The Four Marks of the Church: “One”

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A sermon on Ephesians 4:1-6 given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on June 14, 2020, the second Sunday after Pentecost. Part a four-part series on the Four Marks of the Church, as found in the Nicene Creed.

Introduction: Why Now?

Well, today we begin a four-part series on the four classic marks of the Church, as found in the Nicene Creed. There, the Church is described as “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”

The question you may be asking is, why now? Why are we concentrating on what we believe about the body of Christ now? Well, friends, in this time, I believe that there a very few priorities more important than reaffirming and strengthening what we believe about Jesus’ Church.

More specifically, the inspiration for this series came out of reflection on Dale Partridge’s lengthy article entitled “How the Coronavirus Might Change the Local Church, Forever.” I view that article as required reading for this series – if you haven’t yet read it, please do so! In that article, he points to two massive trends.

The first is this: The birth of congregational globalism. What does that mean? Well, basically it means that we’re going to reap what we’ve sown in much of the modern church. Consumer Christianity has taught people that worship is about them, not about God and the body of Christ. That services are attractional in nature rather than a place to receive Word and Sacrament, serving alongside others. In this context, what happens in this midst of a pandemic? Quite simply, the vital tie to the church local becomes exceedingly thin or is revealed to have never existed in the first place. Here’s how Partridge puts it (warning: long quote ahead!):

“During the first few Sundays of the United States quarantine, I noticed a few telling trends emerge in church culture. First, I saw hundreds of Christians spontaneously embark on church shopping voyages for the best online service they could find. In a quick and liberating fashion, those who may have attended smaller churches for years seemed to have abandoned their local congregations to find the institutions that could best quench their consumer needs. In fact, I saw several Christian influencers post lists of “Great Churches to Check Out During your Quarantine” as if remaining loyal to your local church (through their virtual means) was not ideal or recommended. As you know, the winner of this shopping contest is not earned by accurate doctrine or by relational loyalty to other church members but by the church with the most persuasive and captivating communication, music, and marketing. …

This shouldn’t shock anyone, either. The Western Church has primed us for this moment for many years. By building congregations around consumer-centric events instead of a contributor-centric gathering, “me” has become king and “we” fall to the backdrop.

Allow me to illustrate. For the past several decades the Western Church has increasingly built the Sunday assembly around a theatrical and entertaining musical performance and a highly applicable TedTalk-style sermon. This is why modern church-goers look for a church based on criteria like:

  • Do I like their worship music?
  • Do I like the pastor?
  • Do they offer good kids programs?
  • Do they have a coffee shop?
  • Do they have a clean and safe campus?

As you can see, we have nurtured a strong consumer appetite. Few Christians look for churches based on the orthodoxy preached or doctrinal accuracy observed. The church at large is not hungering for deep accountable relationships or the spiritual safety of biblical eldership. Instead, they are looking for infotainment and self-help. Consequently, this has taught us that church is not about corporate life, it’s about a time for me to individually focus on God. When you combine these two realities together (good consumer content and personal worship) you quickly learn that your disinfected living room (free of coughing strangers) offers a far more effective environment for both content consumption and intimate time for worship.

For that reason, my prediction is that virtual church variety will be king. In fact, it already is. How many podcasts and books and sermons do you consume each month? Why not extend that practice to Sunday? If you listen to the worship music of this church and the sermons from that church throughout the week, what’s stopping you from doing that for your Sunday worship? That is, why would you only listen to the Sunday message online from your church in Smallville when you can listen to a rotation of the greatest musicians on earth paired with messages from highly gifted pastors who speak to your current needs? Do you see where I’m going?”

Now, the second trend he sees is that in this milieu, conversely, the desire for authentic, full, biblical (and, perhaps, smaller) Christian fellowship will also increase. And friends, we ought to proudly note: this nothing more than Creedal, orthodox, historic Christianity, which affirms those Four Marks of the Church as found in Scripture. We’re taking this time reaffirm these Marks because I want to ensure that we are one of the churches where authentic and deep community in Christ Jesus is found and proclaimed. To put it simply, if our doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) is weak, it will show!

So with that we move to our first mark: One. Our passage for the day is Ephesians 4:1-6. And just look at how the language of the Creed echoes the language of Scripture. here Paul uses the word “one” seven times in this passage, showing just how foundational the nature of the Church as ONE is. This is why it’s the first mark in the Nicene Creed. Unless we understand this, we won’t understand the others. Unless we affirm this, we can’t affirm the others.

So what does it mean to affirm the “oneness” of the Church and how does it affect the life of the Christian?

