We’re in the middle of a focus on The Apostles’ Creed, one of our more well known and regularly used affirmations of faith. Over the past three weeks, we have affirmed our belief in God the Father, Maker of Heaven and Earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. Last week, with a wonderful celebration of our Preschool Ministry, we affirmed our belief in the Holy Spirit as we celebrated Pentecost, when the gift of the Spirit was made tangibly known to the disciples of Christ.
This week we turn to our named belief in “the holy catholic church [and] the communion of saints.”
As we have named over the past few weeks, our statement of belief is not simply an acknowledgment of that in which we have belief. Our reciting and professing our faith, individually or corporately, is not simply about the words we speak. Our claim to believe is about our risky acceptance of truth that leads us into action.
As clarifying statements regarding our profession today, when we claim belief in the holy catholic church, we are not professing our belief in the Roman Catholic Church. As we covered in the first week of our series, this affirmation is thought to have been penned in the first couple centuries, perhaps by the Apostles themselves, though that has not been proven. While the Roman Catholic Church claims it has existed since the day Christ was resurrected, and would thus have been around since the days of the Apostles, the name ‘Catholic Church,’ used to define the church of Rome, was not used for some time to come. When we claim belief in the holy catholic church, we are claiming our belief in the church as a universal body. The word catholic in our profession of faith simply means universal, or according to the whole. So, when making this profession, our claim is that there is but one general body of believers who profess, as the foundation of the holy catholic church, Christ as our Lord and Savior. There are, no doubt, many iterations of believers in the holy catholic church, but as we are all founded upon Christ, we have this unifying base that allows each of us to be understood as one in connection with the rest.
Just as we are not professing belief in the Roman Catholic Church, in claiming belief in the communion of saints, we are not referring to the official Saints of the Church. This is not a statement regarding St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, or St. Michael the Archangel. Surely these persons are included in our profession, but our stated belief is not so limited to profess our belief in only those who have passed the test of Sainthood by a hierarchical structure, regardless how sacred it may be. Our profession of faith in the communion of saints is a profession of the great cloud of witnesses who have helped form the holy catholic church, and have helped ensure its faithfulness to God. The saints to whom we profess faith are all the men and women of faith who have surrounded us as individuals, our church as a corporate body, and our general church throughout the world. The saints are those gathered to our left and right today, the spirits of the many who have helped this church exist at it exists today. The saints are those who played a part in your life that led you to be seated where you are today.
With this understanding of the holy catholic church and the communion of saints, what then is our risky acceptance of truth that leads us to action when professing faith in the church and the corporate body of saints? To guide us, we turn to our scripture reading for today.
The gathered body of disciples, just a short time ago, received the gift of the spirit, and it led them to speak in tongues – voicing the good news of God in languages none of them had previously known. Following the gift of receiving the Spirit, the disciples, and the many more who had come to be filled with the Spirit, have been teaching, healing, and baptizing persons wherever they travelled. Last week, we read the story of Peter and John healing the lame man at the gate to the temple. Turning to today’s story, it seems some time has past since our Pentecost experience.
The story of the disciples is no longer about the individual focus of healing experiences; our story today turns to focus on the holy catholic church. We are now talking about a formalized gathering, what you and I might call, the church. The text tells us that, “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” (Acts 4:32) We know from the day of Pentecost that the church had grown by over 3,000 persons following the gift of the Spirit. The church we are talking about is probably not a large gathered corporate body like we have here today. Venues like this facility didn’t exist for the early church. They had no large gathering spaces to meet with so many people. They met in small groups in people’s homes to read scripture and share stories.
The whole group, mentioned by the text, is not some large mega church, but instead is a reference to the holy catholic understanding that united the full body of believers. All who had faith in Christ were of one heart and soul.
The text tells us that this diverse group, united in heart and soul, held all of their possessions in common with one another. No individual claimed private ownership of any possessions.
Having shared all their possessions with the corporate body, the text ensures we understand, that with such a community-based mindset, there was not a needy person among them. When land owners and home owners sold their property, the proceeds were shared with the corporate body. The apostles played the role of the church leaders. Persons with money brought it to the apostles, who then took the responsibility to distribute the funds to all who had need.
We’re even told of this one man, who was given the name Barnabas. He sold a field that belonged to him, brought the money, and laid it at the apostle’s feet to be used by the general body of faith.
There is in this text a great call to sacrificial stewardship. A call to live on no more than one must have for life. There is even perhaps in this text a call to give true socialism a chance. It can be read as an appropriate model of communal living, where we ensure that no person living in our community has need of any kind.
