“I believe in the Holy catholic church, the communion of saints, and the forgiveness of sins”
Paul in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth speaks about the church using a picture that would have been well known to his hearers. It’s well known to us too, and is one of the definitive analogies in our understanding of the church of which we are a part. It can be understood as functioning on various levels, the local, the national, and the worldwide.
The idea of a group of people as a body was nothing new. It was already used widely to describe a group of people who each exercised a different function in their corporate life. But Paul’s picture goes beyond this. Rather than simply seeing the ‘body’ as a group of individuals with different functions, Paul re-casts the image of the body as a collection of individuals with different gifts, and this is important. Let me quote Rowan Williams at length on this subject:
“It was left to the Christians…to draw out the further revolutionary implication [of the idea above], that the frustration of any one member is the frustration of all – because then there is something that is not being properly given. Someone has not been granted the freedom to offer what only they can give to the whole.”
Williams goes on to say:
When St Paul speaks about the church as the Body of Christ…this is what is at the forefront of his mind. The church is a diverse community, but its diversity is not just a natural diversity of temperaments or preferences – we trivialize the idea if that’s all there is to it.”
Instead, the church has a diversity of gifts, given by the one Spirit, a diversity of perspectives on God, and a diversity of ways of making Gods work real for each other.
Reflect and discuss: When you think about the diversity of Gods church, do you tend to think of it as a ‘natural’ thing? Simply a collection of different people who do different things who happen to come together out of shared conviction? Or do you recognize the God given nature of the diversity – God equipping his church with the variety of gifts necessary to allow it to function in the world?
What do we mean by ‘I believe in the church’?
It does seem a little strange to say ‘I believe in the holy catholic church’. What are we saying exactly? Clearly we’re not simply saying that we believe that it exists. But by the same token we’re also not saying that the Church is another reality on the same level as God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. An absolute reality that exists without reference to anything else. The church is clearly not this.
What we are saying is that the church is a community that we can trust. Remember in the case of the creed saying ‘I believe’ is actually to say ‘I trust…’.
This too might sound like a strange thing to say…but lets unpack it.
I’m not asking if you trust that the church leaders always get it right. I’m not asking if you’d be happy leaving your hand bag on a chair whilst you get coffee. It’s asking something more profound. It’s asking:
Do you trust yourself to the church, i.e give of yourself with confidence to the other people around you without fear and reserve?
Our answer to this question will probably depend on our experience of church.
In your experience of church is it a place of generosity?
In your experience of church is it a place of forgiveness?
In your experience of church is it a place of acceptance?
In your experience of church is it a place of service?
In your experience of church is it a place of unconditional love?
It’s inevitable that at some point our experience of being a part of the body of the church will not be as described above. We may have been hurt, offended, upset, made angry etc. It’s no surprise, after-all we are not a club of saints, but rather sick people in need of a doctor – to use a metaphor that Jesus uses. Perhaps, as well as being on the receiving end of a less than positive experience of church, you may have actively contributed towards the same experience for someone else. A confidence betrayed. A harsh word spoken. A dismissive attitude. We’ve all been there.
If your experience of church makes it difficult for you to say that you ‘trust’ the community of the church then it is my hope that you can forgive and know healing. If this is you then I strongly encourage you to spend some time in prayer after the service with the prayer team at the back of church.
It is important to deal with failure and hurt in this respect because that we are a part of ‘the universal church’ is so very important. The Christian life can never be lived alone, was never designed to be lived alone, and can only really function properly within the community of Gods people that we call the church.
Reflect, discuss, and pray: Do not rush this part of the evening. What of your own experience of church? Do you trust the community of the church or have previous experiences made it difficult for you to do this? If so, why not pray together as a group, and ask God to heal any past hurts, ask him to help you forgive those who have wronged you, and continue to move to a place of trust in the community of the church.
Read Galatians 3:25-29
Paul is speaking to a diverse body of people. People from different social classes, different ethnic backgrounds, different religious backgrounds. They’ve all come together into the melting pot of the early church in Galatia and it’s proving to be hard work and divisions are appearing.
