“I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic Church.” — Nicene Creed
Delivered at New Hope Baptist Church, 24 January 2016.
Scripture reading: Luke 4:14-21.
Sermon text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
A friend of mine from divinity school unintentionally launched a firestorm this week when he quoted St. Cyprian, a martyr of the third century A.D. St. Cyprian wrote, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother” (“Treatise 1, On the Unity of the Church”).
It didn’t take long for the usual “I don’t need a congregation” crowd to swarm around the post. You know what I mean: “I don’t need to go to church because of the sinners there.” “I don’t dare go to that church because of the hypocrites.” “I behave better than the people at church, so why should I go?” Let’s not forget one of the favorites: “I can worship just as well at home (or in the woods, on a body of water, etc.) as I can in a building with those people.”
I have a simple answer to those objections. “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” No one can muster an acceptable excuse for withdrawal from the body or for refusal to support the body.
The Apostles wouldn’t accept excuses.
The saints and martyrs wouldn’t accept excuses.
I won’t accept excuses. I’ll go further: If you can go to Walmart on Sunday, you can make it to church on Sunday.
Every believer needs a church. Every believer needs to attend worship, even with the sinners and hypocrites. (More precisely, I’ve never met a perfect person. Everyone needs a church with sinners and hypocrites so he’ll feel at home.)
The author of Hebrews wrote, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). When I stand with St. Cyprian, I stand with Scripture.
St. Paul knew about separation from the Body of Christ and its consequences. He had seen the wreckage caused by dissension in the church; he had witnessed the results as Christians argued over minutia while others quit in disgust. The Corinthian church had excelled in dissension before St. Paul wrote his letters. In case you wondered, St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, wrote a letter to the Corinthians in c. A.D. 96. The reason? Dissension. Old habits die hard, as the saying goes.
In last week’s sermon text, St. Paul had discussed the reasons for God’s gifts. St. Paul wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). As I wrote last week, “God will give you the gifts He needs in your congregation.” In this week’s sermon text, we find the reasons why God expects us — yes, expects us — to work within the context of the Church in general and our congregation specifically.
First, God constructs a congregation as a body. The Psalmist David wrote, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). St. Paul wrote, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
God calls all people to salvation (John 3:16-17) and desires all people to believe in Jesus (2 Peter 3:9). When people confess Jesus as Lord and believe in His resurrection, the Holy Spirit joins them to the Church. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit begins working within us and guiding us to find other Christians. I’ve never met a new believer who didn’t seek for a congregation in which to serve and grow. An international friend told me of the difficulties he experienced trying to find a congregation who would accept him; he persisted until the congregation realized he had truly become a believer in Christ and hadn’t shown up at their door as a government spy.
A congregation doesn’t consist of only one person. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” One person alone cannot perform the work of a congregation, nor should he try. “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” A functioning congregation will draw people into its body and help them find places of ministry within the body and community.
St. Paul also taught that every member bears a gift worthy of respect. You’ll find no unimportant members in a congregation. “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” Pride leads people to desire power or prestige within a congregation. The Holy Spirit who leads us to the congregation will use the congregation to mold us and bring us closer to Christ. As we draw closer to Christ, we’ll see ourselves compared to Him and humble ourselves before Him. We’ll seek to serve each other humbly, to submit to one another, and to uplift one another as we exalt Christ.
Lastly, St. Paul taught that we need each other. We’ve all heard the saying, “Misery loves company.” St. Paul wrote, “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” Christians help one another through times of suffering and trial. We help each other. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
As we help one another through our burdens, we’ll lift each other, especially when joyful events occur. “If one member is honored, all rejoice together.” Again, I’ve often seen pride cause resentment when people see the attention shift to someone else. Humility helps us rejoice in the success or blessing of others, giving us joy even in the midst of trials.
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” St. Paul wrote. Yes, God has “appointed in the church” people with special gifts and responsibilities. However, those gifts and responsibilities do not bring honor to the person; they bring honor to God. Those given gifts and called to these responsibilities must use them to bless the congregation, not themselves, and they must use them to bless the Church.
For unbelievers, I call you today to believe in Jesus, confessing Him as Lord and believing in His resurrection so you may receive the Holy Spirit and follow Jesus into eternal life. Don’t fall for the old “I’m better than those hypocrites” line. We know our faults and failures. We also know our standing before God: Justified and forgiven through the blood of Christ, living in hope of eternal life through Jesus’ resurrection.
For believers, I call you to follow the desire of the Holy Spirit and join the congregation to which God has brought you. I call on members of this body to use our gifts to bless our congregation and our communities. I call on us to proclaim Christ through our faithful attendance, through our love for one another, and by our love for those God brings into our lives. I call on us to come together to bless one another and bless everyone we meet. Let’s suffer together, rejoice together, and fellowship with one another, showing the world that God our Father loves the Church, our mother. We have our flaws, but through the grace of Christ, we’ll carry on until Jesus returns for us and takes His Body into eternal rest.