Sunday, March 28, 2021

All the Hope We'll Ever Need (Sermon 12 on the Apostles' Creed)

This is the end – the very end of the story. By the time we leave here this morning, we'll have learned all about what's in the Apostles' Creed. And we'll be ready for Easter. We've confessed that we “believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his 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; he descended into hell; on the third day, he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” We also “believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins” – and now we add the final pieces of the story: “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.”

By the time God sent his Son into the world, many Jews had already learned to expect a general resurrection. “In those days, Sheol will return all the deposits which she had received” (1 Enoch 51.1). “The earth will surely give back the dead at that time. It receives them now in order to keep them, not changing anything in their form. But as it has received them, so will it give them back..., so it will raise them” (2 Baruch 50.2). What was it they were expecting to happen? They expected that one day, God would not only stop the process of death, but he'd undo its effects for many or for all. They expected that at an appointed time, God would call an end to this seemingly endless cycle. And on that day, the souls and bodies that had been ripped asunder by the reaper would be restored to each other.

Now, to people of nearly every other country in the world at that time, this idea was not especially appealing or desirable. Many of the surrounding cultures tended to take a dim view of the flesh, the physical dimension of who we are. They tended to see these bodies as prisons that are holding our souls back. And so to these Greek thinkers, the ideal afterlife was one that would finally get over this whole body business, would leave the flesh to rot where it belongs, and would whisk the soul off to heaven. That's what pagans wanted. And frankly, there are plenty of Christians today who have adopted a merely pagan view of the afterlife. These pagans, and their professing Christian followers, would ask, “Wait, so after the soul is free from the flesh, is it really necessary to join it to that flesh again?” And the answer is, “Yes.” Yes, because God does not think our bodies are junk. Yes because this body is not a prison. Yes because God never intended for our flesh to be discarded. If there is no general resurrection, if our souls get to go to heaven and that's where the story ends, then death has won. That's why Paul says that if there is no resurrection coming, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The plan is that the very same body that is laid down in death to be, not replaced, but restored.

Now, when the early Christians went around making a big deal out of this, and spreading this idea deeper into the Greek world, pagans thought it was hilarious. They made great fun of what we think is going to happen. It raised all sorts of questions they'd ask. What about people who die at sea in a shipwreck, and their bodies sink to the bottom – where are they to be raised? What about people who die in war and have their bodies scavenged by vultures, gobbled up – how can those bodies be restored? Or what about people who fall prey to cannibals, so that what used to be particles of their bodies are digested and turned into part of somebody else's body. And what about people who are cremated, turned totally into ash and dust?

The Church wasn't terribly impressed with these supposedly hard questions. She had faith in a God of wisdom unlimited and power unmatched. And because of that faith, the early Christians knew space and time are no boundaries to this God. They knew that whatever particles are needed for a body to count as the same body, God can preserve them from becoming essential parts of any other body. They knew that God can find even the tiniest atom, no matter how far it's gone, and put it back where it belongs. They were convinced that if God can create a universe out of nothing, he can easily create a human body out of ash and dust, or out of bone and dirt. So the Church stuck with her story, unintimidated by the world's mockery.

So what is it we expect? With Martha from the Gospel, we're awaiting “the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). That's the time Jesus comes back to judge the earth. A few weeks ago, when we looked at what the Bible tells us about the Last Judgment, and what's going to happen in the end, we glossed over this part, to save it for now. But in order to face the Last Judgment, the dead must be raised. And that makes sense, because so many of the sins we commit in this life, our body has its share of responsibility for. So many early Christians reasoned that it could only be fair for that same body to rejoin the same soul in order to face the music.

So when Jesus comes to judge those still living as well as all those who by then are dead, Jesus will command every soul to reunite with its corresponding body. Daniel wrote, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Daniel 12:2). Jesus declared, “An hour is coming... when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” (John 5:28-29). And that means flesh and bone restored to soul and life.

Outside this building, behind you, there's a cemetery. You know that, you've been there. Some of you have set loved ones to rest there. Some of you expect, after you feel that final heartbeat, to have your flesh lowered into a hole there and covered up. That is a cemetery. And 'cemetery' is a Christian word. It's Greek for “sleeping place.” Beneath the surface of the earth, seeds are sown in God's field. Beneath the earth, those people whose mortal names are inscribed on stone markers are sleeping. Those whose bones there sleep are waiting for their alarm to go off – the alarm called the last trumpet. And when Jesus approaches, the last trumpet will sound. On that day, that plot of land out there will no longer be a cemetery. It will not be a sleeping place. It will be a waking place. And by the time the Last Day is finished, not even one of those graves will keep hold of the contents we've trusted to it. Not one of our bodies, not any of our flesh, will be abandoned to stay there longer.

It's important that we really do believe this. It's important, first of all, because it lets us know what's actually going to happen. It promises us that physical death is not permanent, and perhaps not so scary as we worry. In putting that second date on that stone, we are not finishing the story of either the person or even the body. We are not telling everything. To believe this is to reassure us, in the hour of our grief, that the parental flesh that nursed and cared for us is important to God. The spousal flesh we caressed is important to God. It is just not enough, in God's eyes, to snatch a soul to heaven – or another destination. Because that flesh is not junk. And because we believe in the resurrection, Paul says, “do not go on sinning” (1 Corinthians 15:34). To know that our bodies will come into judgment is to have an antidote to temptation.

The resurrection we're expecting includes the good. Jesus repeatedly says of believers, “I will raise [them] up on the last day” (John 6:40). Daniel said that some will awaken “to everlasting life” (Daniel 12:2). Jesus said that “those who have done good shall come forth unto the resurrection of life” (John 5:29). Paul tells us that “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14). “God also will give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11). And that absolutely makes sense.

But we also expect that everyone, not just believers, not just those who lived well, will be raised. Daniel warns us that some of those now asleep in the dust will awaken “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Jesus himself says that “those who have done evil shall come forth unto the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29). Paul insists that “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15). So we know that Paul will be raised from the dead, but we also know that Hitler will be raised from the dead – not to life, not to blessing, but to shame and judgment and contempt. The goals are very different.

So when that day comes, what will our bodies be like? An acorn is put in the ground, and when it resurfaces, it becomes an oak tree that looks very little like an acorn. We sow a seed in the ground, just a kernel, but then God gives that seed “a body as he has chosen, and to each seed its own kind of body” (1 Corinthians 15:37-38). And that can be very different, as different as carp and carpenters, as different as we are from the stars that twinkle in the night (1 Corinthians 15:39-41). “So is it with the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:42). What we will be has not yet been revealed to us except in broad outline, and we can hardly imagine it, any more than someone who's only ever seen acorns can picture an oak tree. But we know that not all outcomes will be alike. They will be widely different, since some will be raised to glory and others will be raised to shame.

