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The Church Universal: forgiven folk living as members of Christ’s body

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A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Trinity Sunday, the eighth in a series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed:

We are almost at the end of our series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed. The main points of our faith have all been covered. We have confessed that the world was created by a God who calls us his children and whom we may call Father. We have confessed that this Father-hood is uniquely expressed in the life of Jesus Christ, ‘God’s only Son our Lord’. We have affirmed that in Christ God and humanity have equal place by the childbearing of blessed Mary. We have recalled the life, and death on the cross for our redemption, of Mary’s Son, and anchored the events of our redemption in time by recalling the earthly judge before whom Jesus gave an account of his life: the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate in the first century Roman empire. We have confirmed our faith in the new life Christ brought by rising from the dead, recalled the raising of that renewed humanity into heaven at Christ’s Ascension. We have given thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We have given voice to all of the historic acts of our faith, recalled all the events in the story of the creation and redemption of this world.

What is left in our confession is how the story of the triune God, who creates, redeems and sustains his creation, is lived out daily in the life of those who join you and me in making this statement of faith. Yes, we have completed the remembrance of our story of faith. What follows now is an answer to the question that so many of us carry with us: how can this faith be lived out in our day to day journeys of faith? The answer our creed gives is threefold: ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints; the Forgiveness of Sins’.

Each of the three parts of this statement of faith depends on the next. Our faith is brought to life in the church, Christ’s body on earth. Our faith journeys, in turn, are sustained by the knowledge of those who have completed the journey of faith, God’s saints in Christ’s presence, and the knowledge that by our confession of faith we too affirm our membership in their number, are counted among God’s holy people. And our faith life is based on the knowledge that our sins can be, and have been forgiven; that we, too, can be a part of the community of the redeemed. In fact, the final statement is the one on which the former two are based: without our acceptance of the forgiveness of sins, there can be no membership in the communion of Saints, nor can there be a Church; the statement of faith we examine tonight hinges on our acceptance of the gift of a new life, set free from sin and the fear of death, by the gift of Christ’s own life on a cross for our sakes.

Tonight’s readings (Acts 20.24-32, Colossians 1.9b-20) give us a closer insight into what it may mean to profess our faith in a community shaped by the belief that Christ forgives the sins of those who call on his name and seek his friendship. They give us a better understanding of what it means to be the company of those whose sins have been forgiven, and who have been shaped together as a communion: the Church. That body is holy because it has been sanctified by the One who called it into being to make known the faith of sins forgiven. And that body is universal—the Greek word ‘catholicos’ means ‘universal’—incorporates people wherever they may be ‘whether on earth or in heaven’ (Col. 1.20). In the days of the early Christian community that affirmed the then contentious belief that the church is there for those who were born in the land in which Jesus grew up and shared his Jewish roots, as well as the Gentile believers who came to faith through the ministry of apostles like Paul and Barnabas, Timothy and his companions. In our own generation it gives expression to that fact that the Church is enduring and that the church is to people wherever they are, from whatever ethnic, social or faith background they may first have come.

And because it is a community that professes as its founding principle the ‘forgiveness of sins’, the Church is a body that has often stood in need of thar forgiveness itself, and is growing in the knowledge that holiness can begin where people acknowledge their own sinfulness and failure, and receive in turn the assurance of God’s love and mercy. That knowledge is there for individuals as well as for the church as a whole—the church is holy when it confesses its own shortcomings and seeks to live out the message of sins brought to light, and lives transformed by God’s forgiveness.

Both our readings (Acts 20.24-32Colossians 1.9b-20) give voice to our Patron Saint, Paul the Apostle. The first, through the historic writings of Luke, takes us back to Miletus, at a turning point in Paul’s apostolic journeys. The second contains Paul’s counsel to the Christian community in Colossae. Both are spoken texts that were later set down in writing: the first is a farewell speech to the leaders of the church in Asia Minor, the second takes the form of a hymn in praise of life in communion with God. The first addresses the leaders of the church in particular, the second is addressed to all its members. At the heart of both stand the insights that were later incorporated into our creed: that the Church is a living body, a living community, and that that community has come into being through the gift of ‘redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (Col. 1.13), and that its purpose is to make known the message of a new, transformed life, which Paul calls ‘the inheritance among all the saints’ (Acts 20.32). The creation of the church as a communion of saints that spans all nations on earth, and encompasses the whole household of God—living and departed—is the gift of our Triune God: it is the ‘Father, who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light’, the ‘Son in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ and the Spirit who ‘shepherds the church of God’; an apt message to recall this Trinity Sunday (Col. 1.13-14, Acts 20.28).

For the Apostles’ Creed, the step from forgiveness to membership of the church is immediate: we are made part of the communion of saints at the moment at which our sins are forgiven. There appears to be no intermediate steps necessary to obtain membership. Our readings echo this sense of immediacy. God’s forgiveness was ‘obtained through the blood of God’s own Son’, our first lesson explains; it is this message that ‘is able to build us up and give us the inheritance among all who are sanctified’, Paul tells the elders at Miletus (Acts 20.28, 32). And in his letter to the Colossians he confirms that ‘through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1.20). It is was the self-giving act of offering the life of his ‘beloved Son’ (Col. 1.13), so that all might come to experience the forgiving love of God, that makes us a member of Christ’s body, the communion of Saints.

The other principal creed, that adopted by the first Council of Nicaea through the course of the fourth century, professes an intermediary step to membership of that body: ‘we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’. Since 381, and the formulation of the Nicene Creed, the formal beginning of the journey as member of the body of Christ has been the confession of faith in the forgiveness of sins through Christ symbolised by baptism, in which the washing through the ‘blood of his cross’ our second reading speaks of is ritualised by the washing of our bodies, or foreheads, in water. Baptism, then, is the moment in our Christian journeys, when we come to experience in our bodies, what it means to be a member of Christ’s body: there we are linked to Christ, ‘the head of the body, the church’, there we are given a physical sign of the forgiveness of sins that shapes that body, the church. There we receive the necessary gifts of grace to enable us to live out our faith.

And that living out of our faith through the gifts of grace bestowed to us by the Holy Spirit is the final aspect of tonight’s article of faith. We profess that, in our membership of Christ’s body, we rely on the gifts of others: we rely on the gifts of grace that God gives—the gifts that, as our second lesson puts it—can fill us ‘with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that we may lead lives worthy of Christ’ (Col. 1.9). We also rely on the gifts we receive from other members of the church: whether they are those who, as in our first lesson, are set over us as shepherds of God’s flock, the ‘overseers’ or bishops of our church who act on behalf of Christ. Or the gifts of those who share with us in the strength of ‘God’s glorious power’, the strength that both prepares the members of the church to endure trials with patience and gives us the joy of praising God in worship. As those who profess our faith in the body of Christ, ‘the holy catholic church; the communion of Saints’, we are encouarged to live like the saints Paul speaks of in our lessons: as people who live with understanding, bear much fruit through our good works, as people prepared to grow in strength and endurance, as people who praise God together and, above all, as people who share this message of faith with others.

What we profess is not an organisation, but a living organism, given life at the moment at which Christ died for us to know ‘the forgiveness of sins’; the act of liberation at which God came to visit and redeem us—his people.

‘And now I commend you to God, and to the message of his grace; a message that is able to build you up, and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified’ (Acts 20.32). Thanks be to God. Amen.


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