It Means That We Get God’s Perspective on the Church (vs. 2-6)

with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

When we take the first mark seriously, we find that when God looks at his people, he only ever sees one church. We come to see that throughout our lives we never truly move from one church to another because there is only one body of Christ. We come to see also that this “oneness” is rooted in the very person of God himself. I already mentioned that the term “one” is used in the passage seven times. This is deliberate – it reflects the perfection of the Triune God and outworking of his person and purposes in the church. John Stott writes:

“We must assert that there can be only one Christian family, only one Christian faith, hope and baptism, and only one Christian body, because there is only one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You can no more multiply churches than you can multiply Gods. Is there only one God? Then he has only one church. Is the unity of God inviolable? Then so is the unity of the church. The unity of the church is as indestructible as the unity of God himself. It is no more possible to split the church than it is possible to split the Godhead. (The Message of Ephesians, pg. 151)

Now there remains hanging over that reality the sad visible disunity of the church, a question which we’ll address in week two of this series.

It Means That Our Love for the Church Local Increases (vs. 1-3)

But more to the point, secondly, when you start with God’s perspective, very quickly you find that affirming the essential unity of the Church universal will strengthen your love for the church local.  You see, this doctrine of the oneness of the Church can never remain at the theoretical and invisible level. Rather, truly believing that the Church is One works itself out in how we conduct ourselves in the enfleshed life and relationships of the church local.

This is exactly the logic of Paul’s argument here. Because God is one and his church is one, therefore – verse 3 – be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace! That word there, eager, is an understatement. In the Greek it means something like do all that you can, whenever you can, as soon as you can to persevere and guard the fellowship you’re in, walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (v.1). And what is that calling? Chapter 3 makes it absolutely clear that is the call of the gospel. Because of the gospel, which brings sinners together at the level foot of the Cross, we are called together in the unity of the Body.

Now this brings me what will undoubtedly be the most unpopular part of this sermon. If that’s the case, then what are the good reasons to leave a local church? This is miles from popular opinion, but as far as I can tell, there are three: 1) the church’s candlestick has been removed (the gospel is not being preached), 2) you move or 3) God calls you to serve elsewhere for greater effectiveness in his Kingdom (in other words, he calls you to somewhere else). Are there other exceptions? Maybe.

Nonetheless, seeing God’s perspective on the church should lead us to do all we can, for as long as we can, to love all the saints that God has given us to serve with. That’s the hard way of Ephesians 4, but it’s the good way. Practice “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,” says Paul. And don’t we know this way to be good, and full of fruit in Christ here in this church? Yes, we do. We’ve experienced it. We are experiencing it.

It Means That the Church Becomes “Real”

When you see God’s perspective on the Church, you begin take it seriously. What do I mean by that? What I mean is that, for many Christians, the Church is something that can picked up or put down whenever is convenient. But Ephesians 4 give us a radically different picture. In a few words, it tells us that “the Gospel is ecclesial” (John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II, pg. 192). Meaning, to be a Christian, to be saved by grace through faith, is to be wrapped in the mosaic of God’s people in a way that is visible, regular, ongoing, and finds expression in the local church, under godly and biblical leadership, where the Gospel is truly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. There is no other basic context for the Christian life.

Today, many Christians are substituting online sermons (present circumstances excepted) and parachurch organizations (organizations that serve alongside the church in her mission) for what only the Church of Christ can give. These things are supplements, not substitutes. Aimee Byrd writes this:

“The popular mind-set [today] is that while church is still recognized as important, the real ministry is taking place outside the church. In working with a parachurch organization, many believe they are going somewhere more real than the place they may or may not have participated in and left on Sunday morning. Parachurch is where the gospel work is happening. Parachurch is where the real action is.” (Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, pg. 155)

Brothers and sisters, nothing could be more real than what happens in the worship and life of the church local, and it’s all based in affirming that the Church is “One” in God’s eyes.

It Means That We Should Not Lose Hope

Lastly, we should be hopeful – personally and corporately. Despite outward appearances, the church will persist and be victorious because of the blessing of God the Father, Jesus’ own declaration over it, and the work of the Holy Spirit, indwelling and empowering the one Body of Christ (vs. 4-6).

Remember the words of our Lord: “[upon] this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

In the words of that famous hymn we sang this morning:

Elect from every nation
Yet one o’er all the earth
Her charter of salvation
One Lord one faith one birth
One holy name she blesses
Partakes one holy food
And to one hope she presses
With every grace endued

Amen.

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