We don't tend to think too hard about the resurrection bodies that are cursed, not glorified. We know they'll be subject to suffering, weighed down, and dull. Burning from unending shame, with God's gifts withdrawn, both soul and body will be like a house that's lost its structural integrity, forever collapsing in on itself. It's enough for us to know we don't want that tragedy to cap off our story. The better question we ask is, what will a glorified resurrection body be like? The soul will never be cut off from the body, so a glorified resurrection body will be immortal. “For they cannot die any more,” Jesus explained, “because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). We also know that a glorified resurrection body will be incorruptible and imperishable – Paul says so. We will be “raised... from the dead, no more to return to corruption” (Acts 13:34). “What is raised is imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42). A glorified brain is immune to dementia. A glorified cell can't become cancerous. A glorified body cannot decay, cannot weaken with age, cannot spoil. “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that's written: Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

We know that a glorified resurrection body will be impassible, immune to suffering. Sufferings are meant only for “this present time” (Romans 8:18). For the glorified, sorrow will no longer be possible (Revelation 21:4). So a glorified bone cannot be broken. A glorified nerve ending cannot register pain. A glorified psyche cannot be burdened with anxiety or depression. A glorified body cannot be infected. We know also that a glorified resurrection body will be powerful. Paul says that it will be “raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43). What that will be like, it's hard to picture, but I'll always be fond of the medieval poet who felt that it will be “stronger than the universe..., strong enough, even without effort, to overturn the world.”

We can suppose, too, that a glorified resurrection body will not be as limited by the conventional boundaries of space and distance as our bodies are now. “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble” (Wisdom 3:7). When we read about the appearances of the risen Jesus, it doesn't seem like it took him very long to get from place to place. He appeared pretty suddenly and abruptly. We have fair reason to expect glorified resurrection bodies work like that. Just the same, we can suppose that a glorified resurrection body won't be as limited by the conventional boundaries of matter. The risen Jesus couldn't be kept out of a room by a locked door. Glorified resurrection bodies work like that. And finally, we're told that those raised to glory “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). These bodies will be brightly adapted for the light. Because they'll be adapted for life in the kingdom, life in a new creation.

Behold,” God promises, “I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The entire created world right now is groaning to be “set free” by sharing “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The sky over our heads is chained down in corruption. The earth is burdened by pollution and damage and sin. And this universe, this heaven and earth that now exist, are sick of it. This entire universe wants to ride our coattails into resurrection – and it will. John got a glimpse ahead at “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). The heavens above and the earth beneath will be raised to new life, marvelous in beauty. Earth and heaven will be one seamless reality, each totally open to the other. There will be a risen world of risen forests and risen fields, risen hills and risen valleys, risen atmosphere and risen oceans. What's the smell of a new-creation rose? What's the feel underfoot of new-creation grass? I don't know. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). The new creation is our promised land. We've scarcely had a peek inside.

Those resurrected to glory, those with bodies and souls functioning perfectly through the power of God's Spirit, will live there. “In the resurrection, they... are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). Jesus often talked about “eternal life” (e.g., Matthew 25:46), the kind of life experienced and enjoyed in “the age to come,” the age of the resurrection (Mark 10:30). “To those who, by patience in well-doing, seek glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). And when Jesus gives us eternal life, we “will never perish” (John 10:28). This isn't just wishful thinking. It's firm fact. “God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). “This is the promise that he made to us: eternal life” (1 John 2:25).

Eternal life is a life that cannot end. It's forever. If God gives you this gift, there will come a day when, asked your age, you'll think back to your five billionth birthday. Now, maybe that's pretty difficult to imagine – especially because in our present experience, living is sometimes exhausting, draining, burdensome, and all the more if we're under physical, emotional, or mental pain or strain. But all those will someday be gone for those in Jesus. Living eternal life won't be exhausting. Living eternal life won't bring any burden. You'll be healthier and stronger at age five billion than you've ever been before – and that goes for body, mind, heart, and soul.

Eternal life is the kind of life that can only really be lived in a new creation. It isn't just eternal in its quantity; it's eternal in its quality. It's a sort of life that our soul is already starting to encounter in Jesus, as “our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). And when Jesus receives our soul into heaven, then our soul will be enjoying eternal life. But when we at last receive our full inheritance of the new creation, our body and soul will have eternal life as one. And we “will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).

But eternal life means more than we can dream. Long ago, the psalmist prayed, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Psalm 17:15). Jesus explained that “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). When we enter glory, we will “know fully, even as [we have] been fully known,” and we “will... see face-to-face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We have the promise that “we will see his face,” God's face (Revelation 22:4), completely “beholding the glory of the Lord with unveiled face” (2 Corinthians 3:18). “We shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The special term for that is the “beatific,” or blessed, “vision.” And that's what we need most.

When we have the beatific vision, we will finally have the happiness we've always craved, the happiness we were made for: God's own happiness in himself will be ours. When we have the beatific vision, we will finally be seizing the goal – not only with our souls (because souls in heaven have the beatific vision), but with soul and body together, our whole self meeting God's whole self. Body and soul alike will drink the Spirit in, alike will embrace the Son, alike will enjoy the Father – no shield or separation, no barrier or buffer.

And the beatific vision, which will be our enjoyment for the endless billions and trillions of years ahead, can, by definition, never get boring! Never again can our heart become restless, once it comes to rest in this vision. And why not? Because God cannot bore us. We might think so sometimes now, because we aren't face-to-face. But every moment of eternity will be fresh and exciting. There is more infinite diversity and richness in our inventive God than in the entire totality of creation past, present, and future. Every book ever written, every movie ever filmed, every artwork ever painted, every song ever sung, ever meal ever tasted, every scene ever seen, every trail ever hiked – you could experience all of them, and you would not have found half as much delight or half as much fascination as even a minute of the beatific vision. Every moment of the beatific vision will be a greater education than all that's ever been taught. Every moment of the beatific vision will be greater enjoyment than all that's ever been experienced. Every moment of the beatific vision will be a grander adventure than every life ever lived. In the beatific vision, each moment will bear “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). We will be fully satisfied and fully delighted in God, and so all the desires of our heart will be fulfilled (Psalm 37:15). 'Breath-taking' doesn't begin to express it.

And in the resurrection, in the new creation, in the glory, we will have the beatific vision wherever we turn and whatever we do. All creation will be transparent to God, because his splendor will saturate and fill and shine through every tiniest speck of matter, every square millimeter of space, every split-second of time – all will be drenched in God, submerged in God, a universe eternally baptized in the heart of God. In seeing God as he is, in seeing him fully, we will see all things in God. In seeing God and all things in God, we will know him as we are known and will know all things as they are in him. Knowing, we will rejoice with the joy that is God's own joy, and we will love God, and love a lovable world in God, with the love that is God himself. That is what is waiting for us. That is what we were made for. That is eternal life.

