Listen: Christian Growth with Simon Manchester. (Airs 8am Sundays on Hope 103.2 & Inspire Digital.)
Simon Manchester presents a 10-part series of messages called ‘Confident Theology’. Week by week he takes listeners on a journey through the famous statement of Christian faith known as the ‘Apostles’ Creed’. This week, Part 8: “Church and Saints”.
Part 8: “Church and Saints” – John 17:6-19
Well if you are visiting today we are having our eighth look at the Apostles Creed. This is a topical series, working our way through the phrases of the Apostles Creed.
You are familiar with the Creed, ‘I believe in God the Father Maker of heaven and earth’. And the section we come to today is the phrase of eight words, The Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints. And in some sense this must be one of the least exciting parts of the Creed to say that we believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints. At least that’s the first reaction.
We have looked so far at believing in the Father, that’s wonderful, the Son, that’s wonderful, the Holy Spirit, that’s wonderful and now we suddenly find ourselves saying that we believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints. It’s a strange shift. We have just been talking about God, perfect, kind, saviour, we believe in Him and then we turn and we say – thinking of the church which is not perfect, not kind, not saviour, full of faults, we believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.
Many non Christians of course would say they do believe in God but they do not believe in the church. And you who are here this morning and you do believe in Jesus, I wonder whether you can say with conviction and joy “I believe in the church”. It’s an unusual but wonderful thing.
Well we do believe in the church, don’t we because the church is real? Jesus said He would build his church around the world and He has been doing that. The church exists in every country around the world. And of course the church is loved by Christ. We may not love the church but He does love the church and laid down his life for his bride.
It can be a very painful place. I had been talking with somebody not too long ago who had been ‘burned’ by the church and now avoids the church. It’s a place that can do damage. There will be many people in our city who look at the church and think ‘why would you have anything to do with that place?’
And it can also be a gateway to salvation. So, as we have already heard this morning, there are people who come under the influence of other believers and these believers help them to come to Jesus. The American author Jerry Bridges tells that when he was in the Navy he joined a Bible Study made up of Christian men and he says in his little account of this, ‘I don’t remember anything that was said on the first night’ but he said ‘the one thing I remember was the atmosphere. These men had a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ’. He said ‘I had at best a distant relationship and I met with these men and the atmosphere of their fellowship with Christ and with each other was absolutely gripping and helped him’. Now may God enable us in our gatherings small and great to have that sense of closeness that helps others as well.
Hope 103.2 is proudly supported by
So when we do move from belief in God to belief in the church, it does make sense because the God we believe in has a family. And we are saved, as you know, not just from fellowship in a vertical sense with God as if you have a kind of a private relationship, (it is a personal relationship) but it is also a horizontal relationship with all his people.
These two phrases “holy catholic church” and “communion of saints” are really saying the same thing. They build on each other that we believe that God has lots of people, that’s what we are saying. Almost every word in the phrases however, almost every second word is confusing.
For example the word “holy” sounds pious but we are not pious.
- “catholic” sounds like “Roman catholic” but we are not Roman catholic.
- “communion” sounds like the “Lord’s Supper” but we are not talking communion.
- “saints” sounds superior but we are not superior.
So we almost have to translate every word in these two phrases with another word. And I would suggest to you that a good word to replace “holy” is something like chosen or marked off, assigned, allocated, ordained, set apart or earmarked.
A good word for “catholic” would be universal, everywhere or diverse. A good word for “communion” is simply fellowship. We are claiming that we have union with God and with his people. And the word “saints” simply means Christians.
Now although the subject of the church is too big and could easily take 52 sermons or more, we are going to just concentrate on these four words – holy, catholic, communion and saints and try and see some of the meaning behind them.
The Meaning of ‘Holy’
So first of all the word Holy, or chosen or appointed or earmarked, listen to 1 Peter 2:9 “You are a chosen people, you are a holy nation, God’s possession to declare His praise”. God, as we read in John chapter 17 called out His people to be His people who of course live in the world but are not belonging to the world and are headed beyond the world and are sent into the world.
You may be the sort of person who says this morning, look, when you talk about somebody chosen, that’s not me. You know it could be that excellent person over there, they could be chosen but that’s way too grand a thing for me to say ‘I am chosen’. But I want to say to you if you have chosen to put your faith in Christ, if you have chosen to belong to Christ, chosen to follow Christ, it’s because you have been chosen by Christ. You can’t do that unless he works and changes you. That’s why Jesus said in John chapter 15 “You did not chose me but I chose you”.
