this week:

Galatians 3:26-28 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

A pastor from India said, “Most of what happens in Christian churches, including even miracles, can be duplicated in Hindu and Muslim congregations. But in my area only Christians strive, however ineptly, to mix men and women of different castes, races, and social groups. That’s the real miracle.”  This is the catholic church we believe in.

          The church is apostolic.  As I said earlier, we are built on the foundation of the apostles’ teaching, which we have in the New Testament. 


          Four marks of the church.

During the Protestant Reformation, in sixteenth century, the reformers wrestled with the question, “what is the church?”  They came up with four marks of the church.  Each of these are found in the Scriptures we read earlier.

  • The teaching of the Word: they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
  • The celebration of the sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayer. Baptism is also in Acts 2.
  • The exercise of discipline. Matthew 18.
  • The experience of fellowship. They devoted themselves to fellowship.

There’s something for you to discuss in your Life Groups this week.  Do you agree?  Disagree? 


2. Why is the church important?

          The answer is found in our definition: the church is people who are called to follow Jesus, who meet together for worship, teaching, fellowship and mission. To frame our thinking about this, I’m going to use three common images of the church:

  • We are brothers and sisters in the family of God.
  • We are members of the body of Christ.
  • We are living stones in the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Each addresses one of the purposes of the church.  Anyone notice anything else?  The Trinity.  Here’s another example of the Trinity penetrating every part of Christian theology. 


A. God has a big family: fellowship.

          The church is a family: God is our father, and we are all brothers and sisters.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father.”  Not just, “my father”, but “our Father”.  He is our Father, and that makes us brothers and sisters.   In fact, these words are used hundreds of times in the New Testament when referring to other believers.  It is the most common designation of believers.  “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.”  “Love each other as brothers.”  “Brothers, pray for us.”   God has a big family.

          The church as a family meets our need for fellowship, for community, for relationship.  You belong to a family.  Being a Christian is about believing, but also about belonging.  This is why we beat the drum for Life Groups.  Life Groups are small groups of people who meet together for friendship and spiritual growth.  You belong.  You know everyone and they know you.  You laugh together and cry together.  You ask each other the hard questions.  You do life together.  I know Life Groups who pray together, work together, serve together, and have fun together.  This is family.  We just do life together.  In a big church like this, you can come and be anonymous if you want, but you’ll never grow to your full potential or enjoy the fellowship until you get into a small group, make friends, and do life together.  

ILL: Gordon MacDonald visited his daughter on a weekend when her Life Group came over.  He noticed their obvious affection for each other-these were people who knew and loved each other.  He asked his daughter about how these relationships grew.  She thought and then she said, “We linger.” 

Isn’t that what families do?  They linger.  They aren’t in a hurry to rush off.  They enjoy just being together, hanging out.  They linger.  I notice who lingers after church.  You can tell these are friends, family.  They love being together.  Try lingering after a service.  Don’t hurry off-enjoy the family.  You might be thinking, “I don’t know anybody.”  That’s exactly why you ought to linger.  Take some time to meet some people, make some friends.  Linger.

          This is “the communion of the saints.”  The word “communion” here means “fellowship.”  We’ve talked about that…but who are the saints?  Could I see the hands of all the saints?  The word “saint” means “holy one”.  A holy person is simply a person who belongs to God, who is set apart for God and His purposes.  And in the New Testament, every Christian is a saint-that’s all those verses that start with a 1 on your outline.  You are a saint!  Now, we don’t always act saintly, but if you are a follower of Jesus, you are a saint, set apart for God and his purposes.  So how many saints are there?  I am a saint-Saint Joe.  Turn to the person next to you and call them by their name with a saint in front of it.  Sounds good, doesn’t it. 

          The church is God’s big family-enjoy the family!  Enjoy the fellowship. 


B. Jesus has a working body: growth and mission.

          The church is the body of Christ.  Jesus is the head, and each of us is an individual member or part of the body.  This metaphor is used in each of the passages listed there, and in several others.  The metaphor is used to convey several truths.  The church has both diversity and unity: it is one body made up of many different parts.  The church grows as each part does its work. 

