©June 1, 2014 ~ Tom VanderPloeg
A coral reef is something we don’t see much of here in a landlocked state like Colorado. So unless you’ve traveled to the tropical ocean somewhere or have been to aquarium here in downtown Denver, we don’t see much coral. But here’s the interesting thing about coral. It builds upon preceding generations of itself. The brightly colored towers, spires, and structures that make up a coral reef are the remains of shells from the lifeforms on the reef that have already lived and died. So the lifeforms that make up the community in a coral reef have the foundation of previous lifeforms at their base. It is an ecosystem that could not possibly exist any other way.
And in other ways, a coral reef is a symbiotic community. What do I mean by symbiotic? It means they are interdependent upon one another for survival. Coral is a living organism. It needs oxygen to survive. All coral exists with a particular kind of algae that also lives in the coral reef. The algae gives off oxygen and other nutrients that the coral needs for survival. And in turn, the coral gives off carbon dioxide the is needed by the algae to survive. The coral and the algae need each other for survival the same way that we—and all other and animals—need plants for oxygen; and plants need us for carbon dioxide. One cannot exist without the other.
But coral has another strange type of symbiotic dependency. Often coral lives in colonies together. Coral grows very slowly by secreting a hardened carbon outer skeleton. As generations of coral live and die in these colonies, the reef builds and grows larger. They are not only dependent upon the algae, but they are also somewhat dependent on the coral that has already lived and died. And this coral will also eventually become the foundation for future colonies of coral.
We are not coral. But in the church we do have something of a similar symbiotic relationship at work. It is this unique community we have in the church that we want to talk about today. Let’s begin by looking at what scripture says about our community.
HC Q. 54
So let’s start this topic by having a little bit of introduction to what it means to be the Church. To do that we going to go back to the church of very early New Testament described themselves. So we can read about qualities of the church in passages like Acts 2 which says, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” But those in the first generation of New Testament churches also came together to agree upon and write down what they believed. One of those earliest documents that we have is called the Apostle’s Creed which says, “We believe in a holy catholic church.” About 500 years later in the 1500’s the pioneers of the protestant reformation explained what that meant in a document called the Heidelberg Catechism. I’ve put this in your outline for you. It’s question and answer 54 of the Catechism.
There’s great stuff in here. And if you are wondering where the authors of the Catechism got these statements from, this all comes directly from the teaching of scripture. I’m not going to take us through all of the 19 different passages footnoted in the catechism as foundation from scripture for defining the church the way it’s laid out here in the Catechism. If you’re interested in knowing that information you can google Heidelberg Catechism and find that information yourself.
I just want us to note some of the language used here in the Catechism to describe the church. Maybe one of the first things we should note is the Catechism’s use of the term “catholic.” That can be confusing or misleading because for most people it probably bring to mind an association with the Roman Catholic Church. And this is not what the Catechism means when is says that we believe in a holy catholic church. The word catholic literally means universal, in the sense of wide ranging, all-encompassing, broad-based. It means this is the church in its biggest possible meaning.
But beyond that, primarily at the heart of what it means to be the church is the idea of community. The church at its foundation is a community of people. Do you hear that. It is not an institution. It is not a building. It is not a collection of policies or doctrinal statements. The church is a community of people. It is not articles of incorporation or bylaws. It’s people.
And there is a horizontal element to this community. The Catechism tells us that the church is made up of people gathered and chosen for eternal life out of the entire human race. So while the church has a very local manifestation—that is, it is expressed in the form of a local congregation of people—we understand that we at Horizon are one part of something much bigger. The church is not just Horizon, it is made up of all people who gather to profess Jesus as savior and lord.
Maybe there is a god correction for us to make here. Often when we talk about church we speak of the church as individual congregations. We say things like, “What church do you belong to?” – or, “Here’s what’s happening at my church” as though each individual congregation is a church. So we talk about all the different churches that are around us. But if we profess to believe in a holy catholic church, then this distinction is not correct. We shouldn’t talk about different “churches” in the plural, because we profess one church—singular. We are a congregation here at Horizon which is a part of the church. Or to be even more precise, we are a congregation at Horizon, which affiliates with a larger collection of congregations known as the Christian Reformed Church, which is a collection of congregations that—together with countless other congregations—makes up the community of people known as the church.
So it’s accurate to think of ourselves at Horizon as a local congregation of believers. And we strive here to be a community of believers as a congregation. But we should never stop or limit our definition of community as being just Horizon and nothing more. Sure we have some unique characteristics as a congregation that set us apart here in our local community—and that’s not necessarily bad—but it’s not the only thing.
Think of it this way. We are all residents of the greater Denver metro area. And we share a local community with all the others that call the Denver area their home. But more than that, we are also Coloradans. And in that we share in a larger community of folks who generally love mountains and outdoor activities. But more than that, we are Americans and share in a larger community of folks from other states that share a value for democracy and liberty as defined by our country’s constitution. And more-and-more we live in a world that is defined globally, that we are all together a part of the human race. And just like we would never define what it means to be human by focusing exclusively on what that looks like only in suburban Denver, so too we cannot define what it means to be the church by focusing only on what that looks like in the congregation of Horizon.
But this community of the church doesn’t stop here either. There is also a vertical dimension to the church. The Catechism says that the church is a community made up of those whom God gathers from the beginning of the world to its end. So it is not just a community that includes the many other millions of people who gather in local congregations around the world on this day. It is also a community that includes the many billions of people who have gone before us as well as those who will come after us. In this way we understand the church as a community that exists for all time.