And think of the pictures the Bible uses to describe the church.
Think of the family. Why is there a family? Well because a father (if I might put it like this) got to work.
Or think of the picture of the church as a bride. Why is there a bride? Well because the bridegroom, Jesus, went looking and finding.
Or think of the picture of the church as a temple. Why is there a temple made up of all the living believers? Well because the Holy Spirit took the initiative to re-generate, convert and move in.
So these pictures of the church, the family, the bride and the temple, they are all reminders to us that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit took the initiative and God has put us in the world as His picked out people. We are not that great but God loves to work through His people.
The great evangelist D.L. Moody was once preaching at a big Convention, he was a very simple man, his language was very simple, he could hardly spell and somebody came up to him afterwards and said – “Mr Moody I cannot see any connection between you and this huge blessing”. And D.L. Moody said “that’s exactly how we like it”. And that’s true, God uses us to be his salt, light, city on a hill beyond what we could imagine or expect. And I am one of millions and millions of people today who has been helped by the church. I still remember the Welcome I got when I turned up for the first time. I remember the people at the door welcoming me.
Along the way I have been fed by the church. I have had people model the Christian life for me in the church. I have been kept by the church when I went off the rails. I have been lifted up by the church when I fell down. I have also been frustrated by the church and disappointed by the church and hurt by the church and matured by the church and greatly blessed by the church. These are God’s chosen people.
The Visible and Invisible Church
Now we need to explain as we think about the Church, this group of people who you can see here this morning, that this is a visible church. But there is also an invisible church, they are very different. A visible church is the bunch you can see but it is the easiest thing in the world to walk into this building. You could be seen but not belong to Christ. You can be part of the visible church but not belong to Christ
The invisible church are the people around the world who God can see, who he knows are his people and they are scattered all over the world. That’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 “you know many crossed the Red Sea, getting out of Egypt, many ate the bread in the wilderness, many drank the water from the rock but they did not have relationship with God” says Paul. They are just in the crowd. Or John says in 1 John chapter 2 “some left our fellowship, they left the fellowship they were not of the fellowship”.
We have a church roll at St Thomas’ but the church roll at St Thomas’ is a very different thing from the Lamb’s Book of Life. I tell you if I had a choice of being on the roll of St Thomas’ or the roll from the Lamb’s Book of Life, I would choose the Lamb’s Book of Life any day. Getting into the roll of St Thomas’ is easy. You just fill in a card and keep pestering the Office. But to be in the Lamb’s Book of Life takes a miracle. It takes Christ to choose you and change you so that you choose Him and are changed. And so when we say that “we believe in the holy, that is the chosen, the set apart people of God, we mean more than we believe in a bunch, in a building or that we believe in a building, we are saying that we believe in a miraculous family, it’s a huge, huge privilege.
The Meaning of Catholic
The second word is Catholic which of course simply means universal or diverse or cosmopolitan. We talk about a person having catholic tastes in their music. What we mean by that is that they appreciate a lot of styles or types of music. Catholic is a kind of a broad word. The word is not a biblical word, catholic. And it’s not really a helpful word because of the Roman Catholic Church because the Roman Catholic Church in its strictest form is not really catholic. That is it doesn’t believe that you are really a Christian if you are outside their denomination. But the Bible says that God has his people in all the denominations.
Think of Jesus in John chapter 10. He says “I have other sheep scattered all over the place and I must bring them to this one shepherd for salvation.” Or think of the vision in Revelation chapter 7 where John is able to see all these believers praising the Lamb and he says that they are from every nation, tribe, people and language all thanking the Lamb for salvation. So there is a universal church.
Sometimes the Bible speaks of the universal church. So we are told for example that Paul persecuted the church. Now he didn’t just pick on one church, he picked on any church and every church he could. The word ‘church’ there means the universal church. Or for example Jesus said he will build his church and he means the world wide church.
And there are little outposts of the universal church called ‘local churches’. Some of them have two or three members. Some of them meet under a tree in the bush, some of them meet in fancy buildings, some of them are in the hundreds and some of them are in the thousands but they are all little local outposts of the universal church. That’s why Paul could write to the Colossian church or the Philippian church or the Corinthian church. And Jesus said if there is a real trouble maker and things get bad, you should report it to the church. Obviously not to every church around the world, that would be bizarre but report it to the local church.