And that's why the gospel is such high stakes. Those who “thrust it aside,” we read, are “judging themselves unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46). To refuse the gospel, to ignore Jesus, to let his gifts slip away, is to turn this down, to turn life down, eternal life down. But those who believe the gospel, those who keep obeying it and clinging to it – these are they who are “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). As God's grace in the gospel reigns in our life, it creates righteousness that “leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21). And now that we begin to appreciate what eternal life actually is, how could that not be worth everything? How can we get distracted from that? If you knew a billion dollars were showing up in your bank account tomorrow, how could you put that out of mind today? But eternal life, with the beatific vision, is vastly more than a billion dollars. How can we put it out of mind during our todays?

Through the Apostles' Creed, we haven't just been naming ideas in our heads. We've been pledging our loyalty. We've been calling out our commitments. We've been reveling in those realities so astonishing and beautiful and magnificent that we hang our trust on them. We hang our trust on the God of love and on his act of creating and sustaining the world. We hang our trust on Jesus and his whole story, from eternity past to the virgin birth to his suffering and death and descent and resurrection and ascension. We hang our trust on him as enthroned king and coming judge and savior. We hang our trust on the Holy Spirit who saves and sanctifies, and on the words of light and life he's inspired. We hang our trust even on the Church as his temple and our mother and teacher. We hang our trust on God's offer of forgiveness, knowing we can be absolved and healed of every ill. We hang our trust and our hope on God's promise to raise the dead, and to give eternal life, to finally share with us the purpose we were made for – if, that is, we become capable of receiving it by persevering in faith, in hope, in love. These things we say – these are what we live for, these are what keeps us going. Every week together, we're going to recite these ancient words. But we recite them with feeling, we recite them as an act of faith, we recite them to remind ourselves and each other of the story that defines us, the powers that swarm around us, the grace that overshadows us, the joy that awaits us. We recite these words as a confession of love for the God who makes all things new. And as these words sink into our flesh and our bones, our spirit and our soul, may they surface again and again in times of trial, setting our face toward the fulfillment. Therefore, go forth in joy and “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” in Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 6:12)! Amen!

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Cleaning the Slate (Sermon 11 on the Apostles' Creed)

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his 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. He descended into hell; on the third day, he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints...” And now we're ready to say something else. The next thing we add is a statement that we believe in “the forgiveness of sins.”

Before we're ready to talk about “the forgiveness of sins,” we have to talk about “sins.” Sin is a reality we all live with, sadly enough. The first time the word is used in the Bible, it's God talking to Cain, telling him to be on his guard because “if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door: its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Alas, he doesn't! How did Sin, that dark power, get to Cain's door to crouch there? Paul tells us that “sin came into the world through one man,” and that was Cain's father Adam (Romans 5:12). And ever since, it has stained us from our very origins. David confessed in his famous psalm of repentance, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Sin, that dark power, leads us to commit sins and to be sinners. And “all wrongdoing is sin,” John teaches us (1 John 5:17). Wrongdoing on purpose, wrongdoing by negligence, wrongdoing we're oblivious to – those are sins. They miss the mark of the reason why God made us – it wasn't to do wrong, it was to do right; it wasn't to be chained to the darkness, it was to leap in meadows with the Lord. But sin makes us guilty, burdens us with added obligations to set things right; and sin stains us morally, makes us unclean and redefines us. Nor is sin just for some people – we do not find the nearest sin by pointing out the window into the world. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That's a problem, since “sin reigned in death” (Romans 5:21), and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). And “whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8).

When God formed his people, he gave them his Law, and “through the Law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). But the Law also can be abused by that dark power Sin: “When the commandment came, sin came alive and I died,” is a line Adam might have said or Israel might have said (Romans 7:9). And Israel proved it by making that golden calf. Moses told them they'd all “sinned a great sin” – but in the same breath, we have Moses planning to approach the LORD in hopes that he can “make atonement for your sin,” so that it can be forgiven and covered over (Exodus 32:30). When it comes to the guilt and stain that sin causes in our lives, that's what we need: we need forgiveness. We need the guilt to be removed by undoing the harm, and the stain to be washed away so that our slate is clean.

Throughout the books of the Law, God lays out plenty of instructions for how to be forgiven for the sins they commit. Now, someone who sins with total awareness of what sin is and that what they're doing is sin – that's called sinning “with a high hand.” It's a form of blasphemy, “reviling the LORD and “despising the word of the LORD,” and the Law actually says nothing about forgiveness in connection with that. It only mandates that “that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him” (Numbers 15:30-31). But clearly, a lot of the everyday sins that people commit aren't included in that basket, or that's all that would be said on the subject. When it comes to unintentional offenses against God's holiness, there's a provision for forgiveness. First of all, the person obviously has to realize what he's done. Then, the person has to “make restitution.” Not only that, the person has to “add a fifth to it,” a 20% extra charge over whatever holy thing he messed up (Leviticus 5:16) – and beyond that, the person has to bring “compensation” to God “for a guilt offering” (Leviticus 5:15). Then “the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and he shall be forgiven” (Leviticus 5:16). We get the same story for regular property crimes against your neighbor. First, the person has “realized his guilt.” Then, the person must “restore what he took” (Leviticus 6:4). Not only must he “restore it in full,” but he must “add a fifth to it” to make satisfaction (Leviticus 6:5). Then the person has to bring “compensation to the LORD... for a guilt offering” (Leviticus 6:6). “And the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things one may do and thereby become guilty” (Leviticus 6:7). Remember Zacchaeus, the tax collector who said to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Half my goods I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).

There's a well-known philosopher at Oxford, and a few decades back, he wrote a very incisive book on the nature of responsibility and forgiveness.1 It's a very detailed study, and in it, he suggests that there are four basic parts to making up for something you've done wrong against someone else. The first step is that the wrongdoer has to have an honest realization of guilt. The second step after that is that the wrongdoer has to express this sense of guilt or shame in an apology, which is an outward declaration of repentance, a resolve to do differently, a distancing of the self from the harmful action. The third step is that the wrongdoer must make reparation, or give a compensation, so as to undo the harmful action to the greatest extent they can – that step is atonement. Finally, the wrongdoer can do penance – some added costly expression of sincerity.

So, for an example: let's say I forget my anniversary. My wife is mad, and justly so. What do I do? First has to come my honest and inward realization of guilt – the thought, “Oh no, our anniversary is past, and I didn't do anything for it. I messed up, and that was bad! I'm guilty!” Second, I absolutely have to go to her with an apology: “Dear, I'm so sorry for forgetting our anniversary!” Third, I should make reparation to undo the harm caused to her, emotionally and socially, from my fault: “Hey, I've made us reservations at your favorite eatery so we can have a belated anniversary date – the night's all yours.” And fourth, ideally I should bring forth some act of penance: “Oh, this bouquet of flowers I've been holding behind my back? Yes, they're for you.” And that sets the stage (hopefully!) for her to forgive me, as she sees I've done all I really and reasonably can to get right.

