Marked Out-ONE: The Unity of the Church


Unity is Hard Work
Today we begin a sermon series in which we look at just what it means to be the church. Most of us, me included, get up on Sunday morning and just “go to church.” It’s part of our routine and we just do it. But if we give it a little reflection, we can start asking questions. “Why is it that we go to this church and not that church?,” “What is it about that church down the road that makes me wary of them?,” “Why is that church so huge and our church so small?,”. "Are those people over there even Christians?”
All of these questions are good and valid questions to ask. I’m not sure that in just four weeks of sermons that I’ll be able to get you answers to all of them, but we’re at least going to try.
But first we need to talk about just what the church is. We need a definition of what we’re going to talk about if we’re going to make sense of anything; we need to all start from the same page. The word for “Church” comes to us via the Greek of the New Testament. In Greek the word is “ekklesia.”  In ancient times before Christianity, the word ekklesia referred to a body of people who came together to make decisions for the welfare of a city or territory. The noun for the body ekklesia comes from the verb “kaleo” which means “to call or to call out.”
So, as a simple definition that we can build on, we can say that the church is the body of people called out. But that begs more questions. Called out of what? Called out TO what? And these are very good questions. But what often gets in the way of coming up with good answers to these questions is the fact that we are so steeped in our own traditions and understandings of church that we fail to look at ourselves critically. And this often leads us to casting aspersions or looking with questioning eyes upon others whose church life is quite different from ours.
So, in order to avoid this error, we need to look deeper at what it means to be a people called out. From where are we called out? Well, from Jesus’ long prayer in John 17 we learn that we are called out of the world. Again, in Greek, this word is kosmos. Now, when we often hear the word “world” in church we think we are being called away from things that are “worldly”—things like television, movies, rock music, etc. But that’s really not the case. Many legalistic folks have used this verse to enforce their own version of rigid rules on others—Angela and I went to a Bible College that did just that with their community covenant—no R rated movies, no going to places that served alcohol, etc. Big on rules, small on grace.
But in John’s usage of the word kosmos we get a different flavor, a different sense of the word. When John uses the word “world” he is talking about not a place per se but a way that the universe is run. Bob Dylan famously said in a song many years ago “You gotta serve somebody—it might be the Devil, it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”
And the choice of who one serves is ultimately the defining characteristic of whether or not they are worldly. If one chooses to follow after God and try to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, then they are not of the world, even though they are in it. But if they choose the easy way, the fallen way, what we call sin, then they are in the grips of the world, the fallen world system that is in rebellion to the will of God. This is the broad way of which Jesus spoke that leads to an unwanted place and ultimately destruction.
So, the church is the place in which all people who desire to serve God find their way. But again, we run into a problem. There are billions of people in the world that say that they believe in God. But not all of these gods are the same are they? Now, the three faiths founded on Abraham, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam generally speak of one God but even among these Abrahamic faiths there are wide definitional differences that clearly make us three distinct religions with three very different conceptions of deity.
And that difference only exacerbates the difference that exists between those who worship many gods like our Hindu neighbors. Or those that say that the entire world is God and that we are all little gods like some of our neo-pagan neighbors.
And so, in a sermon series on the unity of the Church I have had to be selective in what I cover. I can’t cover the differences between the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity nor can I delve into the discipline of comparative religion with polytheistic and pantheistic religions—those are good topics for future Bible studies and sermon series, but not for today.
So, if I can’t go into detail on the religions of the world, how can I possibly try to talk about the church? How can I define what makes a church a true church and what makes a body outside that definition?
Fortunately, this is not a new question. In fact, it is a question that goes to the heart of the struggle of the earliest Christian groups—even those described in the pages of the New Testament itself. From the Scriptures we get several key indicators of what the church in its fullness looks like.
Creeds and Confessions
But also, from the history of the church we have the valuable documents we call the Creeds and Confessions. These documents, like the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed came into being through controversy. People disagreed about things concerning God (sound familiar?) and then in response to these controversies wrote statements of basic principles that defined what the church believed. And because these are documents written in times of crisis, they don’t teach us all of what we want to know, but they do teach us the basic principles that define our faith—and that can serve as points of unity among diverse groups—but more on that later.
And it is to one of these documents that I’d like to turn to now, the Nicene Creed. Now, most of us are very familiar from our youth with the Apostle’s Creed. This basic document used to often be used as part of the service of Holy Communion. Church from all over, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and everywhere in between used to say the Creed as part of their service.
The Nicene Creed too was used periodically in churches. When I was growing up, I spent some time in a Lutheran church and we would recite this Creed on occasion. But why don’t more churches use it? Well, frankly, because it’s longer than the Apostle’s Creed and is harder to memorize.
