The Marks Of The Church

Introduction The sunny days we have been having remind me of a trick I had done on me, years ago back in Australia. It was part of a "warm up" before the showing of a film at beach mission. We were told that it was the Siamese national day, and that in honour of the fact we would learn to sing part of their national anthem. With considerable vocal expression by the compere, we were taught the words "Oooo-wah Tagoo, Siam" and then set off singing the anthem to the tune of God save the Queen. Slowly the truth dawned on us. We were being had ["O what a goose I am"]. Sometimes people can say things that they don't really mean, or don't really understand. You may have noticed yourself tonight saying that you "believe in the holy catholic Church", or at communion services that you "believe one holy catholic and apostolic church". Perhaps you wondered whether you really did. Like many have and do, you wondered whether you had come to the wrong place. You didn't know it was a Catholic Church, you thought it was a Church of England. Or having been around for a while, you were surprised that so much was made of the holiness of the church, or the fact that two thousand years later, the apostles are still involved. Tonight, not just to help our comprehension, but also to increase our thankfulness, we are looking at these so-called "marks of the church". We should start by saying that the turn of phrase, 'one holy catholic and apostolic church' is not in the Bible. You might really wonder why we are looking at it when I tell you that the words "catholic" and "apostolic" do not even occur once in the Bible, though neither of course does the Trinity. How strange that the Council of Constantinople in 381, landed on these words and that so long afterwards we continue to say them. To guide us and anchor us we will be jumping off from the reading in John's gospel, John 17.20 and 21:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

These words are taken out of the long prayer of Jesus to his Father, found in John 17. In the chapters before it, Jesus had concentrated on the disciples, what will happen to them, and the gift to them of the Holy Spirit. In this chapter he turns his eyes to heaven and addresses the Father, before he goes out to death and resurrection. This is where he lets us know his feelings for his disciples. It is like the letter of a son going off to war, or like a last will and testament made out before a long journey. One more problem to address before we begin: If 'catholic' and 'apostolic' and 'holy' are not in these verses, neither is the word 'church'. I begin to wonder whether I have chosen the right passage! First, we need to realise that the church in the Bible is not a building. The church is a gathering of believers, people who have life in Jesus' name, as it says in John 20.31:

these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Because the church is made up of believers, rather than people who go along to ecclesiastical buildings on Sundays, we cannot yet know the extent of the church. The gatherings now called church may contain believers and non-believers. However, there is also the future gathering in heaven of all believers, and only believers. Jesus' words here are a prayer for the true believers, not for those who merely attend church. We begin by considering what these verses have to say about the apostolic church. First, THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH (v 20)

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.

The section before these verses has been thinking in particular about Jesus' disciples, those whom he sends out and are also given the name 'the apostles'. See the heading that has been put in our Bibles: 'Jesus Prays for His Disciples' but the heading for this section, 'Jesus Prays for All Believers'. These words show that Jesus expected a community of believers to grow up after him, those who would believe through the apostles' message. In this sense the church that Jesus envisages is 'apostolic'. It is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone." (Eph 2.20) It continues in the apostles' teaching (Acts 2.42), the "faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). As Paul commanded Timothy, "the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim 2.2) Faithfulness to the message of the apostles means faithfulness to the teaching that they have left us in the Scriptures. The way to believe is not to follow every new idea that comes along. The way to believe is to follow the teaching of the Bible, which is the message of the apostles. Some of you are looking for houses to share for the next academic year. You go to an agent or a land-lord and some of the houses have conditions attached. This house is for non-smokers. This house is girls not guys. This house is for five people not four. You cannot have the house if you will not fulfil the conditions. That is what has been laid down. What has been laid down and passed on by the apostles is not negotiable. The church is truly the church when it passes on the apostolic teaching. For instance about the sinfulness of man, and the judgment of God; the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I regret to say that you can be a minister in the Church of England and not hold these apostolic doctrines almost without anyone worrying, but if for instance you stop financially supporting churches where the apostolic doctrine is not taught, you will be called un-Christian. If we do not hold the apostolic message, we are not the church that Jesus prayed for. In the Book of Revelation Jesus described one of the churches as a "synagogue of Satan". A description like that, is potentially open to any so called church that rejects the apostolic teaching. Secondly, THE ONE CHURCH (v 21a) What is it that Jesus prays for in the next verse, the first part of verse 21?:

that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.

