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SERMON

Matthew 14:22-33       Extra Ecclesium Nulla Salus     October 18, 2015

Extra Ecclesium Nulla Salus is the Latin phrase for an ancient church doctrine. The phrase, Extra Ecclesium Nulla Salus means, “No salvation outside the church.” That’s one reason why, for centuries, the boat was the symbol of the Church. The ark was the place Noah and his family were saved from destruction. The boat was the place Jesus put Peter when his faith began to sink. Outside were dangerous waters, inside was the promise of shelter and salvation.

 

Extra Ecclesium Nulla Salus. No salvation outside the church. Of course, these days this doctrine has fallen out of favor. We no longer believe the church is the ONLY way to God. We believe there are many paths which lead to God. Probably the greatest difficulty in accepting this old doctrine is the church itself.

I read a book about why many young people do not attend church and the reason for many has to do with the church itself. They love Jesus, but they don’t love the church. The church is full of sinners, after all.

We know all too well - what brings us together is clearly not our perfection. C. S. Lewis wrote a book titled The Screwtape Letters. The main character is a demon, working for Satan, named Screwtape. He is training his nephew, Wormwood, to become a demon. The book is a collection of his letters to his Wormwood.

In one of his first letters, Screwtape writes a scathing letter to Wormwood after his PATIENT (the person he pesters) – becomes a Christian. But, Screwtape says, don’t worry, we can even use the church to help Satan:

 

My Dear Wormwood,

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian....we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair....One of our great allies at the present is the church itself  [not the Great Church which sends shudders of fear across the most mature demons, but the visible church in which]....All your patient sees are those neighbors which he has pretty much up to this time has avoided. You want to lean heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro from words like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.... Provided that any of his neighbors sing out of tune...have double-chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe their religion must...be somehow ridiculous….[And then perhaps whole idea of faith itself will become ridiculous.

 

Screwtape tries to use our sometime critical nature to undermine faith.

It’s easy enough to recall times the Church lost faith, and, like Peter, sank below the surface. We know about those times through history, and all that is true.

But it’s also true that on any given Saturday, there will be a Christian youth group somewhere serving meals at a homeless shelter; there will be Christian adults building homes for hurricane victims. There are young Christians who, instead of going to the beach this summer, went to places like Brazil or China, to teach. In my 30 years of ministry, I have known many of the young people who chose humanitarian paths to heal the world, and they did that in no short measure, because of the influence of their church.

So, although the Church has sometimes failed itself and it still advocates for knowledge, beauty and freedom. Ironically, the Church which condemned Galileo was the same church which funded him. The Church’s message of beauty and truth inspired the greatest art and music and architecture: from Michel Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt to Mozart and Beethoven. While the Church stumbled and resisted - that same beauty and truth of God pushed them to change.

So, to say the church is imperfect is true, but it’s not the whole story.

 

Extra Ecclesium Nulla Salus, no salvation outside the church. Part of what Jesus is telling us in this story today, is he intends there to be a boat, he intends a place, a church, where people can feel safe and learn faith and seek after truth. And, in order for that to happen we need one another.

When we join a church our commitment is akin to a marriage. I heard someone once say there are two reasons for marriage. The first is for the birth and nurture of children. The second reason is for the friction – there is that kind of friction - the friction of physical intimacy, but marriage is also the place where the friction of living close together can make us better people. I think Jesus intends the church for some of the same reasons.

Intimacy can form us like a polished stone. The love and the friction smooth away our rough exterior to reveal what is beautiful underneath.

The Church is also a place of friction. In the friction of community life, we are bumped and turned and upset in frustrating ways, but, if we have humility and practice love as Christ taught us, we will be polished and shaped into something beautiful in the waters of grace.

HOWEVER, and that is a big HOWEVER, we have to have humility and practice love as Christ taught us. When we do that, the Holy Spirit smooths away our roughness. Here we learn forgiveness by doing forgiveness. Here we learn love by being loving. Here we learn service by serving.

We sure at not here because we see the world the same place. We are here to become disciples of Jesus.

It is one thing to talk about bearing one another with love, as Paul says in his letters, but it is quite another to actually practice it. The church is a place for becoming a disciple of Christ – which means more about dealing with friction and forgiveness than we ever took seriously.

Perhaps the greatest thing the church has to offer is grace. If there was anything Jesus taught us it was to practice grace – water is that mixture in the tumbler which keeps the rocks from just banging against each other and breaking apart.

The Methodist bishop, William Willimon, talks about his Confirmation Class picture. He was about 10 years old and had not received word that he was supposed to wear a tie that day. When everyone else was lining up in their ties and dresses, Willimon stood to the side. As his pastor and teacher stood before him, he confessed, “I didn’t know we were supposed to wear a tie.” “That’s funny,” said his teacher, Mrs. Jones, “because everybody else got the word.” “Well, well,” said Dr. Herbert, “no tie, hmm. Now, I have a tie because I am the preacher and I am supposed to have one. But you aren’t a preacher are you?” “No, sir” Willimon said. “And I’m thinking that I cannot recall anywhere in the Bible where it says that you’ve got to have a tie to be in the church. Can you, Mrs. Jones?”

Mrs. Jones shook her head back and forth in silence, biting her lower lip.

“Well, if it’s not in the Bible, then it must not be important. You go ahead and join us. We’re glad to have you tie or not,” Said Dr. Herbert with a kindly smile.

Willimon said, that is how he learned about grace. All the Bible stories in the world didn’t not transform him as much as the lesson of that moment.

 

Peter must have heard all the stories of God’s grace too, but having Jesus pull him out of the water or having Jesus ask him to take care of his Church, even after he had denied him, is when Peter learned about grace.

Grace is what we are here to learn and to teach one another. Extra Ecclesium Nulla Sulas - there is a more positive way we could say that today. Ecclesium est in Salus - “Salvation is in the church.” The church is our place to be saved. The church is not the only place we can know salvation, but the church is our place to learn about grace.

We fail and sink, and we reach out for help, and when we have been saved once again, we can give thanks, because it was wonderful to walk on water - even if for a brief moment.

 

          TO GOD BE THE GLORY. FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN.

 

Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Melton