And not only do these four steps – realization, apology, atonement, and penance – map pretty well onto our real lives today, but they also map very well onto what Leviticus is saying: Inward realization of guilt leads to a public approach to both the victim and the priest, bringing the victim restitution of the harmed good and the priest a sacrifice for atonement; and then the added fifth is given as an act of penance.

In society today, though, we find a culture caught between two mistaken lines of thinking, and that's one reason why we run into so much conflict. On the one hand, there's a strain in our culture that believes in cheap pardon – at least whenever it's convenient to. Sometimes, in today's America, we think that apology is the only element necessary, no matter the offense. Honest realization of guilt only sometimes matters, we say. Acts of reparation or atonement or restitution aren't thought necessary. Penance is definitely out of the question. And this strain can be summed up in the phrase, “I said I was sorry, what more could you want?” Any suggestion that there ought to be more is caricatured as 'whining' or as 'political correctness.' We don't take wrongdoing seriously.

On the other hand, there's a strain in our culture that believes that in many cases, there can be no pardon. Part of this is the growing redefinition of offenses – our culture has invented its own canon of sins, so that things that just six years ago would have been considered normal interactions are now cast as irreparably stained, and that stain is seen as attaching not just to what people do but to derive from who they are – the wrong race, the wrong sex, the wrong class, the wrong party. When it comes to these offenses – some invented, some authentic – this strain in our culture often no longer distinguishes between intentional and unintentional offenses. Nor does it retain an awareness that both the offender and the victim are persons, sinners in need of grace. Often, in fact, this strain in our culture deems more and more offenses as unforgivable, deserving only the cancellation of the whole self – in other words, to be “utterly cut off,” executed socially if not physically.

In our Creed, when we say we believe in “the forgiveness of sins,” we're holding back from both strains. We're saying that we believe there are real sins, which need to be taken seriously, and that the guilt and stain that they produce in us has to be dealt with. But we're also saying that they can be dealt with – that forgiveness is a live possibility for anyone and everyone. We do not believe anyone needs to be utterly cut off. But nor do we say that a cheap and easy 'sorry' covers over all wrongs. We know, in the words of Hebrews, that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins,” at least not in the sight of God (Hebrews 9:2). And yet we also know, in the words of the same author, that “it's impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Back in the Old Testament, all those guilt offerings and sin offerings – they were sort of like IOUs, placeholders that drew any power they had to cover over sins from the strength of a greater sacrifice then yet future that would not only cover over but take away. And we've talked about that already: how the sacrifice for Jesus is the once-for-all atonement, and how no new sacrifices (in that sense) have to be made. All we need is to take that sacrifice and apply it to our situation, as the atonement for our sins. Jesus saves!

But how do we do that? How do people go from dirty to clean? Well, a good bath should do the trick – if it's the right one. Where we believe in “the forgiveness of sins” in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed is more particular in saying that “we confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Is that biblical? You bet! Even John the Baptist, dunking people in the river, was administering “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3), and that was accompanied by confession of sin (Mark 1:5). Jesus himself tells Nicodemus that the only way to get free is to be “born of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:5). What Jesus is saying there – that has always been understood as a reference to baptism. Baptism is where we are born again. And so Peter preached, in the original Pentecost sermon: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), and only when the people listening to him were “baptized” were they then “added” to Christ (Acts 2:41). Later, confronted with signs that God was willing to accept non-Jews who heard this message with faith, Peter exclaims, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?” (Acts 10:47). And in his famous letter, the Apostle Peter explains that baptism is no tame affair. It's a safe passage through lethal judgment. He compares it to the Flood that drowned the world! He says that baptism is like reliving the story of Noah and his family, whom the ark gave safe passage through the flood. In baptism, we accept the Flood, our old selves drown and die, but something new is born and, in the Ark of Salvation, rides through and thrives. “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).

And the Apostle Paul is in total agreement. When he encountered Jesus and repented of his former persecution of the Church, one of the first messages he heard was, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Learning from that experience, Paul says that we are each “baptized into Christ Jesus” so as to “no longer be enslaved to sin,” because baptism is the death of who we used to be and the birth of somebody new (Romans 6:3-7). You were “buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Paul says that Jesus cleansed his Church “by the washing of water” as the word of the gospel was pronounced over her – and that's baptism (Ephesians 5:26). It was at baptism, as Paul knew it, that a person would “confess with [his or her] mouth that Jesus is Lord” and so “be saved” (Romans 10:9). That baptism marked the break with sin, when “you were washed... in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Baptism, according to Paul, is “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” through which God “saved us... according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:15).

In other words, when we're baptized, we repent of our sins and make a decisive break with them, and this holy bath absolves the guilt of sin by uniting us with the death of Jesus on the cross (which is perfect atonement), and it washes away the stain of sin like a purging flood, and it allows us to be born again into a new identity that's no longer tied to the old one – and the death of the old self is penance enough. This is the entryway into the Body of Christ, into the Church: “In one Spirit, we were all baptized into one Body” (1 Corinthians 12:11). So there really isn't such a thing as an unbaptized Christian – just a person who, hopefully, wants to become a Christian. And a person can only ever be born again once, baptized once, and never again. There is, Paul says firmly, “one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Whether it happens in infancy or the prime of life or old age, it never can be repeated. And in baptism, the full power of Jesus is at work: sins are totally forgiven. What a relief!

And that, by all rights, should be the end of sin in our lives. Paul says that a baptized person is “set free from sin” (Romans 6:7), is “dead to sin” (Romans 6:11), that “sin will have no dominion over” someone who has been baptized (Romans 6:14). John says that “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” (1 John 5:18). “No one who abides in [Jesus] keeps on sinning” (1 John 3:6).

But the reality of our lives is a messy place. How many of us can say that we've lived sinlessly since we were baptized? The Bible is aware that baptized people do sometimes sin, as befuddling as it is (“How can we who died to sin still live in it?” [Romans 6:2]), else Paul wouldn't have to tell baptized people not to “present your parts to sin as instruments for unrighteousness” (Romans 6:13). And the Bible is clear that serious post-baptism sins should not be winked at or tolerated, as if they were covered in advance by baptism, as if they were already paid for. “The righteous shall not be able to live by it when he sins” (Ezekiel 33:12). Paul is actually deeply upset when he finds some of his churches tolerating certain sins in their midst. “Let the one who has done this” – and he's talking about somebody baptized, somebody who had been born again – “be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2), “deliver[ed] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5).

By the third and fourth centuries, the Church had to seriously wrestle with how, exactly, to deal with serious sins people committed after baptism, especially sins like betraying your fellow believers during persecution, or lapsing into idolatry. Some people thought that serious sins after baptism were all unforgivable: no chance for repentance, it was just a one-way ticket to hell. Other people thought that serious sins after baptism were unforgivable on earth: you were cut off from the Church, but if you repented and spent you entire life doing penance, then God might pardon you after death and say you'd done enough. Still other people thought that serious sins after baptism could be forgiven, but only once in a lifetime – there was a second chance, but not a third. All three of those prospects terrify me! But there were also people who believed that serious sins after baptism could be forgiven, if you were serious about making amends, by the authority of the Church – and, thank God, the Church settled on that idea, not one of the others! Yet I've found no early Christians who agreed with popular modern ideas where sin after baptism is no big deal, or that Christians never need to repent since it's paid in advance, or that cheap grace can make up for sin easily and, well, cheaply on our part.

