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The Holy Catholic Church

with Rev. Alex Lang

April 2, 2023

There are more than 9,000 different denominations of Christianity. How do we handle another denomination when they bring harm to our fellow Christians?

The Scripture

Matthew 21:1-11

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

1 Corinthians 12:12-30

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[a] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

Read the Full Text

During Lent, we’re doing a sermon series called Credo: The Apostle’s Creed Then and Now. Each week, we will be examining a line from the Apostles’ Creed and asking the question: What did this line of the creed mean to the people who wrote it and what does it mean to us today?

I’ll explain the traditional beliefs surrounding a statement from the Apostles’ Creed and, then, I’m going to provide a modern interpretation of that belief for those who might be a little skeptical. Whether you resonate with the traditional interpretation or with the modern interpretation, my goal is to demonstrate that the Apostles’ Creed has the flexibility to speak to both audiences.

Last week we discussed the line from the creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit. This week we are discussing one of the most talked about and misunderstood lines in the entire Apostles’ Creed: I believe in the holy catholic church. Now, I want to start by getting the misconception out of the way right off the bat. Most of the time when people read this line of the creed, they assume that it’s talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

Finish reading

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say during my time as a pastor, “We’re Presbyterian, not Catholic. Why in the Apostles’ Creed do we say that we’re part of the Catholic Church.” Most often I have heard this from people who grew up in the Catholic Church and want nothing to do with it any longer. Well, let me assuage your concern. The word catholic in this instance does not refer to a particular church, but comes from the Greek word katholikos which means universal.

So when we say the line: I believe in the holy catholic church, what we are really saying is that we believe in the holy universal church. In a sense, this is a very unifying statement. It’s acknowledging that there’s a lot of different types of Christianity in the world, but that, in spite of our differences, we are one large universal church that is ultimately linked together. The question I want to explore this morning is how the church universal is linked together and what that means for you, the person sitting in the pew.

We read this morning from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. This is a famous passage where Paul talks about the body of Christ. He’s using the analogy that there are different parts of the body, but all the parts play a role and are useful to helping the body properly function. In this way, we can think of every different type of church denomination as making up the body of the church universal. To give you a sense of how many different churches we are talking about, there are more than 9,000 different denominations worldwide.

Just so we’re clear, there are 9,000 different types of churches. The question you should be asking yourself is: Where did all of these churches come from? Well, all of these churches started because somebody said, “I don’t like the way they’re doing this thing in my church, so I’m going to start my own church.” Now that thing they didn’t like could literally be anything.

Some churches split apart because they differ in how the music should be sung. For example, the Church of Christ, they were formed because they didn’t believe instruments should be used in worship. Their reasoning is they want to worship the way early Christians worshipped, which was without musical instruments. As a result, they sing everything acapella.

The Quakers formed because they believed that each individual can experience inner light, or the voice of God, without needing a priest, or the Bible. If you’ve ever been to a Quaker Meeting house, they sit in a circle in total silence. Whenever someone feels moved, they stand up and speak the voice of God inside of them. It can be really strange because sometimes you can sit through a whole service a nobody says anything and sometimes people will talk about the most random stuff you’ve ever heard.

Pentecostals formed because they believed that a true Christian should be baptized in the spirit. They believe speaking in tongues is evidence of one’s salvation. Our denomination formed because we wanted to ordain women as pastors. We are called the Presbyterian Church (USA), while the more conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church is PC(A). Our denomination split again about 7 years ago after we voted to ordain and marry the LGBTQ community.

The point being, Christians are really good at coming up with reasons why our churches are different and better than another denomination. We all think we have the right way of interpreting the Bible and worshipping God. However, what Paul’s commentary on the body of Christ is getting at is that, as much as we disagree and, as much as we all think we’re right, we are all part of this much larger church body and all of them are important.

Now, if you’ve been here for any length of time, then you know I can be critical of other denominations. Therefore, as you might expect, this is a hard pill for me to swallow that every church is important. One of the reasons why I struggle with this idea is because I see how harmful some of these denominations can be. I’ve watched people who are gay be told by pastors and members that God didn’t make them that way and to be sexually attracted to a person of the same sex is sinful. I know people who have been sent to gay conversion camps by their churches and how much it messed them up mentally.

I know people who were severely mentally ill, who needed serious help from medical professionals, but their church told them that the solution was simply having more faith and God would remove the demon or evil spirit inside of them. I’ve known women who were being abused by men and the church didn’t believe them. The leaders in the church told them to keep quiet and not say anything because God says men are the head of the household.