Yet, perhaps this story is not so much a blueprint for today’s society, but should rather be seen as a “glimpse of the dynamic experiences of a community enlivened by God’s Spirit.”[i] As all of our Holy Scriptures should be read and understood in the context of the day they were written, perhaps “these texts say less [to us today] about model church practices and more about the dynamic power of God among believers.”[ii]
Even if we decide not to apply the financial principles and structures of this type of shared wealth, it would do us well to acknowledge the radical nature of this type of system and the roll it played in the early church. Perhaps the call for us isn’t to apply this kind of radical system in our church and society; but then we must ask, what kind of radical change is God trying to bring about in our church and society?
For the past two weeks, our United Methodist brothers and sisters from around the world have been gathered in Portland, Oregon at our quadrennial meeting, the General Conference. With high hopes for structured unity and a shared corporate vision going forward of how we should continue to be faithful as the holy catholic church, the structured nature of the conference seemed to overtake the unity and shared vision for progressing forward. That’s not to say a lot of work wasn’t accomplished. Much work, good work, faithful work, necessary work was accomplished, but I, along with many of our 12 million global members, watched as the rules were challenged, debated, and chastised. And while many left with high hopes for the future, others were left wondering – are we being faithfully united around our common belief in Jesus Christ as Lord, and in our knowledge of our being empowered by the common gift of the Spirit to faithful disciples?
As I reflected on General Conference, which ended just two days ago, I couldn’t help but have this text from Acts 4 on my mind.
In this text, we are assured there was not a needy person among them. No needs were left unfilled. What a beautiful landscape to describe community. A gathering … a catholic body … a communion where no one was left wanting – where no one left the table unfulfilled.
And I couldn’t help but ask myself, why is it that in the world today, even in the church today, there are people who are lacking the fullness promised us in Christ? Why are there people hurting and aching because they have been left with unfulfilled needs?
I found one response that spoke to me deeply this week. Offered by Retired Bishop William Willimon, he makes this remark in reference to our scripture in Acts 4, naming why it is we find it so hard to be communally minded as a church and society today. Why, he answers, do we use lines like, “I worked so hard for this … I deserve this … It’s mine and I won’t share.” He says, “[We say and do many things] to deal with our lack of self-appreciation and insecurity with the temporal nature of life. We want to take matters into our own hands because we don’t trust God.”[iii]
We don’t trust God.
We seek, in so many avenues of our lives, to ensure we have the final say and ultimate power to make decisions in our lives and our communities. In fact, the problem of hanging on to control is so prevalent, that we even seek to have our power and influence continue after we die. We endow our money to grants and require they use our names; we etch our names in medal placards and adhere them to bannisters and pews; we spell out in our wills where every penny of our life’s stockpiling is to be distributed.
The attempt to retain power is not one that is held exclusively in the area of our financial lives. The desire to retain power is one that toxically finds its way into other areas of our lives, often destroying relationships and institutions. We call for unity in thought and action, so long as we have final say around how that unity is displayed. We call for unity in communities and congregations, as long as the unity looks and sounds a lot like us. We call for unity in our theological worldview, but forget to invite to the table those who have a faithful yet varying theological worldview. We yearn to be a united holy catholic church, but in the midst of our yearning for unity, we reserve the right to define God’s will and God’s way for ourselves.
Yet it was the giving up of personal power that defined the radical nature of the early church. They held no personal power. The radical exemplifying of God’s love was demonstrated in their community not simply because none had needs that went unfulfilled – their radical faith in Christ was demonstrated because they entrusted others with the power of their own resources. They sold personal property to ensure others had food, and housing, and clothing.
They understood the call of Christ, when in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)
As people of Christ, we have to do a better job exemplifying resurrection faith. We have to do a better of job of acknowledging that we – and our community – will only ever find true life in Christ when we are willing to give up our lives.
The risky acceptance of truth in claiming our belief in the holy catholic church and the communion of saints is not some simple shout of joy for that which has come before. Claiming we believe in this great witness of God’s love called the church … it means we have to be willing to live the witness. It means we have to give up our personal power to ensure that some who would otherwise have no power are gifted with power. It means we have to be willing to give up our abundance so that others can have substance. It means we have to be willing to give up our preconceived notions of right and wrong so that others can find a place where they can belong and can encounter the Risen Lord.
Friends, the good news is this, Christ has called us together that we may exemplify the love of God by living as resurrection people. Giving our lives for a life that is built upon Christ, that all persons may know and love God. May we, as members of the holy catholic church, and as witnesses in the great communion of saints, continue to ensure that we together are embodying the message of Christ for the world that all glory may be for God. Amen.