We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, and we respect and honor with gratitude the land itself, the legacy of the ancestors, and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

The Creeds Class, Part 5, March 20, 2024

“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” 

The creeds claim that the church is an essential part of the faith.

But what exactly is church?  How would you define the church?

Ecclesia, being called out

The Christian church began when the people who had followed Jesus during his ministry came to believe in his resurrection and gathered together in a fellowship.  This happened in Jerusalem in 30CE.  The birth of the Christian church coincides with the emergence of the resurrection faith. 

Ways the church is described in scripture—the flock over which the Holy Spirit has appointed overseers, (Acts 20:28), God’s field, God’s building (I Cor 3:9) the temple of the living God (2Cor 6:16), the family of faith (Galatians 6:10), citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19) the household of God which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (I Timothy 3:15), a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (I Peter 2:9)  the body of Christ. 

In First Corinthians, Chapter 12, Paul talks about the make-up of the church as the body of Christ.   “For in the one spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit…..If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it, and we all strive for the greater gifts, which are faith, hope and love, with love being the greatest. 

Who makes up the church?  The priesthood of all believers, or those who actually are part of an institutional church? 

A tension between the institutional church and the church as the totality of believers.  In the 3rd century, Bishop Cyprian of North Africa viewed the church as an earthly institution identifiable by the proper succession of bishops from the apostles.  He said that outside the church, there is no salvation. 

Totality of believers—If the true church consists of all persons of all times and places who receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ, then there’s no requirement of belonging to any one earthly institution.  Don’t forget the thief, crucified with Jesus, belonging to no particular denomination, who is invited by Jesus into paradise. 

The four marks of the church, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” 

One—unity has always been a problem!  I Corinthians, Paul is already trying to keep the church unified. 

In Acts, all the believers were together and had all things in common, but it wasn’t long after they began to grow that the fussing and division began.  The First Council of Jerusalem took place to settle differences between the Jews and the Hellenists. 

It was at the Council of Jerusalem that the decision was made that circumcision was not required to be a Christian.  “Unity did not, and does not, mean uniformity.” 

The modern ecumenical movement began in 1910 and meetings every 10 years finally led to the formation of the World Council of Churches, an example of conciliar unity.    

Conciliar Unity—this is a unity among churches who are faithful to koinonia, that is the idea of fellowship, joint participation, sharing, partnership—the nature of unity being the communion of local churches.

For others, it’s visible unity.  So under this model you get multilateral and bilateral dialogues among denominations. 

Examples of multilateral dialogues.  A group called the Consultation on Church Unity.  This group started out  in 1960 with representatives from thirteen denominations.  They tried to hammer out a statement of agreed faith.  After twenty years of work, the group, now down to nine denominations, adopted a consensus called “In Quest of a Church of Christ Uniting.” 

They listed seven characteristics of a Church Uniting—centrality of God’s grace, ongoing mission of salvation for the whole world, apostolic and priestly ministry for every church member, structures that mirror the diversity of membership, appreciation for various traditions, strengthening ecumenical relationships, maximum openness for continuing renewal and reformation.  And the consensus acknowledges both creeds as “unique ecumenical witnesses which the Church United will use I worship as acts of praise and allegiance to the triune God.  

In 2002,  eleven Christian communions pledged to live more closely together in expressing their unity in Christ and combatting racism—this group is known as Churches Uniting in Christ.  We Episcopalians are/were part of this group.  Interesting to note that this group has had its own inner strife, with two of the historically black denominations withdrawing because the feeling was that not enough attention was being given to combatting racism. I can’t find any indication that Churches Uniting in Christ is still an active group. 

More typical now are bilateral dialogues between two denominations.  But this is an unwieldy and expensive process. 

But most important (to my way of thinking) is grassroots ecumenism, on the local level Christians see all Christians as members of Christ’s church and feel no barriers to full communion with them. 

Holy  Jesus Christ is holy, and we are members of his body, so therefore…..but we all know that we do not act in holy ways, church has been called a hospital for sinners, Paul says that we are called to be saints and we have to practice, over and over, walking in love.  The power of being sanctified by the power of the  Holy Spirit.  But the church isn’t the only thing that is holy.  The whole world is filled with God’s holiness. 

Catholic  “Catholic” comes from a Greek word meaning universal.  What all Christians have believed at all times, everywhere—the orthodox faith, which would be four things.  The Holy Scriptures contains all things necessary to salvation, two historic creeds as a sufficient summary of the Christian faith, the two sacraments of baptism and eucharist ordained by Christ as essential, and the historic episcopate “locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations. 

Apostolic  Comes from the Greek meaning “one who is sent forth.”  In 1984, the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue says that the church’s apostolicity is manifested through the succession of bishops, that apostolic tradition is maintained in the preaching and teaching of the church, and in its apostolic mission to the world.  “The episcopal succession is a sign, though not a guarantee, of the continuity and unity of the church.”  People are still being sent out in mission to bring other people to Jesus Christ. 

