Right after Pentecost, I do a lesson with the Pre-schoolers about the Church. I show them my collection of little replicas of all the churches where I’ve been a member or pastor. Then I teach them the little poem you probably all know: “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors, and see all the people.”
As I’ve been reflecting on our United Methodist understanding of what the Church is, I’ve realized that I should probably do a little rewriting of that poem before I teach it the next time. Because, the way it’s written doesn’t fully express that the church is not simply a building with people in it, with or without a steeple. The Church is the people.
There are two places in our Book of Discipline that define “the Church.” One is in “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church,” which John Wesley wrote after the American Revolution. He realized that members of the Methodist movement in America were no longer accountable to the Church of England and should become an independent church. Here’s what Article XIII says: “The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [and women] in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance . . .”
That sounds pretty cut-and-dried—a little legalistic. I prefer the Discipline’s second definition—the one that comes from the other forerunner of United Methodism, the Evangelical and United Brethren Church. Article V of the Confession of Faith says, “We believe the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic, and catholic. It is the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by men [and women] divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.” That is how our United Methodist tradition describes what God has created the Church to be.
Our tradition has its roots in Scripture. We say that the Church is “one,” because that’s what Jesus was envisioning when he prayed over his disciples on the night when he was betrayed. This is what he prayed to God for them and for who would come to believe: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one . . .” What a glorious vision of unity, not yet fully realized, but set before us as the goal we look and work toward.
We say that the Church is “holy.” If you remember back to when we talked about the Apostles’ Creed, we learned that the Church is holy because the presence of the Holy Spirit makes it so. But there is a human side to this holiness, too. Whenever we find the word “church” in Scripture, it comes from the Greek word “ekklesia,” which means “a gathering of people who are called out from their homes for a purpose.” The Church is a community of people who have literally been “called out” of the world to be God’s holy people in the world—those who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints,” as Paul says in our passage today. The Church is a community, “called out” to a life of holiness, set apart to be the body of Christ in this world.
We say that the Church is “apostolic.” That means that we carry on the tradition and teachings of the apostles. According to the theologian John Deschner, being “apostolic” means that the church “is the people of Christ, gathered around His gospel.” They are “faithful and obedient to the Gospel and to the task of witness” which it assigns us. The apostolic Church looks to the apostles and “listens to them as to no other source.” We give “first authority” to Jesus, the Word made flesh, and to all those witnesses in history who have told and explained the Gospel as we read it in Scripture today.
And, finally, we say that the Church is catholic. Again, if you remember back to the Apostles’ Creed, we mean by this that the Church is made up of the people who, as Paul says, “in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because we believe that all those who have called on Jesus’ name are eternally alive, even those whose earthly lives have ended are, even now, part of the Church, just as all those who will come to believe will be members of it.
But, being a catholic Church doesn’t mean that we all march in lockstep with one another. In fact, as Rev. Deschner says, being “catholic” is the flip side of being “one.” It embraces diversity within unity. The Church, anchored in the apostolic witness, and one in its embrace of Jesus, can not only tolerate difference but welcome it—maybe even look for it and enjoy it. The Church is empowered by God to both stay true to its unity and to encompass the great differences that exist among believers. John Wesley said, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” This is what Wesley called the “catholic spirit.”
So, our United Methodist teachings affirm that the Church is one, holy, apostolic, and catholic. But, what does that mean for us? After all, we are the Church, together with those in every place and time who claim the name of Jesus. How do we live what we confess? Our Confession of Faith helps us with this, because embedded in its description of the Church are some tasks for us to do.
Our Confession says that, “under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.” So, we begin with worship.
Whether believers gather in a cherished building like this one or in a strip mall storefront, a clearing in the jungle or a hidden room behind a locked door, the Church’s first responsibility is to worship the God who gives us life. In worship, the Word is preached and the sacraments duly administered within the community of believers. In worship we are reminded of who and whose we are, and what we are called to be. We are strengthened for the work we have before us—both the perfecting work of sanctification within ourselves and the work of serving God in the world.
As the Church, we are a community of believers who “edify” one another. Remember that word? It means that we build each other up; we make each other stronger. Sometimes we call each other to accountability, correcting one another in love. We encourage and draw out the unique gifts of each member of the community so that the part of the Church that gathers in this place, and the Church as a whole, has all it needs to be the kingdom of God. We worship together. We pray together. We study and serve together. We eat and play together. All these build the bonds of community and edify believers within the fellowship of Christ.
As the Church, we are dedicated to nothing less than the redemption of the world. We are commissioned by Jesus to spread the Gospel—that great Good News of God’s grace and forgiving love, experienced in Jesus. By our words and by our actions, we live out our baptismal vows, to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” like the evils of poverty that keep people poor, hungry, and dependent, the evils of dehumanizing anyone who is labeled an outsider, the evils of a world bent on defining people by what they have, what they look like, what they believe, whom they love, or what language they speak, rather than as creatures beloved of God.
As the Church, we work towards its perfection, until the day it is fully one, holy, apostolic, and catholic. The Church is already “one,” even though we have divided it into different denominations and different factions within denominations. Rev. Deschner observed that our current state of division is not so much like people trying to decide whether or not they should get married, but more like people who are already married, pretending they’re not married. We have a responsibility to reach out and work with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to begin rebuilding the unity of the Church that existed at Pentecost, accepting even those whose worship and doctrine at present are very different from ours. We have a responsibility to take the approach that Wesley relied on: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
The Church is already holy by virtue of the Spirit’s presence, but we strive each day to live lives of greater holiness, by the power and under the discipline of the Holy Spirit. We can start each day remembering that we have been called out to be the community of faith. We can remind ourselves that we have been set apart as God’s kingdom on earth, and that through our new birth, we have been empowered to resist the power of sin and to lead lives of holiness.
As the Church, we cling to our apostolic roots. We look to Scripture and the guidance we find there as the solid ground we stand on in the midst of a constantly changing world. We rely on the witness of the apostles. But we also reclaim their witness, interpreting it so that it can speak its truth to a world that is very different from the one in which it was written. We find parallels between the apostles’ world and ours, and we witness to how their lives help us in our own. While remaining faithful to its abiding truth, we bring it into our world so that others can claim it for themselves.
Within the Church’s oneness, it is catholic. Differences among believers abound. Differences among those whom we hope will become believers abound. But the Church is made stronger when it embraces diversity. At Pentecost, Luke tells us, “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” all heard about God’s deeds of power in their own languages. It is up to us not just to welcome difference when it shows up at our doors but to seek it and delight in it. As the author and poet Luis Alberto Urrea observed, “There is no them. There is only us.” It is our role as the Church to break down the walls that divide us and embrace the differences that enrich us.
Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when we come to the Lord’s table with all those “who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” We come united in the fact, as Paul reminded the Ephesians, that there is one body and one Spirit, there is the one hope of our calling, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all. We come as the redemptive fellowship called the Church, one, holy, apostolic, and catholic, to worship God and to build each other up for the redemption of the world. “Here is the building. Here is the steeple. Here is the Church. The Church is the people.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young