Jesus has already prayed that his disciples would be one, verse 11 "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name - the name you gave me- so that they may be one as we are one". This prayer is now extended to all that follow on after them. The unity that is held up is the indwelling of the Father by the Son, and the Son by the Father. Jesus wants his church to have the kind of unity that he shares with his Father. Jesus is not the Father. The Father is not the Son, yet they are working for the same thing. They continue to share in each other, even though they have different roles: for instance the Son is dependent on the Father and obedient to him. How is the unity of the Father and the Son a model for the church? That the church is one in this way means that Christians don't all have to be the same, or all be part of the same institution, or all have to meet in the same vast place. But it does mean that they share the same thing inside. God is dwelling in all Christians. This unites them, not in an external structural way, but in an internal unity of love. Believers all have God's Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Notice that the unity is not the result of humans banding together: it is in God's hands, it has to flow from him. Unity is God's desire. If asked to think about suggestions for unity we, no doubt, would be quick to think of the human level, having services together for instance, all the different things that we could do. That horizontal aspect is a well-trodden route in most places in the country, but we must not forget that there is also a vertical aspect. For believers, unity flows out from the nature of God: the more a believer is indwelt by God, the more he or she will find unity with others who likewise are indwelt by God. Scripture calls for the fullest possible unity, yet makes it clear that division is in accord with God's will when the essentials of apostolic christianity are at stake. However, we need to beware that a barrier to unity with other believers can actually be that we ourselves are not close to God. God makes unity and God desires unity. God desires that we are one in spirit with the brothers and sisters who are being persecuted around the world. God desires that we are one in mind within the fellowship here, in our Home Groups and Hall Groups. God desires too, that the believers in Newcastle don't work in rivalry and envy, seeming to build their own empires. Because of our sinful hearts we know how hard that is. There is another aspect to our unity: there are two places where the church dwells, and one day they will be joined. Those that are in heaven and those that are on earth. On the earth all are running a race; doing a work; carrying a cross; striving against sin; witnessing for Christ; hearing, reading and praying for the life of their souls. Those in heaven have fought their battle, they have finished their course. We know they are no longer troubled by sin and temptation. They have said good-bye for ever to poverty, anxiety, pain, sickness, sorrow and tears. Yet the difference between the two is only one of degree. Both love the same Saviour and delight in the same perfect will of God. Bishop Ryle said it is as though one lot are children on holiday, and the others still at school, often needing a reminder of their past mistakes. We only see a small body of believers at the present time: there is a great number that will one day be assembled. Thirdly, the creed says "one holy, catholic and apostolic church", what of the holy church? Thirdly, THE HOLY CHURCH (v21b) Verse 21 continues:

May they also be in us

Not only does Jesus pray that the believers would be united, he prays that the believers would be in God. To be "in God" has great implications. Holy is possibly the adjective that best describes God. For the church to be in God is for the church to be set apart, holy. Peter writes "you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God". The task of the church is to think God's thoughts, to speak God's Word, to do God's actions, to be dedicated to God's saving reign. There are only two places to belong: on the one hand the world and all its rebellion and lostness, and on the other in God in his holiness and peace and light. Are we 'in God', with all that means for our thinking and speaking and doing? Or are we in the world? The "Holy Church" may suggest to some people an idea that all the believers have to have some sort of self-satisfied, sanctimonious air about them. C.S. Lewis, in the Screwtape Letters, letters from a senior devil to a junior, describes one such new convert:

My dear Wormwood, I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime you must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy's camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour. One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the church as we see her spread out through time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face, bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. (C.S. Lewis "The Screwtape Letters" chapter 2)

And yet the Scriptures say that Christians are holy. Not because of what they have done, or who they are in themselves, but because of who called them. If we are believers we are holy whatever the state of our personal merit or holiness of life. Holy because we reflect a holy God that is in us, just as the moon which is a dead place, reflects the light of the sun. We do not suddenly become holy, sin remains a major part of our life, but we have been called out from the world to remind the world of its God. Jesus' prayer is that we would be in God, and that with a purpose, the last clause of verse 21 ... Fourthly, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH (v21c)

... so that the world may believe that you have sent me

The world doesn't know or believe that God sent Jesus Christ. The world is what God has in view. All of it is the aim of his rescue plan in Christ. No racial distinctions, no gender distinctions, no economic, social or intellectual distinctions: what is on offer is on offer to the whole world. That is one meaning of the word 'catholic' with a small c. The word 'catholic' is derived from 'according to the whole'. It stands too, for the fullness of those universal doctines of the Christian faith that have been believed at all times in all places. One of the creeds the Church of England no longer uses is the Athanasian Creed which states, "whosever will be saved; before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith". It goes on to explain the basic doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. In some modern versions of the creeds "catholic" has been replaced with the word "universal", which is less confusing, because with a capital "C" the word is used by the Roman Catholic Church to stand for its own particular church. We are one apostolic and holy church for a reason: God wants the church to reach out as a universal, a catholic church, to a world that is in darkness. Christian believers will offer to the world the same type of challenge that Jesus offered: a challenge to recognise God in Jesus. The world does not know why God sent Jesus. It has no idea. We are here to help the world believe that God sent Jesus in order to save it. If we are the instrument of turning one sinner from sin to believe in Jesus, we have done a far more glorious and lasting work than if we had built this building or Durham Cathedral single-handed. Perhaps there is someone here tonight who does not know why God sent Jesus: this week Just Looking groups begin, get details like this from me or Ian Garrett after the service. Conclusion I conclude with a question. Do you belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of God? Not 'are you a regular attender at JPC, or of another church', not 'are you a Baptist or a Methodist' or something else? But are you committed to the faith as handed down by the apostles, to the unity that comes from God, and the holiness that comes from, and is commanded by God, with the aim, not of personal satisfaction, but the aim of seeing the universal church realise its potential?

Back to top