What Kind of Church Are We Anyway:
What It Means To Be catholic.
The second in a three part sermon series on our community’s identity.
Life, it seems, is full of mystery.
The deepest, richest, most complex theories
that our rational abilities can formulate,
that science help us understand
serve really to highlight the fact
that there is still a depth of mystery
that goes way beyond it all.
You can study biology, or human genetics,
And know everything there is to know about reproduction and fertilization,
About pregnancy, birth, and childhood;
But when you see a newborn child, for that first time
And two eyes meet yours with a look that seems to say
Not, “who are you?”
But, “so—its you!”
You glimpse a mystery
that no physical explanation can ever fully explore.
It is the same with music.
The physicist can, in principle,
Explain what happens when a particular instrument is played.
Sound waves. String tension. Aperture.
But why Mozart makes us want to laugh and cry and dance,
Why you start singing along to McLean’s American Pie
Or the Indigo Girls’ Closer to Fine
Or Adele’s Hello
And you don’t even know why…
Why some music is deeply consoling and some is deeply disturbing
That remains a mystery.
The deepest mysteries of human life—love, death, joy, beauty,
take your pick—
have, for millennia, pointed us to the deepest mystery of them all
the mystery of God.[i]
What are some of your experiences with the mystery of God?
Some of the earliest moments I remember, in church
Were communion moments.
That’s not surprising.
Food has this ability of sticking to memory.
Think your mother’s go-to casserole,
Or what you were eating on that important first-date. Do you remember?
I remember, as a kid, sitting through another worship service
Doodling on my bulletin,
Trying not to make the oak pew creek as I fidgeted next to my mother
And look: they passed by little cups of juice, wedges of doughy bread
And I thought, hey, I could get used to this.
We used to go up to the communion table, after worship
To get the extras, you know. I think my father frowned at this.
A bit later, as I learned about Christ and him Crucified, as Paul puts it
About agape—that’s the word the Bible uses for
a love that gives all it has for another
the very love of God
and that story of deep compassion and ultimate betrayal and
and life overcoming death
all because God loves you and loves me
and there ain’t nothing you can do about it
When I learned all that,
and they passed the juice and the doughy bread
and remembered the body and blood of Jesus
So much mystery. So much I didn’t understand: why me? Why all this?
And even as an adult, so much I know that I really never will understand.
There’s a science to making bread: just enough wheat and water, and yeast too
If, unlike the Hebrews in Egypt, you’ve got time for it.
Get the oven hot enough, but not too hot
The yeast eats the sugar in the mixture
Produces carbon dioxide, it rises
And you’ve got bread.
And it smells so, so, so good.
But none of that explains to me why the smell of bread
Reminds me of those early communions
The feel of the pew
The joy of knowing I am loved unconditionally
The tears of thinking about Jesus’ betrayal and death
Ultimately, the comfort of knowing that I belong to God.
And I smile every time I taste the juice of concord grapes.
For me, it was around communion that I first experienced the mystery of God.
It might be different for you,
and maybe its not primarily mystery that characterizes what’s going on
when God peeks into your life.
Maybe its comfort, or challenge, or disruption.
But even so, we gather this day for World Communion Sunday.
There is no more sweeping theological expression of the diverse family of Christ
than World Communion Sunday.
True, this is a uniquely Presbyterian celebration, in one sense
because World Communion Sunday began 84 years ago
at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh before being adopted
by the United Presbyterian Church in the USA
and soon thereafter by the Federated Council of Churches
and then by Christians all over the place.[ii]
But even as we note its Presbyterian roots
we can say that the celebration hopes to erode any attention
to creedal differences among believers in Christ.
That’s because today we, in particular, celebrate how people of every hue and tongue
men and women on every continent, and our continent
Pentecostal and Structured
Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant
Republican and Democrat, Green and Reform
Liberal and Conservative and Moderate
Mizzou Tiger and Jayhawk and Wildcat
(ooh, dangerous territory now)
Emergent and Stuck-in-the-Fifties
Gay, Straight, and everything in-between
living on a dollar a day,
and living in a ward-parkway mansion
today we celebrate how ALL people are made ONE at this table.