But it is in the Nicene Creed that we find all of the essential doctrines of what the Church has believed for centuries. Today, if you walk into a Roman Catholic Church, an Eastern Orthodox Church, a Presbyterian, Baptist, or even Non-Denominational church like LCBC you will find that each can affirm the Nicene Creed. This document is the document that unites Christians and a document that separates Christians from what might be called sects—or even cults—like The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) or the Kingdom Halls (Jehovah’s Witnesses).
And while I can’t go into all of the details of the Nicene Creed, I do want to share with you the statement that this venerable document shares about the church:
“We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
These four statements: that the church is one, that the church is holy, that the church is catholic (universal), and the church is apostolic are the glue that unites the diverse body we see today as the church, as the heirs to the title of ekklesia of the early church and as the Body of Christ he called into being during his life and ministry.
But each of these statements is controversial isn’t it? Each of these statements is liable to misunderstanding and twisting. So we need to take each one by itself so that we can fully understand it. And over the next month, that’s precisely what we’ll do.
These four statements, that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic are typically called the “marks of the church.” They are what you want to look for in a church to see whether it really is the church rather than an imitation or perversion.
Today, in the time remaining, we’ll examine the statement from the Creed that the Church is one.
Now from this statement that “the church is one” we immediately run into problems, don’t we? Why is it that just on my short drive of a few miles to church that I pass several other churches. Why didn’t I stop at the one nearest my house? The short answer is that I am not a member of the United Church of Christ, and am not a member of Good Shepherd or the Nazarenes.
Folks, one of the scandals of our time is that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said over fifty years ago now, 11:00 am on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the country. Typically, we go to church—to a church that meets our preferences, that preaches what it is that we believe. And, if we’re honest, we’re a little suspicious of the churches we pass along the way. Mostly because we just don’t know what goes on there—and if we do we disagree with it. Many of us have chosen churches that either we grew up in or meet our preferences in some way.
But this is not the way it always was. If you go back into history, to the time of the New Testament, you see that the churches themselves internally and not externally were very diverse. Jews, Gentiles, men, women, slaves, and free all gathered together in one body. How is it that such unity could occur? Well, it wasn’t easy as the disputes in the pages of the letters of the New Testament reveal. The early Christians did have disagreements. But they only worshipped as part of one body.
One body. That is the truth that is revealed all throughout the New Testament. That God’s People, the Church are one body. Paul tells us that there is one body, one Lord, one Baptism.
And if you would go to the Roman Catholic church down the street or the UCC up the road they would all confess that.
So how is it that we are now so divided around doctrine and preference?
Well, that takes us into church history a bit. For about the first thousand years or so there was only one church, the universal or Catholic Church. Then in 1054 a major disagreement between the Eastern and Western parts of the former Roman Empire began about certain wording in the Creed. The pope excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople an the patriarch excommunicated the Pope. And so the first split in church history resulted in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Then later, in 1517, Martin Luther broke away and thus the Protestant Reformation began. And ever since more and more divisions have occurred fracturing the Western church into literally thousands of denominations and independent congregations.
How is it that we can speak of unity at all in a time such as this? Well, we have to do so in a qualified manner don’t we? There is unity in the essentials of the faith and diversity in the non-essentials.
And that begs the question, what are the essentials of the faith. And that brings us back to those Creeds. It is my contention, and the contention of most other theologians, that what defines right Christian teaching is the ability to affirm the basic tenets of the faith found in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. Any body that can affirm those tenets deserves the right to call themselves Christian. But any who cannot have placed themselves outside the bounds of what for two thousand years have called themselves followers of Jesus Christ.
So, how is it that we can express unity in such a sea of diversity? Paul tells us all about this in his letters—letters written to a diverse group of believers from all over the Roman Empire from nearly every known nation, tribe, and tongue. And to the Corinthians, perhaps one of the most diverse groups of Christians in the early church we learn that the essential thing we must keep in mind is this: we demonstrate our relationship with Jesus Christ through love.
When the Corinthians fought—and they fought often—Paul reminded them that above all of their diversity, they must pursue love. Jesus prayed to the Father that his body, the Church would be one just as the Father, Son, and Spirit are one.
Our diversity here then shouldn’t be necessarily a subject of scandal then, but a reflection of God in Godself!
If God eternally exists as a community of Father Son and Holy Spirit each with distinct characteristics and yet one God—as the Creeds too confess, then is it any wonder that we human beings, called to be the body of Christ are then to live in diverse expressions of what it means to be a Christian?
Does that mean we just all abandon our differences and come together and sing Kumbaya? Or does that mean that we conform ourselves and abandon our own convictions for the sake of unity?
No, not quite. But it does mean that our differences are relative. That we must be willing to work together as opportunity allows and that we must never condemn our brothers and sisters for holding different convictions—even those we consider serious error.
While we are many, so are we one. As we are diverse, so are we the same. We are children of God. We have been spread like breadcrumbs throughout the world so that by means of the many of us we can gather to God all those who are scattered. We come together around the Word of God and the Sacraments to unite as one body. And we pray that one day all unity will be restored. Amen.