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what do you mean “the holy catholic church”?

In our current sermon series we are looking at what we believe through the lens of the Apostles’ Creed, as well as certain distinctives that form who we are as a local church. Our faith is ancient, and we are a modern church. We trace our faith and doctrine back to the earliest church as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed:

We believe in God,
the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
We believe in Jesus Christ,
God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Notice that the creed focuses primarily on God in Trinity! All of the early creeds focus on the Trinity as the center of right belief about God, though they include other things as well, things like, “We believe in the holy catholic church”.

One of the questions that has come up in connection with this series is the idea of the “catholic church”. What in the world does this mean? To understand why the creed uses this term—and why we should claim it—we must first understand its origins.

The first person to refer to the church of Jesus Christ as “catholic” was Ignatius, the bishop (lead elder) of the church in Antioch. He was martyred in the city of Rome in the year AD 107, a little over ten years after John wrote Revelation! While en route to Rome, he wrote seven letters to various churches, including the church in Smyrna where Polycarp was serving. In that letter he encouraged the church to follow and support their bishop, or lead elder:

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.

Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2

The word “catholic” is a transliteration of the Greek adjective καθολικος (katholikos). It is usually not translated, as it became an important word, and doesn’t really have a good English equivalent. It is often said to mean universal, but that doesn’t quite capture its meaning. It comes from two Greek words, κατά and ὅλος (kata and holos): “according to the whole”. It refers to the church in its entirety; no part is missing. It’s the whole thing. Notice closely what Ignatius says causes catholicity in a church: “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church”. Wherever Jesus manifests his presence, the whole church is present.

We see this in Scripture! In the letter to the Hebrews the author is encouraging the church to no longer rely on Jewish practices related to the temple, including sacrifices, for the church has a greater covenant than the one given at Mount Sinai:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:18–24 ESV

At Sinai, the giving of the covenant (the Ten Commandments; see Exodus 34:38) was a frightening experience, for it could not fully reconcile the people to God. It could not take away their sins. The experience of the new covenant, however, is vastly different. Hebrews says that when the church assembles, it has come a very different sort of mountain. He’s not saying this will be their future experience, but “You have come“. Whenever it assembles, the church has come to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”. Notice the other attendees! There are: innumerable angels in festal gathering—they’re having a party; the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven—most likely those who died in faith prior to the coming of Jesus; and the spirits of the righteous made perfect—those who have died in Christ and are awaiting the resurrection of their bodies. And, of course, Jesus is present.

When a local church assembles in the name of Jesus, something truly profound happens: the Lord enters into that assembly. God is God and is therefore omnipresent, yet Jesus promised when two or more gather in his name, there he is. He’s everywhere, yet he’s somehow more present in his gathered assembly. When Jesus is in his assembly, all those who are in his presence remain with him, for they cannot be apart from him. Here, then, is the catholic church! The whole church assembles across space and time with the Lord Jesus. This is why Ignatius wrote that wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. The church is whole or entire or complete or universal wherever Jesus is.

Because this wholeness was such an important concept, the idea of referring to the church of Jesus as catholic continued and the word was transliterated into other languages, on down through the centuries. When the creed says we believe in one holy catholic church, it is acknowledging the incredible privilege we have to be the people of God, to assemble in his name knowing that he enters into our presence.

The author of Hebrews explains how this is even possible. He says that we have come to the heavenly Jerusalem, and ends by saying we have come to the “sprinkled blood of Jesus that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”. Abel was murdered by his brother and God told Cain that Abel’s blood was crying out to him from the ground (Genesis 4:10). It was crying out for vengeance and for justice. The blood of Jesus, however, speaks a better word, for it cries out, “It is finished!” The separation between God and his people has been forever closed. We can now enter into God’s presence without fear, unlike those under the old covenant. Our sins have been taken away and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)!

When we declare that we believe in one holy catholic church, we are declaring that we believe that God has once and for all reconciled his people to himself, and has removed our guilt and shame, and we have direct, immediate access to him through the blood of his Son. When we gather together on Sunday mornings in the name of Jesus to worship our God in Trinity, we do so with a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Our God enters into our presence, and wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.