Good morning, church! My name is Der and I am the new church planting resident here at RiverLife. It’s been a great start to our time here in the Twin Cities. Still hard to believe that we get to call this new church community our “home.” As some of you know, I was finishing up my studies in California over the summer. On the day we left California, I took my FINAL final exam, clicked submit, and then we got into the car and started driving across the country over the next four days…It was awesome and stressful and exciting on so many levels all at the same time. But we’re excited to be here now.
So we’ve been regularly attending services here over the past month, and I’ve gotten the chance to meet some of you, it’s been good to hear some of your stories and your journeys and passions for this community and beyond. It’s both humbling and exciting seeing the many different people God has brought to this church community. This is such a unique community with our diverse gifts and backgrounds and multicultural and bicultural elements that we all bring here. Not only that, we get to journey through life together as a community. In my 33 years of being alive, I have found few things better and more important than a genuine community who knows our joys, hopes, and wins, but also our pain, our struggles, and losses. And it’s in community where we live these experiences out together and grow together.
This kind of growing together in community is in short what the Church is. When we say we’re going to Church, it’s easy to think of Church as a building, or a program with lights and music, or a religious place with do’s and don’ts. But I want to challenge us today to see Church through a different lens. The Church is not primarily any of these things by themselves (although the Church take on some of these forms), but fundamentally the Church is a community of Jesus followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry forth God’s love and work in the world. [REPEAT] the Church is a community of Jesus followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry forth God’s love and work in the world. So the Church is a community, NOT the building or a location. And we’re gonna keep adding to this basic definition of the Church as we continue this morning.
We’ve been in a series called “I Believe: Exploring the Theology of the Apostle’s Creed” where each week we explore a key section of this creed. If you’ve been tracking with us the past few weeks, you might recall that a creed is a confession or a statement of faith. In our Christian context, it contains the basic tenets of the historic Christian faith.
And this particular creed we have been studying, the Apostles’ Creed, can be traced back to one or two generations after the time of Jesus. So that’s pretty far back in the overall scope of church history.
But this creed is important for the Church today because it summarizes the basic Christian beliefs on Who God is, what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and who we are as the Church as a result. So, let’s dive in this morning by reading the Apostles’ Creed together. It will be up on the screens if you’d like to read or follow along.
I believe in God, The Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died, and was buried;
On the third day, he rose again;
He ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
And he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy universal Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
The part we’re gonna be looking at today is the phrase [PPT slide] “the holy universal church, the communion of saints.” Before we go any further, let me clarify some of the language in this phrase. Some of you who are familiar with the creed might know it as “holy catholic church.” This might sound like the Roman Catholic Church – you know, the one with the pope and robes and collars, but it’s not. The word “catholic” here really just means the “universal or whole” church. This is an instance of how language can change over long periods of time.
So, with that, to better see where this language in the creed comes from, let’s turn to the book of Ephesians, chapter 4, verses 11-16. If you have a device, bible, or want to grab a bible in front of you, I invite you to turn to Ephesians 4:11-16 with me.
“11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
The key section in this passage is that Christ himself gave to the Church the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These are different roles or offices given to the Church in order to equip the Church. And this equipping was “so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). So, we see Jesus giving these roles to the Church in order to build up what is called “the body of Christ.”
Now this phrase “the body of Christ” is a common metaphor or image in the NT used to describe the community of Jesus’s followers. This metaphor places believers as the body and then, of course, Jesus as the head--the command center, the place where executive decisions are made and implemented.
This image is clearer toward the end of the passage in v. 15, it says:
“…speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
If we relate this with an earlier verse in this chapter, we see that there is one, universal body of Christ. We read in Ephesians 4:4:
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called”
Since there is a single body of Christ, all believers everywhere through space and time are connected to Christ as its head. Therefore, what we do as the Church, the body of Christ flows down from Christ, our head. That means that RiverLife Church’s mission and ultimate aim is the same as another church in South America. We might voice our specific mission statements to fit our particular demographic and social context, but ultimately the body of Christ exists to do God’s work in the world.
This affirms the Apostles’ Creed’s statement on the universal nature of the Church. It’s not that Jesus has two or more bodies in the world. Rather, there is a single body of believers. And believers everywhere through space and time, from generation to generation, are united under the headship of Jesus.
Within this first phrase of the Apostles’ Creed we’ve been looking at, there’s still another word for us to define. That’s the word “holy” in “holy universal church.” In verse 12 of this passage, we read that Jesus gave these offices, these apostles, prophets, and evangelists to the Church in order to “equip his people…” (v. 12). That phrase right there, “his people,” in the original Greek language of the NT is a phrase that can be translated as “holy ones” or “holy people” or “saints.” “Saints” simply means “holy people.” Here, “holy” does not mean good or perfect or sinless people. Instead, it “holy” basically means “set apart for God,” holy means “pure,” or holy means “free of immorality and free from blemish.”
Even though “saints” or “holy people” is only referenced once in this particular passage, throughout the book of Ephesians, this Greek phrase is used 14 times to refer to God’s people as “holy people.” In fact, even the opening part of this letter begins with the address “To God's holy people or “saints” in Ephesus…” (Eph. 1:1).
And so, the Church is declared holy and addressed as “saints” because they belong to a Holy God. So when we profess faith in “the holy universal church,” as part of the Apostles’ Creed, we are saying that we believe Jesus has gathered one, universal group of people, called into purity, and set apart for God’s purposes. We believe in the Holy Universal Church.
Moving along to the second part of this phrase: the Communion of Saints, we’ll notice how these two phrases sort of overlap with one another. And yet, they each nuance something different from the other. Where “holy universal church” refers to the people of God everywhere through space and time connected to Jesus as the head, this vertical relationship, “the communion of saints” refers to the people of God everywhere through space and time connected to each other, a horizontal relationship.