A handful of the reasons for division are listed:
Neither slave or free – problems arising due to different social standing
Neither Jew nor Greek – problems arising due to different ethnic background
Neither man nor woman – problems arising from women being totally unreasonable…I’m really seriously kidding…problems arising due to gender issues.
These are presumably just a handful of the causes of argument and division, but they can all be brought together (without trivializing the social factors present at the time) under one idea:
That if, as a church, we seek to primarily define ourselves as anything other than those who are ‘in Christ’ – the body of Christ – then we run into trouble.
Each of the problems Paul mentions is a tribal affiliation which people use to define themselves. A tribe based around a particular social class, or a particular ethnic grouping, or a particular sex. We could add to that list from our own experience and identify particular tribes within the church through which people define themselves – worship style, charismatic or non-charismatic, theologically conservative or theologically liberal…the list goes on.
No matter what it is that we use to define ourselves, if it is primarily anything other than that we are ‘in Christ’ then within the church we’ll run into trouble. Why?
Well because if we come to this place, if we attempt to live out our corporate life together beginning from a place of defining our differences, and what we do not hold in common, we’re in danger of forgetting and ignoring what we do hold in common. And what we do hold in common is of far greater significance than what we don’t have in common.
We have in common our being ‘in Christ’. This is our starting point. And from here, from this central point we’re free and welcome to live out our lives of faith and choose ways and means of doing so that allow us to worship and love Christ, serve others, and build the Kingdom.
If we begin from this point then our differences are less of an issue. As Paul says, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman. He’s not abolishing social class structures, nor ethnic origin, nor gender…but he’s saying that if these are not longer the primary sources of our identity, if these are no longer the things that define us, then they cease to divide us too. Before I’m a charismatic I’m in Christ. Before I’m a traditionalist I’m in Christ. Before I’m anything else – I’m in Christ.
And that’s a good thing. It also means that we can further resist the temptation to, having defined ourselves as particular sub-group, claim that if Jesus were here now, he’d join our group which is so often the implication – and is also so obviously utter rubbish.
And if we’re united in this, able to live with our differences in a generous and loving way, then it becomes easier to trust the church, and easier to celebrate our differences.
Reflect and pray: To what degree to you define yourself first and foremost as one who is ‘in Christ’? Do you find that other tribal allegiances / identifiers sneak into view and shape your identity above and beyond this? In what ways do these other identifiers shape your response to other Christians, especially those who are different to yourself?
As a group why not spend some time in prayer, asking God to help each one of us to see and celebrate our shared identity in Christ, the bonds of fellowship that hold us (the Church) together.
I believe in the communion of saints.
It’s another one of those slightly odd ones to be honest. The communion of saints. What does that mean? We’ve already suggested that communion can be translated fellowship and the word for fellowship can literally mean ‘sharing’ and this is pretty important.
As well as being important it is also intensely practical.
At one level it means to share life. To do life together. To walk alongside each other, to support one-another, to carry one another’s burdens. To share in each other’s joys and sorrows.
At another level it means the sharing of material things and wealth. In Acts2 we read the words that often send a chill down the spine of wealthy western Christians – the early disciples held all things in common, each giving according to what they had, so that each member could receive according to their need.
Now I’m not advocating a communist ideal, and it’s important not to confuse this with the teachings of secular socialist philosophers, but in this sharing community we’re reminded that we each have responsibilities towards others. Those who are strong have responsibilities towards those who are weak. Those who are rich have responsibilities to those who are poor. Those who have a voice have a responsibility towards the powerless. And this is the case both within the local congregation and also across the universal church.
To believe in the fellowship of the saints is to be committed to the practical consequences of this fellowship, and the practical consquences are based in sharing.
This should not embarrass any of us. One should not be embarrassed to be rich, one should not be embarrassed to be poor – these things do not define those who are ‘in Christ’, and they should certainly not be barriers to fellowship, infact quite the reverse, as they allow the sharing that characterizes fellowship and the ministry of giving and receiving that is so vital within Gods community.
Reflect and pray: Individually pray through the application of living in the fellowship of the saints. It may be that God has placed this call on your heart, either to give to another, or receive from another (it’s a two way street – we’re never just givers or takers) if this is the case then pray this through and commit to making a step towards more fully living the fellowship of the saints and the radical sharing that stands at the heart of it.