This raises an interesting question and that is whether the church is really one? Is there a really ‘one church’? The Bible says there is one church, God has one family, Jesus has one bride, the Holy Spirit has one temple and even the Nicene Creed which we don’t often say but it begins “I believe in the one Holy Catholic Apostolic Church”. But it does sound like a joke to say the church is one. Imagine standing up with a microphone on the Town Hall steps and saying “I want you all to know that the church in this country is ONE”! And the people standing there would say ‘well this is absolute rubbish, look at the denominations, look at the divisions, look at the disagreements, look at the squabbles, look at the fights that go on’ but it is true. God’s church is one.
Just like a family, let’s give them the name of “Morrison”, they might decide they will live in all different parts of the world, a big family, lots of children, lots of grandchildren they all move to different parts of the world. Some of them are not even speaking to one another but they are all the “Morrison Family”.
So God has his children, they have all been indwelt by his Spirit, they all have Jesus as their Saviour, they all have God as their Father. And therefore there is a oneness spiritually, they are re-born and they are on their way to glory. But God is at work to cause his spiritual believers to be agreed believers and he does that by bringing his truth to us in order that we would think the same and he also prompts us to love the same. So God knows his family.
And when we say we believe in the catholic or universal church, we are thinking of a miraculous family everywhere.
The Meaning of Communion
Now the third word is the word Communion which means fellowship, and in the Greek and it’s a word some of you may have heard before called “Koinonia” which means ‘to have everything in common’. John says in 1 John chapter 1 verse 3 “We proclaim Christ so you may have fellowship or communion with us (the Apostles) our fellowship, communion is with the Father and the Son.” Therefore when we have communion, that is fellowship, is first with God and then automatically with his people.
Now I wish we grasped more than we do and I wished I grasped more than I do that we have Christ in common because there is going to come a day where everything else that we have in common, may be a car, may be clothes, may be an accent, may be a local community, all of that is going to disappear and it’s the ‘having Christ’ which will be seen to be the most significant, the eternal, the most wonderful, the absolute outweighing of everything else that we have in common. I mean if you went overseas and couldn’t speak the language and bumped into somebody who could speak the language, you would say how good it was to meet somebody who you could communicate with. You have the language in common.
Or imagine you land on a desert island and you are stranded and then somebody else washes up on to the island and you are so grateful to see another human. But I tell you all of that is completely outweighed by the fact that we have Christ in common. And time will prove what the Bible tells us that our common faith and belonging to Him is the most significant thing about us. That’s why many of you know when you travel, you come into another church and suddenly find that you are knitted with these people because there is something which the world itself cannot provide. This close, close wonderful deep fellowship with Christ. You instantly feel you are with brothers and sisters, people of similar minds and similar hearts. So it’s a most, most wonderful thing.
Now nothing is going to compare with the reality of this having fellowship with Christ and as I say when everything disappears, you will see it for what it is. We therefore need to grasp it and seize the opportunity. And one of the things we ought to be better at doing when we have a few minutes together is not talking about the things that anybody could have in common but to think of the things that we have in common.
And therefor it’s not a bad thing for you to come up to me on any Sunday and say
‘Simon how is your walk with Christ?’, ‘What have you learned this week in your Christian life?’ or “How has God blessed you this week?’, ‘How has he reminded you of his love for you?’
And I tell you there would be many weeks where I will say to you, ‘my walk with Christ is difficult, dry, stale, I am not learning anything, I don’t feel anything’ and suddenly I am talking with a believer who has to think quickly about how to encourage and comfort and strengthen. And I have no doubt that’s the same for many of you as well. There will be those times where somebody just puts their finger on the struggle and you are so grateful.
Well – the communion of God’s people, the fellowship with God and his people means we are in a relationship with believers in the past, yes, some of the great ones of the past are our brothers and sisters. You think of the great ones that have gone. Think of the Apostle Paul, think of people like Luther, think of people like Wesley and Whitfield and Spurgeon and all our heroes, we are all in a relationship with them.
We are in a relationship today with many believers around the world and we are even in relationship with believers who have not yet been born. It’s as if we are all running a big race, some have finished the race and gone home, we are running the race and we will soon go home, some are coming and will join the race and then go home and we are in a relationship with them. However, we can’t communicate with everybody. We can’t communicate with believers who have gone to glory. Jesus says there is a gulf between us, one day we will see them but in the present we can’t communicate with them. And we can’t even pray for believers who have gone to glory because they have been glorified. They don’t have any needs, there is nothing more than we can ask for them. They have finished the race. But there is a great fellowship that we have across the generations and there will be a great reunion to come.
