Remembering What We Believe about the Church
By Rev. Amy Butler
Mahatma Ghandi, though a devout Hindu, was widely known to admire Jesus; Ghandi often quoted from the Sermon on the Mount, in fact. Once when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Ghandi he asked him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”
Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Well, that’s a powerful thought with which we begin our exploration of what it is we believe about the church, an institution that is supposed to embody the dynamic, life-changing message of the Gospel, but so very often switches allegiances to embody all the things that Jesus preached AGAINST. You know the stories—from abuse of power to racism, the church, that organized institution of faith, has for 2000 years struggled to express the teachings of Jesus and, very often, failed. Miserably.
So, why have a church at all? Why not be followers of Jesus on our own? If we could swing it, it might be a little less messy—no long business meetings or labored discussions about building repairs, no usher duty or choir practice . . . .
Yet, here we are, looking at the creed this morning and we see the writers of the creed thought the church was worth a mention in this definitive statement of Christian doctrine, passed down for century after century landing here for our consideration. The creed says: “I believe in the holy, catholic church.” There it is, right there, right after all those definitive statements about God. Since the writers of the creed felt it necessary to include a statement on the church, and since here we sit, almost 2000 years after the creed was written . . . in church . . . it might be worth our time to look a little closer.
We begin this morning at the very beginning, right when the church was being born, before it was even called a church or before the concept of church existed at all.
Most scholars think that the Gospel of Matthew was the earliest of the Gospels, written somewhere between 50 and 70 AD. As the writer of Matthew was sitting down to record his memories of life with Jesus, the little community of believers that had formed—the church, you could call it—was in deep trouble. They had had a few years of experimental living as followers of Jesus, and the ways in which they insisted on living were flying in the face of the society around them.
Jesus had taught them, for example, that a Gospel community was a group in which every person was seen as equal in the eyes of God. But the society around them was strongly committed to the order of the Empire, which subjugated women and promoted slavery, among other things.
When the little group of Christians created a community in which women and slaves and people from other countries all gathered together to make decisions jointly and to support and lead the community, well, they were living in diametrical opposition to the order of the Empire. As the message caught on and the little group began to grow, their strange and seemingly chaotic way of living in community—the church—started to feel threatening to the Empire around them.
The end result was what Matthew was addressing in today’s Gospel passage as he recalled the words of Jesus. Remember what Jesus said?, Matthew reminded the church. Living a radical Gospel life, living in the community of what the church should be, well, it’s going to make some people nervous. In fact, it’s going to make some people mad.
Matthew’s community was living with the reality of Jesus’ predictions. Because they called themselves Christians many of them had been disowned by their families. They had lost jobs and social status; they had been ostracized in their communities. And now, by the time Matthew was writing, things were getting dire and dangerous. Being a Christian meant you might very well end up facing a hungry lion in the Coliseum, turned in to government leaders by people you knew and loved: neighbors, friends, colleagues . . . even your own family members.
And this, precisely, is why the church was so important. You make a choice to follow this Jesus, to live in constant and stark opposition to everything acceptable around you? Well, then, you’d better not be doing that all alone. Nobody, you see, can live a life that’s radically different from the world around them all by themselves.
In October of 2003 the story of Timothy Treadwell hit the news. Timothy was at the end of his thirteenth season living almost constantly alone in Katmai National Park, Alaska. He’d tried his hand at becoming an actor and kept running into dead ends but somehow discovered a passion for wild bears. He determined that he would go and live among them, Jane Goodall-style and, to the dismay of many bear and wilderness experts, that’s exactly what he did.
Bears are dangerous, you see. For bears and humans to live together without one hurting the other, there are specific rules and standards to follow.
Namely, it’s never a good idea to settle down in the middle of bear territory all by yourself.
Timothy Treadwell refused to heed these warnings, repeatedly passed onto him by scientists and park rangers. He preferred instead to live all alone in one of the harshest environments on the planet, right in the middle of the most densely populated bear sanctuary in existence.
That last season, 2003, Timothy had spent the summer in Katmai with the bears and just one other person, his girlfriend. The day they were packing up to leave for the season they were both attacked and killed by a bear.
It’s a sad story, and though many have investigated, no one can seem to figure out why it is that Timothy Treadwell threw all caution to the wind—didn’t keep pepper spray around anymore, dismantled his electric fence, and, most of all, insisted on heading out to the wilderness all alone.
See, there’s such irony in this story! Had Timothy joined forces with the community of folks in Katmai who loved the bears and were committed to studying and protecting them, it’s very likely that he would still be alive—along with his girlfriend and the bears that attacked them.
It’s a pretty dramatic story, but it illustrates a profound truth: when you’re determined to live your life in a way that challenges the status quo, you best not be doing it all alone.
We believe in the holy catholic church because we need each other, if there’s any way on earth we’re going to manage to live the radical gospel message in any way that is even remotely authentic.