So what if we sin? We have to run back to Jesus! “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2:1). But what do we run to him with? We run to him, first, with our grief over our sin. Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians, when he's reflecting on an earlier situation in the church at Corinth where a baptized believer had done some serious sin – probably slander against Paul – and the church had said nothing, so they all shared the offender's guilt, and Paul had to confront them with a painful letter (2 Corinthians 7:8). But when he called the Corinthian church's attention to that sin, that guilt and shame and stain – well, they felt a “godly grief,” or sorrow according to God (2 Corinthians 7:9). They felt real contrition, just like when David declared, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). And that's the first step. We begin by running to Jesus with our godly grief, our contrite and sin-broken hearts.

Paul observes that this “godly grief” produced “fear” – fear not of him, but fear of sin, because they knew that the consequences of sinning were real and serious for them (2 Corinthians 7:11). Paul also says that this godly grief “grieved” them “into repenting” (2 Corinthians 7:9), “for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). And that was necessary. Paul worried that baptized believers had “sinned earlier” and yet “have not repented” of what they had “practiced” (2 Corinthians 12:21). We are not really grieving our sins if we have no determination or desire to stop, no resolve to be done with sin! If we understand what Jesus has given us, love for him will teach us to despise sin, to want desperately to never sin again – and so godly grief will cut to the quick and will spur repentance.

This godly grief and repentance leads, Paul says, into an “eagerness to clear ourselves” (2 Corinthians 7:11). And that means confession – it means apology. The Bible is full of commands for God's people to confess their sins: “When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed” (Numbers 5:6-7). “I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin” (Psalm 38:18). And “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9). But ideally, this confession isn't alone; it's in and to the Church. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:6). So that isn't merely the way we talk to God on our own. We need help from the Church.

So remember that Jesus gave his apostles, foundation of the Church, the authority to extend or withhold their forgiveness for sins – Jesus delegated that to them and promises to honor it: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). So it's understandable if those who later stood in the apostles' shoes in the churches were the ones who prayed powerfully as believers would confess to them, because they could actually say, “Your sins are forgiven!” and trust that the debt and chains they'd loosed on earth were indeed loosed in heaven.

So that takes us through realization, apology, and of course there is no atonement for sin but Christ's. But there is that last point: acts of penance, or punishment. The author of Hebrews similarly says that, precisely because through baptism we've become God's children, God will treat us like his own kids: He “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness,” and while this discipline is painful, it trains us for righteousness and yields “peaceful fruit” (Hebrews 12:10-11). And Paul mentions that to the Corinthians: “This godly grief has produced in you... punishment!” (2 Corinthians 7:11). Literally, the word he picks is 'avenging' – they avenged the sin on themselves to “punish every disobedience” (2 Corinthians 10:6). It's just like Paul himself says: “I pummel my body and keep it under control, lest... I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). And because of passages like these, the Church in those early centuries developed ways to guide believers through restoration from sin by suggesting appropriate acts of penance, through which God might train us and build us back up taller – often in the form of abstaining from certain privileges and taking up extra giving, extra fasting, and extra praying. God invites us to penance, to this extra cost, out of love: because he wants to share his holiness with us – he loves us too much to not want to train us better! And every act of penance we can do, it's only the Spirit of God helping us, strengthening us, gracing us, so that we can gain more distance from sin which we hate. This sort of well-rounded repentance, Paul says, will “lead to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Alongside all this, we regularly – as the Church – pray the Lord's Prayer, which we'll explore in detail later this year. Part of the Lord's Prayer is a request for God to forgive our sins – it's a sort of catch-all, which we each mentally are filling in with things we've done. And all the sins that plague our daily living, this prayer catches them up, realizing our guilt and implicitly apologizing to God. And God is faithful to hear that prayer. Then, we cap it off when we come to the altar, where Jesus pours out his death and his life onto us. We usually call it 'Communion,' but historically the Church has called it 'Eucharist' – that's Greek for 'Thanksgiving.' Jesus says that his body is broken and his blood is poured out “for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). If we've taken our sins seriously, and we then humbly approach this altar and eat from it, then we enter the death and life of Jesus all over again. The New Covenant is renewed to us, sin is obliterated in us, and forgiveness is fresh for us. We taste that God really is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And that right there is the bottom line!

See, we sin – we sin plenty. We sinned a lot when we were outside of Christ, and sadly, we often fool ourselves into thinking sin is no big deal now that we have Jesus to fall back on. That's wrong. Sin was and is a big deal – a big raw deal. But not only is God ready to forgive sin, he's ready to forgive all sin, every sin, as often as it takes! And he's willing to give us everything we need to be healed! We need to realize our guilt and stain – so he sends his Holy Spirit to awaken us with conviction; and as we pray for eyes to see and examine ourselves, that sin comes to light. We need to confess and apologize – so he inspired psalms and prayers that guide us in knowing what to say and how to say it, and he gave us a church to listen and hear and pray. We need to atone, to make restitution to God for what we've done; and we could never do that, so he sent his son Jesus to sacrifice his own life as an atonement. Nothing else could suffice, and nothing else ever needs to try! And we receive that atonement, we apply that atonement, when we enter Christ's death in baptism, and we run back to it as we pray and cry out, and as we eat his death from the altar. And then, for our own benefit, God invites us to penance, to added costly gestures that train us to receive holiness, all of which derive their power from God's grace at work in us and not from our own hands. For all we've done before baptism, our penance is the death of the self who did it; and for all we sin after baptism, Christ and his Church guide us through and walk with us on the journey. No matter what we've done, God promises it can be handled and healed! No matter what stains we gain, he's faithful to cleanse them; no matter what guilt we take on, he's faithful to forgive it. For God is the God of forgiveness and help. Thanks be to God for the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus' name! Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Church with All the Marks (Sermon 10 on the Apostles' Creed)

In our journey through the Apostles' Creed, having pledged our faith to the Holy Spirit, it's time to take another big step. We say also here that we believe in “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” So what are we saying? There's a lot here, and we can only scratch the surface, so let's dive right in. To get an appreciation for what we're saying here, we need, like usual, to go back to the Old Testament – and, to be specific, the Greek Old Testament. Because the Greek Old Testament actually uses the New Testament word we translate as 'church' – ekklesia a bunch of times.

