As we begin our celebration of the Lord’s Supper each month, we recite together the Apostles’ Creed. We confess that we believe in “the holy catholic church.” Now, some might think it strange for a bunch of Presbyterians to confess belief in the catholic church (kind of like the Mets rooting for the Yankees, or vice versa), but our communal confession is both accurate and appropriate. You see, “catholic” means universal, while “Catholic” has specific reference to the Roman Catholic Church. “Roman Catholic” is actually an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp” or “Knicks playoff games.”
I don’t know if you ever noticed, but in the bulletin there is a footnote to this phrase which explains it: “that is, the true Christian church of all times and all places.” The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 gives us a full and rich explanation in its answer to the question “What do you believe concerning ‘the holy catholic church’?” The answer: I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.
Wow. Read that again, and then let’s unpack it. First, when we call the church “catholic”, we mean that it is not bound by a particular culture, language, or race, but rather is universal in its extent. Look around you during a worship service at GRC, and you will catch a tiny glimpse of this reality. And how does the church achieve such diversity? Paradoxically, by unity; as Paul says in Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In other words, every person who worships and serves the true God as he is revealed in the Bible is bound to every other such believer, no matter who he or she is, where he or she is, when he or she lived, or how he or she came to faith.
The holy (because God has set it apart) catholic (universal in extent) church (most literally, “called out” by God) is not restricted by space or time, either; it stretches around the globe and across the centuries. So when you confess that you believe in Jesus the Christ, you are confessing that you share a common saving faith with Moses, David, Rahab, Naaman, Nicodemus, the Ethiopian eunuch, John Newton, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Colson, Ravi Zacharias, and believers in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
And why do we have this unity, this community, this common identity as the church? Because the Son of God throughout history gathers (Luke 19:10), protects (John 10:28), and preserves (John 6:39) for himself those whom the Father has chosen before all time (Ephesians 1:4, 11), who are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), for eternal life in true faith, now and forevermore. And all those chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed by the Holy Spirit will be brought into and kept in fellowship with the Triune God and with others of like precious faith.
That, dear fellow believers, is what we are confessing when we say “I believe in the holy catholic church.” Let us say it joyfully, say it unapologetically, and say it together.
Steve Hoogerhyde is a Ruling Elder.