World Communion Sunday: the radical invitation of God
the radical love of God poured out for you and for you and for you, and for me.
Now that is a mystery.
There is no small amount of irony
that a religion as fractious and as divisive as ours has been
finds a way to stop and celebrate our unity.
Some have said that you get three Christians in a room
and you’ll get four different denominations out of it.
But I believe, in my heart, that most of us mourn this human tendency,
and I think its no small part of what turns people off.
And its not a Christian tendency, not if we’re being faithful to the Gospel.
We need to say so.
It was Jesus that called those who were being excluded,
those who were being outcast and sent to the margins
to participate in the faith community.
It was Paul who reminded us that
there is no longer Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male and Female
for all of us are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And while we Presbyterians aren’t immune, certainly,
from this us-vs-them tendency,
our founding documents clearly see us not as THE faithful expression of the faith
but as A faithful church, one part of several faithful parts
that make up the one body of Christ.
Indeed, it is particularly because we are Christians
that we should mourn this tendency of human beings
to break apart, to judge one another, to assume MY way is THE way
and your way is most certainly not,
thank you very much.
And this is because we look to Jesus Christ himself
and see what Christ has done
and who he has loved
and HOW he has loved
and are AMAZED that WE, too, are invited, called, welcomed.
Christ doesn’t look to which jersey we wear
(how’s that for a corny sports analogy, but its true, though we all know
God’s a Royals fan.)
Christ doesn’t look to which church we belong to
or what position on transubstantiation we believe in
or even whether our heart is loving enough, faithful enough,
Christ welcomes us anyway.
Christ welcomes THEM anyway…
to this table, the table of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s World Communion Sunday in a nutshell:
our UNITY in Christ despite our worldly differences.
This sermon series is looking at what kind of church we are, here at The Kirk,
Helping you think about your thirty-second explanation of what we are all about
When your neighbor asks what you did on Sunday morning
And you don’t want to scratch your forehead
And say that you were, oh, cleaning out your closet, yeah, that’s it
Or something equally alluring.
What kind of church are we, anyway?
What will you tell them?
We affirmed last week that this church
is a Protestant Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church USA
A Christian community, seeking to follow God on the way of Jesus.
And we explored what it meant to be a Protestant Church
Our history traced back to the Protestant Reformation
500 years ago, this month,
and the reaffirmation that God loves us
and God alone saves us
and that as we remember that love and that salvation
we find a home that nurtures and empowers us to serve others.
I was reminded last week that Protestant
does not simply mean protesting against
but attesting for something (it is a PROtest):
affirming the unbounded, uncontrolled, prodigal love of God.
That was last week: what it means to be protestant.
This week, we’re exploring what it means to be catholic.
I’m guessing that this confused some of you,
That we claim also to be catholic. And that’s ok.
By that we don’t mean Roman Catholic, with a capital C.
This church, like all Presbyterian Churches, claims to be part of the
One, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith
A tradition that reaches all the way back to Jesus and his first disciples.[iii]
That word catholic has a small ‘c,’ and comes from a greek word that means universal.
Or whole, or complete.
When we say we are part of the One, holy, catholic, apostolic faith,
We are claiming that we are part of the whole worldwide multifaceted diverse church
That the divisions that seem to separate us may be important to us
And they are: this church of ours that takes a stand toward justice
And toward reconciliation
But when we say that we are catholic, lowercase c catholic
We are saying that, ultimately, Christ is our leader
That we are God’s servants
And that all those who look to Christ
Are fellow Christians together.
Did you notice how Paul broaches this with the church in Corinth?
Paul loved that church, but they were giving him headaches.
He visited Corinth, met a few people in the town square, the Agora
Maybe in the café, maybe at a bar,
And he made of them a church.