          The church as a body illustrates the purposes of growth and mission.  The church grows as each part does its work, uses its gifts.  The only way each individual part can grow is as it is connected to the rest of the body.  Cut your arm off and what happens?  Does it grow?  No, it dies.  The parts of your body can only grow if they’re attached to the rest of the body.  So it is with the body of Christ.  We grow together, not alone.  We need each other.  In fact, 1 Corinthians 12 says we need every member of the body, especially the weaker ones, the ones we’d rather do without.  Have you ever had a disagreement with another Christian and thought, “I don’t need this.  I’m out of here!”  You do need it.  We grow together, not alone. 

ILL: Some Christians are EGR’s-Extra Grace Required.  Do you know any EGR’s?  You need ‘em.  How else will you exercise your grace muscles, your love muscles, your forgiveness muscles?  If you only hang out with people like Laina, who like Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way, you’ll be spiritually flabby.  Look at me-she’s so easy to love!  You need the EGR’s.

We grow together.  We need each other.

          And we do the work together.  No one has all the gifts.  No one can do it all himself or herself.  We do it together…as a body.  Jesus still has a working body on earth, doing His work, fulfilling His mission.  It’s us…together.  We need each other.  This is how we grow and how we get God’s mission done: together.


C. The Holy Spirit has a living temple: worship.

          The church is a temple, and we are the living stones.  We are being built together into a temple of the Holy Spirit.  What purpose does a temple serve?

          Worship.  This has always been one of the church’s guiding purposes.  We come together to worship God.  You can worship alone, and I hope you do.  But there is something powerful about worshiping together, something that you’ll never experience alone. 


          Why is the church important? 

  • We need the family for fellowship. We need to belong. We need community, relationships, friendships.
  • We need the body for growth and mission. We grow together, not alone. We do God’s work together, not alone.
  • We need the temple for worship. We love God best together.

ILL: A member of a certain church stopped going.   After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire.

Guessing the reason for his pastor’s visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited.  The pastor made himself at home but said nothing.

After a couple minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone.  Then he sat back in his chair, still silent.  The host watched all this in silence.  As the lone ember’s flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more.  Soon it was cold and dead. 

The pastor stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire.  Immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it. 

As the pastor took his coat to leave, the man said, “Thanks for coming, and especially for the fiery sermon.  I’ll be back in church on Sunday.”

If you want to grow and stay hot for God, you need each other.  When I was a brand new Christian, the smartest thing I did was I went to church a lot.  I went to Sunday School and then Sunday morning service.  I went to Sunday evening youth group, and then Sunday evening service, and then afterglow.  I went to Wednesday youth group and then midweek service.  Seven times a week!  I wanted to know Jesus!  I wanted to grow and learn all I could, so I hung out all I could with other followers of Jesus.  And when I see people slowly drop out of church, I watch their fire get dim and die.  Don’t let that happen to you.


3. What should you do with the church?

          I want to finish with some very practical suggestions about the church.


A.   Don’t just go, belong.

Charles Colson says, “When people ask me where I go to church, I correct them.  I don’t go; I’m a member…I belong.” 

          You go to a movie, you belong to a family.  Church is more like a family than a movie.  Don’t just go, belong.  How do you do that?


B.   Don’t just watch, participate.

You’ll get so much more out of it by participating, really entering in. 

You can go to the gym and watch people work out, but you won’t get in shape until you participate.  In the same way, you can go to church and watch people worship and fellowship, but you won’t grow until you participate. 


C.   Don’t just consume, contribute.

At some point, you’ve got to be a giver, not just a taker.  I’m not just thinking of money, but of your time and energy.  Roll up your sleeves and help out.  Serve somewhere.  We’re signing people up to help at Easter.  If you’ve never volunteered, here’s a great place to start.  This church will become your church when you make a contribution.


D.   Don’t just quit, try to work it out.

Hang around here very long and someone is sure to disappoint you-it might even be me.  We’re sinners.  Too often, when people get hurt, bothered, offended, they just leave.  Don’t quit; try to work it out.  We’re a family.  Sometimes families fight.  Sometimes they’re dysfunctional and weird.  But you don’t just quit.  You try to work it out.