The very first church knew this; they knew their choice to live intentionally as followers of Jesus could cause some concern for those around them, even those in their families. And by the time Matthew was writing they knew that following Jesus could even be a matter of life and death.
And most of all, they knew there was no way they could do it alone.
So having established the need for a community to surround us in our quest for gospel living, it’s interesting to note that the creed describes this community with two adjectives: holy and catholic. Frankly, I don’t know which one worries me more. We’ve admitted our need for a community to surround us and encourage us in our efforts to live out the Gospel message. But isn’t it asking way too much to create and maintain a community that’s holy and catholic?
What does it mean to be holy? The perception of the church and of church people as holy is, frankly, not something that is helping our cause. People in Chinatown walk past this big, imposing building or come into this sanctuary and they can see that it’s holy, but it’s holy in a way that makes it inaccessible for your average person. Do you know how intimidating it is to step through those big, ornate red doors downstairs, especially if you haven’t darkened the door of a church in years?
Considerable, from what I hear.
No, that’s not the kind of holy we believe the church is called to be. Instead, we want to be holy in a way that means different.
You may have noticed our new web site and t-shirts are sporting the phrase “a different kind of Baptist.” It’s a great phrase to use to describe this community of faith, precisely because, well, Baptists have a reputation.
You know what I mean, right?
The Baptist History and Heritage Society has printed a pamphlet called 11 Baptist Myths. The pamphlet was printed to respond to surveys identifying eleven characteristics the general public attributed to Baptists. They are: Baptists are anti-Catholic, Baptists are anti-ecumenical, Baptists are anti-intellectual, Baptists are inerrantists, Baptists are not peacemakers, Baptists are racists, Baptists are scientific creationists, Baptists believe in doctrinal uniformity, Baptists don’t believe in social justice, Baptists don’t believe in women pastors, and Baptists support state-sponsored prayer.
There are probably other perceptions out there—in fact, I know there are. But if this is what people think Baptists are, then I have to say there’s no doubt in my mind that this community is “a different kind of Baptist.” And this is the challenge of being a holy community, what we, as the church, are constantly called to live into.
No matter how many times the organized church has given in to the temptation of human institutional corruption, no matter how many instances we’ve seen of the church letting us down, and no matter how often the church has been the very perpetrator of grave ills, what we believe is that we are called to be different, to be holy—to live in community in such a way that the world can see how different we are and can catch a glimpse, even if just an occasional one, of the dream of the Gospel.
We’ve got to remember: we believe the church is called to be holy. And that means as a community we should always be surprising people who get to know us; we should always stand out as being different.
And, we also believe we’re supposed to be catholic. Now before you check your bulletin again to make sure you’re not crazy and you are, in fact, at Calvary Baptist Church this morning, you should know that the word catholic is used in the creed as an adjective, not as a formal name.
In other words, the writers of the creed are not referring to the Roman Catholic Church but rather the catholic church as in the universal church—all of the people who claim to be followers of Jesus are part of this group we’re referencing when we say the creed. Everyone. Even the weirder fringes of the Christian family. And one of the key characteristics of this Gospel community we say we believe in is that it is catholic—that the door swings wide to welcome anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus. Anyone.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001 edition, there are over 33,000 Christian denominations in 238 countries around the world, a far cry from unanimous consensus. But an interesting trend is occurring. Experts who study church growth are fascinated by the fact that, while denominations are an expression of socially acceptable faith over which we felt compelled to argue the details, recent trends show that people don’t care much about denominations.
I think this trend is a signal that we’re moving back toward the first expression of the church that Matthew addresses when he wrote down Jesus’ words about the challenges of following him.
See, it’s just not commonly expected anymore that everybody goes to church or even calls themselves a Christian. It’s getting to the point even in American society and certainly in other parts of the world, that, if you want to be a follower of Jesus, you have to make a specific choice. And as that choice becomes more and more strange to the world around you, the fact is you’re going to need a community of folks walking alongside you that understands the challenges of living in an alternative way to the rest of the world.
The fact is, we can be as Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian as we want to be, but in the end we better remember what we believe about the church: that we’re a catholic church, universal, all of the different stripes of people who claim to follow Jesus, united at our very core because of that.
It seems there’s a whole lot to think about packed into seven little words “I believe in the holy, catholic church,” and it’s a rather bold and courageous statement to say them. What you and I mean when we say them is that we believe in the dream that Jesus had—a dream that somehow the principles of the Gospel message would become so deeply implanted in your life and mine that we would be able to live lives exemplifying a radically different community standing in stark contrast to the communities of this world.
Martin Luther King, Jr., called this dream “the beloved community.” He said the church is the community of those of us who try our very best to know, proclaim and live out the Gospel news that love is the power through which we are created and sustained, and reconciliation is God’s best dream for our world.
We have seen this dream made flesh in Jesus Christ. And, once in awhile, we can see sparks of it right here and now, among us . . . within this very beloved community. The church.
For this we pray and hope with expectation.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008 Amy Butler. Used by permission.