As the communion of saints, connected to each other, we have a single and common end goal in Christ. We are called to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” and to grow and mature together as Christ’s body (v. 13). This call to maturity is even negatively contrasted with the imagery of an infant in v. 14. And this is where I can’t help but ask myself, did the Bible really just use something as cute and innocent as a baby to make a negative contrast? I mean, who doesn’t love babies, right? Don’t raise your hands right now if that’s you. For the most part, unless you’re a parent awake at 3 am every night changing diapers, we all love infants and babies. But we know that healthy infants will eventually grow. Every living thing in creation, if healthy, will grow. As the Church, as the communion of “saints” or “God’s holy people,” we are to see ourselves as a physical body interconnected to each other, interdependent on one another, and supported by the ligaments, and the tendons, and the muscles, and the veins that hold us together.
This means that you, RiverLife Church in the 21st century, are connected to a church in the middle east of the 3rd century. And that church in the middle east is connected to yet another church in North Africa of the 12th century.
With this picture of connectedness, we are to grow into the fullness of the body of Christ, as we journey together through space and time, from generation to generation, with all believers everywhere.
However…the inverse of this correlation also holds true. See, if one part of the body or one member of the body is NOT healthy or, as v. 16 states, “as each part does its work,” if one part is not doing its work in love, then the rest of the body can feel that and suffer.
We all know what this feels like when we ourselves get sick. What may have started as a paper cut can turn into a small infection and then our body temperature rises as our body fights the infection, and then we start losing our appetite and this starts to a downward spiral to our bodies.
As members of the body of Christ, we all have this potential impact one another, for better or for worse. So we are not meant to just remain isolated and nourish our independent selves. To just read Scripture for our own growth, to worship for our own connection with God, to serve God just for our own sense of reward, but we have a key role and I would even say an obligation to nourish one another. Basically, none of us can do this faith journey on our own. This is the vertical connection that all believers everywhere have with each other across time and space. We believe in the communion of saints.
Since most of you are second or third generation Hmong Americans, it would be right for us to acknowledge how we stand on the shoulders of the 1st generation Hmong churches. We are indebted to their labor and the ways they have stewarded us, the generation that followed them.
Whatever our ethnic or racial background, we should all be humbled when we realize that all of us stand behind 2,000 years of church tradition from the time of Jesus. Somehow, the churches of the past have impacted us and we will go on to impact future generations of the Church.
The body of Christ and its interconnected nature is not limited to a local and single generation of believers. It is so much bigger than that. Jesus is both the head of the first generation Hmong American churches, just as he is the head of RiverLife Church.
So what does all of this mean for us then? After hearing this, what do we do? Why should any of this matter for you?
Maybe some of us are newer to the church and at times have even thought to ourselves: “is this it? Is this what I gave my Saturday nights up for so that I could wake up early Sunday morning to have mediocre coffee and receive smiles and handshakes from people I don’t really know?” My hope is that from God’s word today you would begin to see Church as so much more than this momentary experience on Sunday mornings. That more than the coffee and the snacks, by being here and continuing to be here, you are interweaving your life and journey with a community that has existed for over 2,000 years and will remain bound together for all time and all eternity. Yes, it takes place on Howard St at 10:00 am on Sunday mornings, but my prayer for you is that you would begin to experience concrete forms of renewal, hope, and new friendships in your life as a result of committing to this community as your Church community.
Others of you have been attending Church for a few years now, and you’ve been a bit overly focused on your own growth and health. And I don’t mean that if you’ve been going through a difficult season you shouldn’t do self-care. We all should make time for self-care. But I mean if you’ve been overly self-focused in your faith journey. If that’s you, I want to gently address that today ONLY because I once held that mindset. I think if we’re all honest, all of us had that mindset. That in my own faith journey, there was a time when church, bible study, worship, and everything I did in my faith was for my own enjoyment, growth, and satisfaction. And I hardly looked out for the well-being of those around me.
If this describes you like it did me at one point, I want to encourage you to trust that Jesus truly is the head of the Church, and because of that you truly are connected to every believer here and elsewhere through space and time. What you do not only impacts you, but also everyone else around you – for better or for worse. More than just your own independent well-being and growth, I want to challenge you that the more you give of yourself to others, that you’ll experience more life within the body of Christ.
This might mean that you start offering your time and energy to serve in your local church or community so that others would receive from you. This might mean that you start tithing as a result of trusting that Jesus is the head of all churches. And with your gift, you are investing in the building up of the one body of Christ, both now and for future generations of believers. This might mean you start considering the needs of others around you as more important than your own. That you start to carry some of their burdens, some of their struggles, and stand with them in their time of grief, loss, or discomfort. Although we will never be fully responsible for someone’s actions or the actions done to them, we can always be responsible to someone – to serve someone. If you’ve been a believer in Jesus for a few years now, I want to encourage you to take up that next step of responsibility to serve other believers, who are members of the same body of that you are.
Finally for some of us, maybe you are in a difficult season and you’re the ones in need of the other members of the body right now…. If this is you, know that you belong to the body of Christ and you have other members around you right now who love and care for you. More than that, Jesus the head cares for you, his body. Also, if this is you, feel free to reach out to me, Pastor Greg, or Pang Foua who will be back in the prayer room after service. As the body of Christ, we want to make ourselves available to you.
Now, at the start of this sermon, I shared with you how thankful I was to be a part of this new church community. When I said, what I really meant was that I am thankful to have you all as the people who will eternally impact my life and my journey, and in turn, I hope Christ will lead me to do the same with you and for you. Together, Jesus has called us to do this for one another, that his body would be built up, as the holy universal church and the communion of saints.