One Holy Catholic Church
Every first Sunday of the month, when we celebrate communion and recite the Apostles Creed, you may puzzled by the line "I believe in . . . . the holy catholic church." Aren't we Presbyterians? And does it make sense to say we "believe" in the church? Don't we believe in God in Christ, with church being the way we live out that belief?
The answer is both yes and no. Yes, we are Presbyterians - the Presbyterian Church (USA) branch of Presbyterians, to be precise. That makes us distinct from Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Mennonites, African Methodist Episcopalians, and Lutherans -- to name just a few of the churches we find in this small corner of the globe.
As the Summit Presbyterian Church, on the corner of Westview and Greene, we are also distinct from other churches of the Presbyterian Church (USA). But in the Apostles Creed, we confess there is a catholic (in the sense of universal) church called together by Christ. A church that - for all the differences in theology, worship, and ministries among particular congregations and denominations - is one body. One body of Christ, one church, stretching across time and space with one call: to proclaim the gospel in word and deed.
We must confess that as Christians we've always had trouble believing and living out this creed. Most denominations teach that Christ cannot be "divided," that there is indeed one catholic church. But most churches (including Protestants) disagree on who belongs to that church! Arguments over theology and politics, and differences arising from historical circumstances, have led most Christians to draw a line around the "true" church, declaring some self-professing Christians inside and others outside. (This may seem like simple intolerance until we remember the state-sponsored churches of Nazi Germany). The ecumenical movement has sought to bridge these differences through dialogue and joint mission projects, with limited but important success.
It's also hard to live out that creed for more practical reasons. Like people in most congregations (including pastors), when we think of "church" we think of a particular church - in our case, Summit: the people we care about, the building, the history that we're celebrating this year. I imagine that most people of Summit think of themselves as members of Summit, first; members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) a distant second; and members of the church universal (another way to speak of the holy catholic church) third.
That hierarchy is understandable - we are concrete creatures, and what makes Summit unique is important. But the Apostles Creed challenges us to reverse the order: to think of ourselves first and foremost as part of the holy catholic church, sent into the world to bring the good news of God's love and forgiveness, concern for the poor, and desire for justice -- with Summit being a particular expression of that church universal, but always in service to it.
This Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost, also known as the "birthday" of the church. We celebrate the giving of Christ's Holy Spirit to it, which enabled people divided by nation and language to understand each other and share the good news. We'll also be holding our Annual Congregational Meeting, when we'll be discussing the work and the joys of our particular congregation. It's fitting that we should celebrate both together: remembering and confessing that through the Spirit we are one holy catholic church, bound together in Christ (appearances sometimes to the contrary!) while committing ourselves to "be church" as faithfully as we can in our particular time and place, here at Summit Presbyterian.
Grace and Peace,