After the exodus, the Old Testament 'church' comes into being. When Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, it happens “on the day of the ekklesia,” the assembly or 'church' (Deuteronomy 9:10 LXX). Later, in Deuteronomy 23, this ekklesia is the worshipping assembly of Israel, and it has to be kept pure, so people with certain pagan roots or with backgrounds in certain pagan practices are banned from being “in the ekklesia of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1-3, 8 LXX). In Judges, “all the people of Israel came out” to Mizpah to approach God to seek his will for dealing with a crisis, and that gathering is called “the ekklesia of the people of God” (Judges 20:2 LXX), and a death sentence was passed for those who refused to come to the ekklesia (Judges 21:5 LXX). When David becomes king, he arranged to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Zion, so he summoned the ekklesia, which approved his plan and grew until it encompassed all Israel (1 Chronicles 13:1-5 LXX); and after a false start, when the transfer resumed, David assembled (exekklesiasen) Israel at Jerusalem, and there was music and rejoicing and worship through sacrifice (1 Chronicles 15:3,14-28), followed by a blessing from the king and a feast in God's presence (1 Chronicles 16:1-3).

King David gathers all the officials, tribal leaders, and military to Jerusalem so as to commission Solomon in the sight of “all the ekklesia of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:8 LXX), and that ekklesia then offers building material for the temple and thousands of sacrifices (1 Chronicles 29:7-9, 21-22). When the temple was finished and it was time to dedicate it, the Israelites summoned by King Solomon were described as “a very great ekklesia when they sacrificed and feasted together (2 Chronicles 7:8 LXX). King Jehoshaphat called the people to the temple to fast, pray, seek the Lord during a national crisis, and all Judah from men and women to children and babies stood before the Lord “in the ekklesia (2 Chronicles 20:14). Years later, the high priest Jehoiada called all the Levites and clan leaders together as “all the ekklesia of Judah” to revitalize worship and crown Joash as king (2 Chronicles 23:3 LXX). Still later, King Hezekiah summoned the priests, Levites, and officials to sacrifice, and they are called the ekklesia (2 Chronicles 29:23 LXX). After the exile and return, Governor Nehemiah gathers the Jewish community in a “great ekklesia (Nehemiah 5:7 LXX), and when he spoke to them with authority, “all the ekklesia said amen and praised the Lord” (Nehemiah 5:13 LXX).

So what's an ekklesia, in the Greek Old Testament? Most of the time, it's a centralized worshipful gathering that represents the entire holy nation of Israel, with purity requirements for admission. It's called together by a figure of authority into God's presence. Sometimes it hears the word of God. Frequently, it prays. Quite often, it involves sacrifice, which is then eaten together in a sacred feast. And it undertakes official business pertinent to the operation of God's holy nation, not through democratic means, but through willing submission to the godly declarations of legitimate authority. That's when the ekklesia meets, in the Greek Old Testament.

So all of that is in the background when we open up the Gospel of Matthew to what we call its sixteenth chapter. Jesus has been asking his closest disciples who they say that he is. And Simon son of Jonah, the leader of the disciples, speaks on their behalf and gives a perfect answer, which Jesus said was revealed to Simon by God the Father. And then Jesus confers on Simon a new name – Kepha in Aramaic, which means 'Rock,' and in Greek the equivalent name is Petros, Peter – and so after naming Simon 'Rock,' Jesus says to him, “on this rock, I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it: I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, and whatever you might bind on the earth will be bound in the heavens, and whatever you might loose on the earth will be loosed in the heavens” (Matthew 16:19). Jesus is announcing his plans to restart the true ekklesia of a New Israel – and that is the word we translate as 'church.' And the gates of death can never overcome Jesus' messianic ekklesia, once he establishes it on the rock.

Later, he does exactly that. It becomes “the ekklesia of God which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). This assembly, this institution, is originally in Jerusalem (Acts 5:11), but by the ninth chapter of Acts, there's a single ekklesia spread “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria” which is being “built up” in peace (Acts 9:31). Eventually, this one ekklesia spreads into the Hellenistic world, and we begin to hear about ekklesiai, 'churches,' because ekklesia was also the word used in Greek cities for a political assembly of all the town's citizens. So most often in the New Testament, Paul and others talk about 'churches' in various local places, but those are all only manifestations of a single deeper reality, the Church that Jesus founded – his ekklesia – which Paul calls “the church of the living God, pillar and base of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

But we confess it as “the holy church.” And the New Testament gives us three crucial pictures of the Church to get us there. First, this new ekklesia is spoken of in terms of a body – the social body of the Messiah, an extension of his very own physicality. On multiple occasions, Paul presents the Messiah as a Head, the supreme body part; but a Head requires a whole Body, and that is the Church. So in Colossians 1:18, Paul describes Jesus Christ as “the Head of the Body, the Church.” And in Ephesians 5:23, Paul again says, “Christ is the Head of the Church, he himself Savior of the Body.” It is precisely as the Body of Christ that Jesus, the Head, saves. this great balance of unity and diversity. I mean, listen to what Paul says in Romans 12: “Just as in one body we have many parts, and the parts don't all have the same function, so we, though many, are one Body in Christ, and individually parts of each other. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:4-6). And read 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 for yourselves – it's the same, but deeper still!

This tells us a few things about the Church. The Church is a visible reality, one we can see and touch and meet. This one institution, the Body of Christ, has existed on earth ever since he sent his Spirit. And because we are Body parts, we protect the parts that are most vulnerable. We regard as indispensable the most fragile among our number. And it's precisely because what hurts one of us hurts the Body as a whole, like a stubbed toe, and we all instinctively should feel it – or something's wrong. On the other hand, when one of us is honored, we all have reason to celebrate it and bask in the delight of it, because we are that same Body. There's no room for competition among parts of a human body, so neither is there room for a competitive mindset between Christians in the local congregation or between local congregations in the Church. There's no room for scorn among parts of a human body, so neither is there room for scorn within or between congregations in the Church. And neither is there room for either undue conformity or undue deviation in the Body. If there's undue conformity, then the Body isn't a viable organism after all. A human body that's a head stuck on a billion legs is not a human body, and it won't last. On the other hand, undue deviation – as when a part develops with divergent DNA that doesn't match the rest of the individual – well, that's mutation, that's chimerism, and it can get pretty dangerous and result in an unviable organism as well. We are called to balance and respect and welcome one another, precisely because of this powerful image of the Body of Christ.

And as parts in a larger body, we have to accept that none of us is primary. There is no 'I' in 'Church.' There is no 'ego' in 'ekklesia.' The Body does not exist for the sake of its parts. It is arranged to nourish the parts for their given functions, and to be responsive to the parts' pains, but not to make any given part the be-all and end-all of its being. A body does not just operate for the maximal enjoyment of the liver. A body's purpose is not to sustain the foot in permanent bliss. Rather, each and every part has something to contribute. The Body of Christ is not meant to be filled with just vestigial organs – things that used to serve a purpose at some past point in body history, but are obsolete now, retired from their former functions. Each part has a gift given by the Spirit and is meant to use that gift, not to please itself, but to aid in the coordinated purposes of the whole Body.