Paul says in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 “we will be together”. Richard Baxter says in his hymn, these lovely words:-
As for my friends, they are not lost, the several vessels of Thy fleet
Though parted now through tempest’s toss, shall safe in heaven meet.
Before Thy throne we all can meet. A joint partitioners to Thee
In spirit then the King we greet and shall again each other see.
That’s why the more we grow in Christ the more we appreciate the fellowship of Christ. It would be a strange thing this morning, wouldn’t it if your hand is injured but your foot doesn’t care. And it’s a strange thing when a believer is injured and the body doesn’t care. And Christ builds into us an affection for his people and an appreciation for his people. And it isn’t because we are lovely and attractive and easy, it’s because there is a new love in us which steps out for his people. So when we say we believe in the communion or the fellowship, it’s a very precious thing, it’s a very precious thing.
The Meaning of Saints
Finally, let’s think about the saints. When we say saints, we don’t mean dead people. We don’t mean super people. We mean Christians. All Christians are saints. They are marked off by God for his service. Paul could describe the Corinthians as saints and they were the most difficult church he ever dealt with. They had fights and sins and confusions and he writes to them and he says – “To the saints in Corinth, because you have been washed by Christ you are being worked on by Christ and one day you will see Christ”.
We who are believers in Christ according to the New Testament are his saints in the true sense. We are appointed and we have a role to play. What’s the role that we play? Well think about Romans chapter 12. First of all we have a role or duty to God. We offer ourselves to God. We get up in the morning and we say something like this.
‘Heavenly Father, thank you for a new day. It’s full of opportunities, it’s full of privileges, it’s full of battles, it’s full of uncertainties. Help me today to live for you and be honoured, Amen’.
Because you are offering yourself as a living sacrifice.
Then of course our duty to one another as believers is to help us to go forward or to grow. So we bump into one another and in our best moments we are thinking, how can I help this person to keep trusting and obeying?
When we bump into the unbeliever we are thinking to ourselves, how can I help this person to know something of the truth and the love of Christ? Those are our responsibilities. We are not stuck to know what we are meant to be doing as believers.
You may have noticed that there is a church over in the UK that has decided in order to reach believers they are going to turn the inside of the church into a putt putt golf course – that’s the way to reach the lost! I am not exactly sure how that’s going to work? But I want to say to you that Jesus has told us very clearly – make disciples. We do that with our prayers, we do that with our words, we do that with our love.
Some of you will be doing that in your home with your family and your children, that’s a wonderful, wonderful role you are playing. Some of you will be doing that in your small groups. Some of you will be doing that in your workplace. Some of you will be doing that very gently, tentatively. Some of you will be doing that very boldly and creatively. All of us will do it in weakness.
William Carey who was the great missionary to India, he took the Gospel to India, pioneered the Gospel roads through India and he also translated the Bible into over forty languages. And what many people don’t know is that he had a sister who is so unknown that her name is not known. And she was almost totally paralysed. And she stayed home and she prayed for all his needs and all his setbacks and all his challenges. And one writer says – ‘when God credits the blessing of the Gospel in India will it go down the sister’s column or will it go down William Carey’s column? That’s a very interesting question.
Dear friends, if you find the church difficult (and we all do) if you find the church disappointing (and it does disappoint) let me urge you if you are tempted to withdraw and say ‘I think I will step back’ simply ask God, would you help me to think like you think and would you help me to love like you love because I have noticed that when you come along to church and you have a cup of spiritual life and you feel as though there is one drop left and all you want is for somebody to fill your cup and the Lord says ‘just pour the drop out for somebody else’. You pour the drop out for somebody else and lo and behold He has filled your cup. Again and again you find that He blesses you and you step forward to bless other people.
Somebody has rightly said the church is the most important organisation in the world and that is exactly right and therefore we say with integrity and with gladness and appreciation that we believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints and what we mean by that is that we believe in God’s chosen world wide fellowship. We believe in the fellowship of all Christian people, past, present, future and one day altogether with Christ. It’s a massive privilege to be a part of.
Let’s bow our heads and thank Him –
Our Heavenly Father we thank you for bringing so many who are here this morning to faith in you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We thank you too for giving to us therefore a family of believers forever. We pray that you would look in mercy on us as individuals and us as a group that we might be a people who truly do please you, who offer ourselves to you, who are a blessing to one another, a help to the lost. We pray that you would continue to build and use and keep and encourage and bring home your people.
We ask it in Jesus’ Name, Amen.