Friday, August 29, 2008

What is the Church...Catholic???

This month, we pick back up with our discussion of the marks of the, holy, catholic, and apostolic. So what does it mean to be catholic? Ever wonder why we say that in the Apostles' Creed? Why we claim to be “one holy catholic” church? Well, for starters, the word means something beyond Roman Catholic. The word catholic actually means “universal,” such that when we claim to belong to a catholic church, we are saying that we belong to something larger than Methodism...we belong to a world-wide movement. One that is bigger than our denominations. Even when we divide, we are called to be Universal.

When colonial missionaries went out to the New World, they often brought with them more than Christianity. Many of them mistakenly thought that in order to convert the “savages” (who were a LOT more sophisticated than the Europeans realized), they needed to give them European culture, values, and language, in order for them to understand Christianity. They had confused the culture with the faith. They had forgotten the lesson of long ago, when men like Peter and Paul told their ancestors that you didn't have to become Jewish first to become a Christian. Because, as Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Christianity, from the word go, was something beyond your culture. It applied to and united all people exactly where they were at, no need to become something else first.

The universality of the church means it overflows the cultural boundaries we want to put it in, and finds expression in a variety of contexts. Contrary to what some of those missionaries thought, Christianity is not contained by western culture. It is not contained within any era of human history, pre-modern, medieval, modern, or post-modern, but has expressed itself somewhat differently in each time. It defies definitions of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, time, language, territory, political party, and technology. It has spread by word of mouth, pictures, ritual, print media, and now electronic means. It does not fit nicely into our neat boxes.

Now of course, there are some things that are rock-solid, as we talked about near the end of August. The humanity, divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ are what define us, what unite us in our universal diversity. In the absence of these things, I hesitate to say that what we are talking about is an expression of the Universal church. Because these are the things that, despite cultural and even doctrinal differences, bind us together in the Oneness that also is a mark of the church.

But having said that, the church takes on many different forms in it's universality. The gospel is spread in English, Spanish, Swahili, Navajo, and Korean. It finds expression in the unique musical stylings of each culture. Preachers from different cultures speak in different rhythms. Different bread is used for the same Lord's Supper (and indeed, different drink as well). But all express the One True Savior, in their own individual ways.

We are linked to people very different than us, who dress different, talk with a different accent, or in a different language, whose families function different, whose ways of understanding and testing the Truth of something may vary from ours. We are united in a common of of a savior. I love that the youth in our church have begun to build bridges with other churches in the area. I love that the pastor from the CMA church down the road has been known to fill-in here. I love it whenever I see boundaries overcome in the name of Christ. For in Christ, there is neither black nor white, Hispanic nor Asian, Baptist nor Methodist, Pentecostal nor Roman Catholic, rich nor poor nor middle class, male nor female, Republican nor Democrat. Christianity finds a home in all of these diverse peoples, and those differences remind us that Christ makes us all one. Let's look for ways to express that as we move forward in ministry in our communities, celebrating the wonderful, cross-cultural universality of our common faith.

Friday, August 08, 2008

What is the Church? Holy...

We started last month talking about the Marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. This month, let's talk about what holy means. Holiness is usually talked about in terms of how good or bad someone is. Someone is thought of as holy if they do good things, avoid bad, etc.

But this is not a Biblical definition of holy. The first time the word shows up, it's in regard to the Sabbath, a day set apart for rest, in Genesis 2:3. In Exodus 30:32, it refers to a special anointing oil that is not to be used for any ordinary purposes. And elsewhere in Exodus, it refers to places and furnishings in the Temple which are apart from ordinary use. Leviticus 10:10 finally defines it for us, when God says to Moses, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” (ESV) Holiness in Scripture is defined by being different than the ordinary, being set apart from the common for God. Goodness does play a role in holiness, but goodness is in the service of being set apart to God, not the other way around. Especially when the word is so often used to refer to inanimate objects, it's not just about the presence of lack of sin.

But when God sets things apart, He does so for a purpose. Take the Levities. God sets them apart from Israel, but to serve Israel as it's spiritual leaders. And when Abraham's descendants were set apart, God said they would be a blessing to the nations. (Gen 12:3) Even the Temple furnishings I mentioned before, they weren't just set apart to look pretty, but to serve as a sign and witness to the people.

We just got back from the Celebrate Jesus mission trip, where in essence the 8 of us were set-apart for a purpose. We did not live like the rest of the world. For starters, we were sleeping in a church. And not during the sermon... :-) And we were doing other things that made us different than other people. We were going door-to-door, and standing outside stores, giving people something free, whether it be a gift, or an initiation, or a prayer. Who does that? Most folks didn't know what to do with us...they're used to stuff like that being followed by a catch, or a sales pitch. But instead, we just gave what we had away...even the party was free, and you didn't have to sit through a sermon to attend. We just wanted to show people God's kindness and love, which also comes with no strings attached.

Others participated while in the midst of normal life. But the teams were specifically set-apart to go out in ways the normal parishioners couldn't, or at times they couldn't, or with a single-mindedness they couldn't, because we had no worldly affairs to worry about for the week. We were set-apart from our normal lives to serve this single purpose.

This is the essence of holiness. Being set apart for a purpose. For service to God. For a mission. Holiness as a church is not total disengagement from the world, but rather separation from being identified with it, so that we can more closely identify with our heavenly Father. Remember, forward progress in holiness also means we are more like Him, which means there is also more of Him we can offer to the world. So that they can see that His love for them is different than other love, that His kindness is different than that amongst friends.

So who are we as the church? We are holy, called to be and do a little different than the world, so that they will know our God is not just one more hobby, not just one more story, but is Someone amazing and unique. Come, let us show the world together our Holy God.