In fact, I want to play a clip for you from one such person. This is Jennifer Tillman. She grew up being part of the Jehovah’s Witness denomination, which is very patriarchal. In the clip you’re about to hear, Jennifer is remembering being brought before the elders of the church because she had accused her stepfather of abusing her. I want you to listen to what happened when she came before these church elders. [Audio Clip]

I know Jews and Muslims who have been violently targeted by Christians. Their mosques and synagogues were attacked for no other reason than they had been taught by their church that all Muslims are terrorists and all Jews are trying to destroy the world. In fact, this even happens in denominations like ours. I once had the opportunity to interview Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, the famous scholar of New Testament studies who is a practicing Jew herself. I asked Dr. Levine if she had ever experienced anti-Semitism and she told me this story. [Audio Clip]

Have I made my point why I tend to be critical of other Christians? And some people have said to me in the past, “Alex, you’re a pastor. It’s not right for you to criticize other Christians. You’re turning on your own people?” That’s when I ask, “Well, then who’s job is it? If we aren’t willing to police ourselves, then who’s going do it?” Being self-critical is one of the most important things we can do to make the church better for everyone.

This is why I struggle with the idea that all churches play an important role in the body of Christ. When I see such blatant harm, it’s hard for me not to look at them as a toxic or sick part of the body of Christ that should be cut off. But when I turn that same criticism back on myself, I very quickly realize that I too am contributing to the problem.

This sermon series is a good example of that. For me, I love talking about these ideas about how the Apostles’ Creed can mean different things to different people. But what I also know to be true is that by preaching a sermon series like this, it can really shake the foundation of people’s faiths in negative ways. Rather than enhancing their faith by expanding their perspective and giving them a new way to think about things, it causes a lot of internal angst and makes them question their faith.

I’ve had people come to me over the years and tell me that my sermons actually crushed their belief in Jesus. They had known Christianity to be one thing their entire life and now all of my ideas had made them unsure of what they believe, so they walked away from the church all together. So, as much as I criticize these other churches for causing harm, I am not exempt from that same criticism.

Therefore, what I realize is that each of us in these different denominations are doing our best to honor what we believe is the best way to follow God and Jesus. And these other churches, as much as I disagree with what they do, they clearly provide something that I do not. The people who attend those churches are there because that community means something to them. Indeed, those communities are very important, because for many people, it’s the only true community they have.

Therefore, when I say the line from the Apostles’ Creed that I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, I always think about the fact that what connects us together is that we are all flawed. We are all trying to live our best lives for Jesus and we all believe that our communities are providing something that people can’t get anywhere else. This is what makes us part of the body of Christ.

This is why when I read from Paul: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it,” it makes me want to fight hard so that those people who are suffering in those churches know that our church exists and there is an alternative, which is exactly what Jesus does on Palm Sunday, and, of course, is what we are here to celebrate today.

Every Palm Sunday, I walk you through the reasons why Jesus entered the Temple courtyard and overturned the tables of the money changers and sellers of the sacrifices. The Temple was run by priests who had to be loyal to the Roman government. Not only that, but when Jews went to the Temple to worship, they had to sacrifice an animal to receive forgiveness. The cost of those animals was so outrageously high, that most Jews had to go into debt just to do something that should have been a fundamental right of being Jewish.

Therefore, the Temple was seen as a corrupt institution by most Jews because it didn’t matter what your version of Judaism was, every Jew had to go to the Temple to worship God. This means that when Jesus entered into the Temple and started throwing tables and disrupting the business taking place in the Temple, he was not just doing that for himself. He was doing that for all the Jewish people. He wanted all of them to be free to worship without having to face financial ruin.

This is why they lay the palm branches down in front of Jesus when he enters into the city. The palms were a symbol of war. The last time palm branches were laid at the feet of a horse entering the city was when the Jews conquered Jerusalem and took back the Temple during the Maccabean revolution 250 years earlier. Jesus was going to reclaim the Temple in the name of all the Jews who were suffering.

Indeed, this is what we are called to do as Christians with the church universal. God calls us to reclaim Christianity for all those who are suffering. Our job is to help heal those in the church universal who have been discriminated against by other churches. We are here to embrace them and let them know they are loved unconditionally no matter who they are.

So how I want to end my sermon today is actually quite simple: There are lots of different churches for lots of different types of Christians. Our church is for those who need a God of unconditional love. Our church is for those who feel rejected by those other churches, who don’t fit in because they are different and operate outside the norm.

Therefore, if you know someone who is suffering in another denomination of Christianity; if you know someone who has been rejected by their church because they don’t fit a certain mold, let them know they are welcome here because as a member of the church universal, we are going to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and reclaim Christianity for those who are suffering. Amen.