Consider the passages we read today from Matthew and Hebrews. Both of these passages talk about the community of God’s people in both a horizontal and vertical sense. Jesus states in Matthew 5 that we all have a communal responsibility to one another in following God, and this community is built upon the words of the prophets of previous generations. Hebrews 12 also speaks of following God as running a race—and it’s all characterized by plural pronouns, that we are all running this race together. But not just that, Hebrews 12 also mentions the cloud of witnesses. Who are these witnesses? Context makes it obvious that these are the heroes of faith in the previous chapter…those who have gone before and are given as examples. These are no less a part of the community. And they are not witnesses in the sense of being spectators. The greek word for witness in this passage carries the meaning of testimony—more like a courtroom witness. They are those in the church who have gone before us and by their very lives have given testimony of what it means to live as a part of this church community.
We are a part of this vertical community as well. No doubt many of us here—if not all of us—can point to mentors and examples in the faith that have gone before us and impacted our journey of faith in some way. But more than that, we also take our place within that community to leave an example for those who go behind us. Is this not the central promise that we as a church makes every time we administer the sacrament of baptism here? We promise to help nurture and train our children and those new to the faith. This is not something to which we give a nod of approval and then assume somebody else is doing it. It’s not a promise that you make on behalf of the pastors and then assume that all nurturing and growing of faith is done by the staff here. NO! This is your promise. And it’s not a promise to me or to the council of this congregation or even a promise made to those who receive baptism. It’s a promise to God. And that’s serious business. Your participation in this community that we call the church comes with a commitment. We’ll get to some ways that this commitment shows up in a little bit.
How the Holy Spirit Works
First let’s talk about the Holy Spirit. Because we cannot get very far in considering this community of the church without encountering the Holy Spirit.
Here is where I maybe have to step on a few toes of our brothers and sisters in baptist congregations. We’re not calling baptists heretics, they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. But we come from a tradition that teaches a different nuance in understanding the work of the Holy Spirit. The majority of baptists would say that a believer receives the gift of the Holy Spirit upon their baptism. It is an individual gift given to an individual believer as a sign and seal of individual—or personal—salvation.
But in the context of what we are talking about today—about the community that we call the church, I think the Reformed tradition provides an understanding of the Holy Spirit that is articulated in a more helpful way. The Hoy Spirit is not an individual gift given to an individual believer. The Holy Spirit is a communal gift given to a people. Why? To say that the Holy Spirit is only a sign and seal of personal salvation is not enough. It is true, but it’s not enough. The Catechism says that it is also the Holy Spirit—along with the Word—who gathers and provides unity among this community that we call church. The Holy Spirit is no more an individual gift than an individual cello could play a complete Beethoven symphony piece. Only in concert with all the other instruments of an orchestra can the cello combine with the others and together all play in harmony. The Holy Spirit is our conductor telling us and directing us as to what part we all play within the whole. This is a helpful way of understanding how the Holy Spirit works—that the chief function of the Holy Spirit is bring us together in unity.
Less me, more we
So what do we take away from this today? Where do we go from here? Just like a single coral polyp cannot survive on its own, neither can the faith life of a single Christian survive on its own. What we need to understand and embrace here today is that in the church we need less me & more we. If nothing else at all we need to understand this morning that our life of faith is a symbiotic life—like that of a coral. We depend upon one another. And it is the very design of God through his Holy Spirit to make it this way.
Let’s talk about some steps and opportunities we have to able to make this real. Some of you here have had the opportunity to be in a small group and you have been able to experience what a community of faith feels like in that setting where you know there is a place where others are praying for you and with you. Others of you know what it’s like to be in a Bible study group where you not only learn about the Bible, but you also share with one another. And this way, the things that you are learning about the Bible take immediate root and grow as faith in this community. Some of you here volunteer to be a part of the worship team or teach our youth. And those of you who do that know that there is a joy in serving others that causes our own faith to grow.
There are other places this kind of community shows up here at Horizon as well. We have opportunities to serve in missions volunteering with others. Every year there are opportunities to fill leadership positions on our council. These are all places to serve at Horizon that place us within community and the Holy Spirit uses our gifts within this community. One new opportunity we are getting ready to launch in the fall is a mentoring program for our students. Remember what I said about the promise we make when children are baptized? Here is a great chance to be a part of something that gives you the opportunity to connect with students. Read more about the mentoring program in the June newsletter that is available today.
We also want to acknowledge that community in the church takes place beyond the level of the local congregation. Where does this show up? Many of you I know have given time to some of these. Serve locally with Volunteers in Action, Christian Living Communities, Quiet Waters Ministries, Wycliff Bible. I know those of you who serve with these groups can testify that it does not matter which congregation or tradition you come from, there is still a community of faith that exists in the church outside of these walls as well.
So I want us to leave here today understanding our place in community—because that’s what the church is. And if you are not a part of community then you really haven’t fully experienced what it means to be a part of the church. So there are two questions I want to leave with today. One: how has the Holy Spirit used/blessed me through community? Begin by thinking and making a list of all the ways that God has already been evident in your faith through community. Look at that list as a confirmation that God has called you to be a part of his church and that he does use you though his Spirit in this community. And two: where is the Holy Spirit leading me to be more connected with others? Don’t settle for little or no connection. Don’t settle for good enough. Think about some of the list. Talk to others. Set a goal this summer. Connect with community.