Moreover, as the Body of Christ, it isn't our job to second-guess Jesus. Jesus is the Head, and that's where the brain is. The body parts are supposed to be responsive to the head. When body parts aren't responsive to the head, that's sometimes paralysis and sometimes a seizure. If we don't take our Head's orders – if we receive his message but accept it as mere information to register and not as a command to action – then that's paralysis. If we begin moving on our own in ways that the Head isn't commanding, and so develop our own strategies of movement without reference to the Head and his will, then that's a seizure. Neither are terribly healthy in the human body, and neither are healthy for the Body of Christ. We must be responsive to our Head.

Second, this new ekklesia is spoken of in terms of a bride – the bride paired with the Messiah, mirroring Old Testament language about Israel or Judah or Jerusalem as a bride paired with the Lord God. As we explore the Old Testament, we very famously find multiple prophets speaking of Jerusalem, Judah, or Israel as a woman who is related to the Lord God via a marriage covenant. Through Ezekiel, God remarks to Jerusalem: “You were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather; I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk, and I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck, and I put a ring in your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. … You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you” (Ezekiel 16:8-14).

So Jerusalem here is portrayed as God's Bride, and can also be presented as a Mother to the people of Israel or of Judah. The giving of the covenant at Mount Sinai was portrayed, in retrospect, as having been the marriage ceremony between the Lord and his bride Israel. However, as prophets would eventually come to lament, it was not a perfectly happy marriage. Because Israel was an adulterous bride. So, through the Prophet Hosea, God complains that the whole land was engaged in spiritual prostitution by abandoning him (Hosea 1:2), and thus tells Hosea to tell the Israelites to “plead with your Mother, plead – for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:2). Through the Prophet Isaiah, God interrogates the descendants of Judah, “Where is your Mother's divorce certificate with which I sent her away? … For your transgressions, your Mother was sent away” (Isaiah 50:1-2). Israel, Judah, or Jerusalem was the Bride of the Lord, and functioned as a Mother to the Israelites or Jews, a counterpart to God's Fatherhood of the nation. Unfortunately, this story led to divorce.

Thankfully, the Old Testament looks forward to the day when a New Israel will be married with no threat of divorce hanging over her. The Lord declares to her in advance, “I will betroth you to me forever, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20). God says to Jerusalem, “the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married … As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:4-5). Isaiah urges faithful Jews to “rejoice with Jerusalem” their mother and “nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast, that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance” (Isaiah 66:10-11).

And in the New Testament, those promises are fulfilled, and the Jerusalem or Israel who receives them is the one Paul means when he says that “the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our Mother” (Galatians 4:26). Just like old Jerusalem was the Bride of God and the Mother of all Israelites, so New Jerusalem or New Israel is the Bride of Christ and the Mother of all Christians. And that Mother, that Bride, is the Church – the same Church Jesus founded on the rock. “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her,” Paul says, “that he might make her holy, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Jesus calls her 'holy,' because his death was to give her his holiness. The holiness of the Church just is the holiness of her Husband, and while she hasn't received him perfectly yet, she is guaranteed to in the end. This is also a promise that there can be only one Church loved by Jesus, because Christ is no polygamist. He says about her, “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (Song of Songs 6:9). And we are all the Church's children, children mothered by the New Jerusalem. To press this point home, one third-century Christian, a man named Cyprian who lived about two hundred years after the apostles, put it this way: “From her womb we are born, by her milk we are nurtured, by her spirit we are given life. … A man cannot have God for his Father who will not have the Church for his Mother.”1

Third, this new ekklesia is spoken of in terms of a building – specifically, the New Temple, the fulfillment of what was always signified by the old temple that now no longer stands in Jerusalem. Flash back with me to Matthew 16, and take note of the verb Matthew finds on Jesus' lips. What's he going to do with his ekklesia? Jesus is going to 'build' it. That's an architectural word. It's the word you'd use for building a house, or some other dwelling. And, in fact, we hear it again in Acts 7, when the deacon Stephen retells the story of Solomon having 'built' the Temple – it's the same word. So from the very moment Jesus mentions his ekklesia, he's using the language of house construction. But what kind of house?

Since Jesus was talking to Peter, it's only fair to let Peter get the next word in. In his famous letter, Peter says that Christians can be thought of as “living stones” being utilized as the material in God's building project. But what is God building? Peter says that we living stones are being “built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). Jesus' ekklesia is a 'spiritual house' – that is, a temple. And Paul will help us fill in the rest. Paul says that this “whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). “You are being built together into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). “You are God's temple, and God's Spirit dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16), “the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16), “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). As the second-century writer Irenaeus will remark, “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace.”2

So now we have these three significant pictures of the Church. The Church is the Body that grows from Christ its Head. And that tells us that the Church is guaranteed to be holy. As Paul remarks in one of his letters, “if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Romans 11:16) – if the Head is holy, so is the Body. The Church is a holy Body, and cannot lose that holiness unless the Church is decapitated, losing its Head. But that will never happen! Jesus' promise cannot be false. So the gates of Sheol have never – will never – overcome the Church. The Church cannot die, cannot be decapitated. The Church always has a Head who guarantees its holiness.

The Church is the Bride bound by deepest ties to Christ her Bridegroom. And that likewise tells us that the Church is guaranteed to be holy. What is the husband's, is the wife's – that includes the holiness of Christ. He has already cleansed her and still cleansing her, already sanctified her and still sanctifying her. To allow the Church to lose her holiness would be to renounce his claim on her – to divorce her and put her away, whether quietly or in fury. But one thing we know: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). To deny his Bride would be to deny himself, and that he cannot do. There is no divorcing this union: prophecy has already seen the wedding supper laid out (Revelation 19:9). No, we can be sure that the Jesus who began a good work in his Bride will unrelentingly bring it to completion for the wedding day (cf. Philippians 1:6). And so the Church can never lose her holiness.

The Church is the Temple indwelt so thoroughly by the Holy Spirit, claimed as sacred space. A temple is, by definition, holy. A temple that is no longer holy is no longer indwelt by the divine presence. The Church will not be so desecrated that the Holy Spirit withdraws. For “the Spirit is life” (Romans 8:10). For the Holy Spirit to disown his Temple would be to remove life – would mean to declare the gates of Sheol victorious over it. And we know that can never happen! So the Church must remain a functional temple, an inhabited temple.

What's so important about all this is that any standing we have as “holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12) is a consequence of the holiness guaranteed to the Church. It is only because the Body is holy that any of its varied parts can be considered holy. Only a holy Body can have holy parts, which derive their holiness from the Body. And it is only because the Bride is holy that her children can inherit her holiness, from their very birth to her, from their nursing at her teachings, from the food she feeds them and the songs she sings them and the love she showers on them. And only because the Temple is holy can any of the living stones be holy. For a temple is not built out of stones that are already holy. The stones only become holy because they belong to the temple – take away the temple, and the stones are ordinary.

