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Like A Mighty Army

Matthew 16:13-19

Whenever we stand as a congregation to affirm our faith using the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, we declare our belief in “the Holy Catholic Church.” But what do we mean when we say that? I want us to try to answer that question by looking at each one of these words which make up that phrase.

The first word is “Holy.” It comes from the Greek word “hagios” which means “to be set apart, to be different, to be unique.”

A young man said to me not long ago that he was not involved in the Church because, as he put it, the Church is 98% hypocrites.” Now that is a ridiculous statement on two counts. In the first place, his numbers are wrong—the Church is 100% hypocrites! It is no different in that respect than any other segment of our society. And in the second place, the young man was attacking the Church not on the grounds on which the Church claims to be different, but on the very grounds on which the Church claims to be the same. The sins of hypocrisy, greed, and selfishness exist in the Church as they exist in any part of life. That should be surprising to no one.

You see, it is not the Church’s doctrines or beliefs—it is not even the Church’s people or its principles that make it holy. Rather, it is the fact that the Church comes directly from the hand of God. The Scripture is clear. Jesus said: “Upon this rock I shall build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Church has upon it the divine stamp of Almighty God Himself. That’s what makes it holy.

Walter Luthi tells of a village in Switzerland where one day, after a long drought, the stream, which ran through the center of the village, went dry. The children in the village were upset by this and they proceeded to go off into the mountains to find the source of that stream in hopes of discovering why it had gone dry. They went as far up into the Alps as their little legs would carry them, but they found no answers. The adults in the village knew better. They simply waited for it to rain. When the rains came the stream ran full and free again. They understood, you see, that ultimately the source of that stream was in the heavens. Just so the Church. Ultimately its source is in the heavens.

Remember, please, that the Church is the oldest institution on the face of the earth. No other organization or institution can come close to matching its longevity. In the course of its history, it has known withering persecution. Because of its own sin, it has experienced periods of great spiritual drought. It has survived false doctrines and false prophets and false actions and false inactions. It has known glorious times and it has known awful times. But it still lives. And it lives because its source is in the mind and the hand and the heart and the will of Almighty God. That is why the Church is different. That is why we call it “Holy.”

The second word is “Catholic.” It simply means “worldwide” or “universal.

It is unfortunate that the word “catholic” has come to be used to refer to only one segment of the worldwide Church—that segment of the Church which is based in Rome. Even more regrettably, churches not under the authority of Rome are referred to by some as “non-Catholic churches.” And that is wrong. As a Presbyterian, I am a Catholic—not a Roman Catholic, but a Presbyterian Catholic. I am as much a part of the worldwide Christian Church as any other Christ-loving, Christ-believing, Christ-serving person, on the face of the earth.

For Christ’s Church is Catholic—it is worldwide. There are more than 200 countries in the world and the Church of Jesus Christ is in every one of them. And the Church by the power of Jesus Christ has worked miracles in every one of them. The Druids used to paint themselves up and dance around great piles of stone. Today, because of the Church, they are Welshmen singing magnificent Christian hymns. The Anglos and the Saxons used to cannibalize their enemies, but because of the Church they became the people who set out in tiny ships to come to this country and plant the faith which is ours. The Huns behaved in a manner no person of German background would readily acknowledge, yet because of the Church they produced the likes of Luther and Bach and Niemoller and Thielecke. Go even to the most remote South Sea Island and there you will find the Church engaged in the business of changing people’s lives in Christ’s name. The Church is universal. It is worldwide. It is “Catholic.”

The last word is “Church.” It is difficult to define. This is the best that I can do. It is that company of people whom God calls to Himself, whom God inspires and empowers by the gift of His Spirit, and whom God then sends back into the world to do His work and His will.

I think here of something that was true of the Roman Empire. It was understood by the Romans that wherever Roman soldiers were, there the Empire was. That is equally true of the Church. Wherever Christians are, there the Church is. For the Church is people, people gathered together by God, people inspired and empowered by God, people sent as disciples into the world by God. And the Church in its grandest moments has always been a people on the march. I love that picture of the Church from the pages of the Song of Solomon. “Fair as the moon, bright as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.” It’s the same picture we see in the great hymn we shall sing today:

Like a mighty army, moves the Church of God
Brothers we are treading where the saints have trod
Christ the royal master, leads against the foe,
Forward into battle, see His banners go.

That’s the true picture of the church of Jesus Christ: like a mighty army with banners, marching through time and across the globe transforming people and changing societies—and doing it all in the name of Jesus Christ.

So…

In the Museum of Religion and Atheism in Leningrad, Russia, one is shown in a dramatic portrayal, and in a very professional manner all the sins and crimes of the Church through the ages. It portrays the Holy Wars, the Crusades, the executions, the persecutions, the inquisitions. People have indeed been shot: and halted and maimed in the name of God and of His Son. There is an immense picture of Bull Connor and his police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama to demonstrate to the Russian people how awful Christian America is. There is an icon from the Orthodox Church which depicts an angel. The devout believer would go and kneel before this angel and miraculously the angel would shed actual tears. Of course, the museum shows that behind the icon was a small bulb of water which an unseen hand could squeeze to make the
tears. My guess is that soon that museum will have a new display featuring the sickening massacre of Arab refugees by so-called Christian militiamen. I don’t know about you, but I have shuddered with shame every time I have heard the newscasters refer to them as “Christians.” Let those who perpetrated this unspeakable madness face the judgment of God for so besmirching our Saviour’s Holy name. So the Soviets take these and other incidents and say to their people: “The Christian Church is phony. It’s fraudulent. It claims to care about people, but what it does best is kill or enslave people.”

That museum vividly portrays the sins of the Church. But what it does not show is an infinitely greater truth—namely, that the Church has upon it the divine stamp of God Himself and that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, because it is God’s Church and Jesus Christ is the Lord of that Church. That’s the Church of which we are a part. And that’s what we celebrate at the Table today: the Holy Catholic Church, Christ’s mighty army, marching through the world, armed only with love and compassion, with the cross of Jesus going on before…

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