He helped them love one another.
He told them about Jesus and made it come alive for them.
And then he had to go. He moved on, to his next stop.
This is typical Paul, who founded scores of churches
throughout Asia Minor and Greece.
But after Paul left Corinth, some others came behind him
And started challenging what he had said to them:
Paul said you could eat meat from the temple? Really?
Uh, that’s not right. Look here, look at what it says.
No more cheeseburger for you, my good man.
Paul said that it didn’t matter if the gentile converts
The guys, at least, went under the knife?
That’s not right. All of us need to be circumcised.
Come on, I know just the guy who can help….
They were confused, and disrupted.
And they wrote Paul, and his response is what we call First Corinthians.
Paul wrote them seeking concord, seeking Unity through Christ.
Here’s what he said:
“When I came to you, beloved,
I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words
For I decided to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ
And Him crucified.
And I came to you in weakness, and in fear and much trembling…
So that your faith might rest not on human wisdom,
But on the power of God.”
Paul, proclaiming the mystery of God, focuses on the basics of our faith:
Jesus Christ, and Him Crucified.
Paul wanted to make it about God, not about him.
Not about HIS pride or HIS stature or HIS feeling of success.
Paul wanted to make it about God. About God’s justice.
About God’s efforts to help the hurting.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. Paul says.
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,
But only God who gives the growth.
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose,
And each will receive wages according to the labor of each.
For we are God’s servants, working together;
You are God’s field, God’s building.
Did you notice how Paul treats the people who are trying to disrupt his work
The ones who disagree with him about how to do church
He says that the one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose.
Actually, the Greek is stronger than that: it says they are ONE.
Paul and Apollos, alike in purpose:
God is the one doing the work, we are God’s servants.
Now this may sound like inside baseball, to be sure
Kind of like walking in on a family squabble at Thanksgiving
And you just wanted a slice of pumpkin pie
But pay attention: Paul is telling us that even with our differences,
there is something deeper, more mysterious, more life giving underneath it all
as God is working to make all things new.
To say that we are part of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic faith
To say that we are part of the church catholic, lowercase c
Is to say that we are all in this together
That behind every community in Christ, God is working, and God is moving.
And isn’t that what we celebrate at this table, on World Communion Sunday
Or at this table, at any communion Sunday?
The gifts of bread and juice given to all:
Not just the Presbyterians, not just the protestants
Not just the good people, whoever that might be
Not just people who look like me
Vote like me
Act like me
Not that, because its not MY gift. No.
It is the gift of God, for the people of God.
This church, while indeed a Protestant Church,
a congregation of the Presbyterian Church USA
This church is first a Christian community,
seeking to follow God on the way of Jesus.
And in Christ’s name, all are welcome here. THAT is what it means to be catholic.
There are things that are a mystery, and then there are things that you know,
Deep in your bones, things that are crystal clear.
I may not know why the smell of bread reminds me of my childhood
But I know that the power of communion sustains me
And breaks down all the divisions of our world.
I may not understand why Christ was Crucified
But I know that the meal God shared with us
Is enough to heal the wounds of the world.
I may not get why so many people seem divided in our land
But I know that, according to God
At the name of Jesus every knee shall bend
And that the love of God is more powerful than anything that seeks to
Make us enemies of one another rather than neighbors.
My friends, on this World Communion Sunday
May we celebrate that God moves through so many different people
And makes of us one human family in Christ
Of every possible language
Of every conceivable culture
In every land in this beautiful world God has made.
And may we claim our part as part of a worldwide community of faith
Who are called to make all of this about God, not about us
For the sake of God’s realm,
A world of peace and hope and possibility for all people.
May it be so.
[i] Adapted from N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (Louisville, Kentucky; Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 19-20.
[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Communion_Sunday, accessed October 1, 2017.
[iii]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Marks_of_the_Church, accessed October 1, 2017