Now, it is true that the Church's holiness has not always been obvious, least of all in our behavior. The Apostle Peter, with his voice of authority, commands us to “be holy in all [our] conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). And yet, often throughout the ages, we struggle at best, and too frequently reject the calling. We choose to act, not holy, but common – or, worse still, profane – or, worst of all, sacrilegiously. Sadly, parts of the body have not only feuded with each other but unleashed violence on the world. Sadly, the Bride has at times debased herself, and her children have turned feral. Sadly, the Temple has in some respects been polluted and defiled, used to house myriad idols. It is only grace that keeps the Body in motion, only grace that keeps the Bride betrothed, only grace that keeps the Temple inhabited. The Body is called to grow and mature, and we are waiting. The Bride is called to lose her present spots and wrinkles, and we are waiting. The Temple is called to be completed and be furnished with all holy things and filled with glory, and we are waiting. Some day, the wait will be over!

Now, we confess, in the Creed, that our trust is placed in “the holy catholic church.” And now we get confused, because we don't know what the word means. But the Greek word katholikos is a compound word – literally, 'throughout all,' or 'pertaining to the whole.' Luke talks about the church being “throughout all” Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and the words he uses are the ingredients that this word is built out of. In pre-Christian Greek, to call something katholikos could mean it was generic or general, could mean that it applied universally, could mean it was something indivisible and permanent. The first time we hear it being applied to the Church is actually just a little over a decade after Revelation was written, and it's by a man who knew the apostles. St. Ignatius was dealing with groups of people who, for their own reasons, were quitting their local churches, getting together, and trying to keep doing 'churchy' things on their own, with no power or authority to do it. By doing that, they had cut off their connection to the church Jesus was actually building. So Ignatius told them that the local church is wherever its bishop is, just like “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”3 The church Ignatius is talking about is complete, whole, an organic unity that stretches not only across the world but also between heaven and earth, because the most important parts of the Church are already in heaven.

Soon after his time, we find more people quitting their churches because they thought they could do Christianity better on their own, either by themselves individually or in little clubs organized around certain teachers. These clubs came up with all sorts of bizarre ideas. They thought they were very smart and were privy to secret knowledge about Jesus that the Church didn't have. And so they looked down on the mainstream Church as being katholikos, in the sense of basically being store-brand Christianity, while their version had to be special-ordered.4 The Church responded by embracing the word 'catholic' even more fervently, because true Christianity isn't just for a little elite club, it's for everybody – that's part of what 'catholic' gets across – and yet still has the fullness of truth.

Then, persecution came, and in the wake, some people thought that the church leaders had handled things badly, mostly by being too forgiving to those who had stumbled under pressure. Thinking that the Church had been corrupted, these hardliners split off and tried to start their own church – a whole alternative assembly they began in one little corner of the world. But the real Church answered back that a little regional project can't be the Church Jesus wanted. Jesus came to gather the whole world in his wide net. And so, they said, the real Church is catholic, in the sense that it has “an international and universal diffusion.”5

By the time our Creed was all put together, 'catholic' had become a codeword that compressed a lot of things into it. We're saying that this is the universal church – the one that believes the whole truth and uses it to effect a whole healing, and then offers this whole truth and whole healing to the whole world throughout the whole of time, and that this is all and only true because this Church embraces the whole Jesus in his whole fullness, with the whole range of his gifts. That is the meaning compressed into the word katholikos, which we preserve today in the Creed as 'catholic' – and we keep it untranslated because that's more than any other English word can carry. It reminds us that the church cannot be limited to one skin color, one occupation, one country. It reminds us that the true Church is not a johnny-come-lately invention, nor is her teaching false. We get no tailor-made Christianity that suits our tastes. And not all groups organized by professing Christians actually belong to the Church that Jesus has built and is building.

The Church Jesus built and is building is not just holy and catholic, it's apostolic. Paul tells us that this Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). Not only was the Church built on and led by the apostles, but the Church was marked by receiving their teaching. From the day of Pentecost, the Church was “devoted to the apostles' teaching” (Acts 2:42). Paul tells the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), he tells the Corinthians to “maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2), he tells the Romans to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” (Romans 16:17), and he tells Timothy to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20), which is “the good doctrine that you have followed” (1 Timothy 4:6), and to not let anybody in the church “teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3). The Church must remain loyal to that good doctrine, to those traditions.

Now, the local churches that the apostles started eventually spawned other local churches, which early Christians called “the offspring of apostolic churches,” and through those organic connections, they remained all part of the one original apostolic Church.6 The apostles handed these churches over to authorized leaders in each place,7 shepherds who could summon the church together to pray, receive God's word, offer the Christian sacrifice of thanksgiving, and authoritatively declare the business of the kingdom. Apart from those authorized leaders, we're told from the very start, “there is nothing that can be called a church.”8 And down throughout history, the Church – under the direction of those very leaders – spread across the world, sending forth missionary church-planters. Indeed, the entire Church is missionary, because that's part of what it means to be apostolic. The whole Church is sent into the whole world, to spread and reach out with its whole truth. And if we would be apostolic, part of what that means is to have that same spirit in us, the missionary spirit, driving us to be faithful laborers in the harvest.

We confess in the Creed that we believe in “the holy catholic church” – or, in the other Creed, “in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” But does that really matter for our life and for our faith? Absolutely it does. The Church is the institution that gives us Christian community – yes, and more than community: gives us communion with heaven and our holy ones already there. The Church is salvation in social form. Jesus can be my Savior and your Savior only because he has chosen to be the Church's Savior. Jesus does not save anyone by themselves, as an island. He saves the Church, the same way God saved the Ark through the Flood. The Church is the Mother of all Christians, and we must embrace and honor our Mother or else we neither embrace nor honor our Father.

That means that the Church is not a social club or a voluntary organization or a cafeteria for the soul. The church is not some social group we can join and leave at whim. The Church is holy, set apart from all other groups, all other corporations, all other families, all other institutions. And so the Church is not a consumer choice. The Church is not a marketplace, nor a market product. It is not tailor-made for anyone but Jesus Christ, who is infinite. Church is not about me or about you. It is not about our preferences for some things being shorter or some things being longer, for some things being familiar or some things being fresher. If those are the thoughts we have as we approach the church, if we approach church like customers who are satisfied or dissatisfied with the service we think is for us, then we are blind to God, blind to Christ, blind to the Church.

No, the Church is holy. The church gathers to pray, receive the word of God, offer sacrifice, and do the business of the kingdom. The Church is here to love her Husband with an all-embracing love – to receive him, know him, and learn to love all that he loves, in the way that he loves it. The Church is here to train her children up in the way they should go, to birth and bathe and feed them, to tend their wounds and give them discipline and point them to their Father's endless horizons. The Church is here to shower her children with the gifts her Husband brought home for them, including all the grace we need to be saved. And “through the Church, the power of God [is] now made known” (Ephesians 3:10), so to God our Father “be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever – Amen!” (Ephesians 3:21).