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Sin  Sin is a universal condition.  Missing the mark, going wrong, falling short of the life God intended.  Trespasses—Paul uses this word forty-eight times in his NT letters.  Evil brings suffering.  Sin results in human misery, eve when the sinner might be forgiven.  Suffering is an automatic byproduct of sin.  Sin is something of which we cannot free ourselves—a kind of addiction, the inability to see our desperate need for deliverance. The condition of sin is a broken relationship with God, and as a consequence, alienation from each other and from ourselves.  “Sin is when life freezes.”  Dorothy Solle

Personal sins

Systemic sin—the system is of out of order and its institutions are corrupt, but we are part of the system.  For instance, we pay taxes and therefore contribute to wars.  We live in comfort and ignore the needy and the homeless. 

Forgiveness—God is always ready to forgive.  We need to ask God’s forgiveness over and over again for things done and left undone.  God’s forgiveness deson’t mean that God overlooks sin or is indifferent to it.  Forgiveness is God’s willingness to die for our sins.  God running down the road with arms open to welcome us home.    Jesus taught us to ask forgiveness every day in the Lord’s Prayer, and also made it clear that we need to forgive others.

Baptism.   Baptism is a sacrament.  John Macquarrie calls a sacrament a focus, an intensification of the divine presence.  Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, the sacred presence of God in our midst today. 

So baptism, as a focus of God’s forgiveness, washes away our sin, but we need to grow into that clean new life (this growth includes asking for forgiveness) 

In 1982 in Lima, Peru, an ecumenical group gathered and adopted an agreed upon statement about baptism, eucharist, and ministry.    The Lima document highlights five images about baptism and new life.    Participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.  Conversion, pardon, and cleansing, the gift of the Spirit, incorporation into the body of Christ; and the kingdom of God  Baptism both signifies and effects all of these. 

The Nicene Creed stresses the second of these, baptism for the forgiveness of sin.  Washing of the body , with pure water and a cleansing of the heart  of all sin.  Plus, a new ethical orientation, one that calls not only for personal sanctification, but also striving to realize the realm of God in all realms of life. 

One baptism—baptism is an unrepeatable act, baptism by water and the spirit are not separate acts, according to Paul, but scripture itself is in conflct with this.  Anabaptists rebaptized those who had been baptized as infants and who were now adults and ready to take on a life in Christ.  Some elements of the ancient liturgy, in which adults were baptized, include insistence on the corporate nature of baptism, not to be done in the family living room as the prelude to a party.  The triple renunciation of the world, the flesn and the devil is followed by the triple affirmation of faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, suing the words of the Apostles’ Creed.  Ethical implications are spelled out, such as the promise to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being. 

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. 

The Nicene Creed makes four affirmations about the future.  We say that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.  At the end of the Creed, we say that we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  These are all eschatological ideas, last or final things. 

Parousia, the imminent return of Christ to usher in the new age.  In today’s church, we still expect Jesus’ return in glory.  Advent, a season of intense expectation.  Our faith is forward looking, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  The coming of Christ in glory occurs every time the Eucharist is celebrated.  The future is present. 

The resurrection of the dead.  Apostles’ Creed specifies the resurrection of the body—but Nicene Creed does not.  Bodily resurrection implies continued personal identity with some recognizable continuity with the previous living human being.  The notion of reunion with loved ones. 

The life of the world to come—where we are headed.   

Futurist eschatology—everything awaits a consummation that lies ahead of us, the object of our hopes that is in no way present.  Realized eschatology—we already experience all of the resurrection life that is in store for us if we know Jesus Christ and walk in “newness of life” today.  We have great expectations today.  This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  The third option is the most Biblical.   Eternal life begins at baptism, in the death and resurrection that initiation symbolizes.  We experience eternal life in moments of real worship and times of real love, but we don’t yet know it in its fullness.  The full experience is not yet ours; that gift is given only at clinical death, but we die little deaths and rise to newness of life every day. 

And in closing, we need faith in who and what we can trust, we need hope in the future, the horizon of hope moves us forward.  Hope involves both the head and the heart.    Love –God as lover.  Lovers love each other because they find each other valuable.  God loves us and values us, all of us, just as we are.  God finds us worthy of love. 

Worship expresses our faith in God, our hope in God’s future, and our love of God’s very Self, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But worship doesn’t just express these dimensions, it also evokes them.  Worship helps create faith and hope and love that are integral parts of being a Christin in the world.  “Worship helps to expand our hearts into a world-embracing space of healing from which no one is excluded.” 

The Eucharist is at the heart of Christian worship, every time we gather around the table we gain an inkling of God’s purpose for humanity, to care, to be aware of the suffering in the world, and to do something about it. 

This is context in which we say the Nicene Creed.  So it becomes a doxology, an act of praise of God’s glory, of God’s very nature.  And then we get sent out to love and serve the Lord.  The creed helps lead us to respond to God’s world by loving the world God has made, and all the people in it. 

These notes are from Marianne H. Micks,  Loving the Questions:  An exploration of the Nicene Creed, and from Marshall D. Johnson  The Apostles’ Creed, A User’s Guide.  Exploring Christian Faith.