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Catholic: the churchy word for “inclusive”

Welcome to the Lutheran pep rally, Reformation Sunday, our annual celebration of Martin Luther as a church reformer who worked within his Roman Catholic tradition to not call-out but call-in the religious establishment for heaping guilt and fear upon peasants to encourage them to part with their meager monies so that bigger and better and more gilded cathedrals could be built in fancier locations to benefit the pope and the institutional church.

This is when we retell the old story about Luther printing out 95 theses, which were 95 separate points to be publicly debated—like an unrolled thread of separate tweets on X, formerly known as Twitter, or whatever we’re calling it now—and Luther nailed the paper to the Wittenburg Church’s wooden door, since that’s how they shared information before there were bulletin boards.

And we call this the start of the Protestant Reformation, even though there were other Reformers in other places besides Germany. It just happened to be a time when there were political winds blowing around Europe that favored various policies, and theological purity was probably not the primary motivating factor for all the changes going on.

So let’s be real: we’re not so much celebrating Luther or even the Reformation as much as we’re celebrating the way Luther and other reformers asked big questions about faith, and they made God’s Word central, lifting up Christ’s liberating work and identifying the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are evident in real time. God doesn’t change, but the world does. The Holy Spirit is always doing something new, so the church is always reforming; this is part of our heritage.

It's Jesus Christ who holds us all together, continuing in God’s Word, and the truth is making us free, over and over again. Which is why Reformation Sunday is a good time to check in with the faith that we confess—both those tenets of faith on which we focus as Lutherans, as well as those parts of faith that hold together the whole Christian community.

That’s why, on this day, as Lutherans are getting high on their own supply, now is a good time to talk about the word “catholic.”

Perhaps you have noticed that when we speak aloud the Nicene Creed, we mention the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Even the Apostle’s Creed, which we also frequently say in worship, refers to the “holy catholic church.” Why do we call our church “catholic” when we are Lutheran? I’m so glad you asked!

Maybe you learned in your confirmation class that when we say catholic with a lower-case “c,” that refers to the church throughout time and all over the world, kinda like “universal.” The lower-case “c” catholic is different from the capital-R, capital-C Roman Catholic, which refers to a specific church institution.

The word “catholic” doesn’t appear in the Bible but comes from the Greek words kata holon which is translated “according to, or appropriate to, the whole.” Theologian Avery Dulles suggests the closest word to “catholic” that does appear in the Greek New Testament is pleroma, which means “fullness,” like complete-ness.

Now I’ll confess I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the word “catholic.” There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and it’s stressful and distracting, and it doesn’t always soothe me to study ancient theology. When I think of the Christian creeds or Nicene Creed, it’s never an accident: it’s because someone else brought it up first.

And it was someone who brought the creed to my attention at a theological conference I attended a few weeks ago. Reverend Doctor Cheryl Peterson spoke on the theme the “Spirit-breathed” church, specifically noticing the defining marks of the church as described in the Nicene Creed. I did not think these lectures were gonna be interesting, but fortunately, I stuck around and listened, and I was surprised. I took a bunch of notes.

Dr. Peterson was not only concerned with history and theology and how to define what is a church but also what spiritual practices are involved in living out the church’s mission because these are dimensions of the activity of the Holy Spirit. She was connecting what we believe with what we do, what action we take. How are faithful Christians demonstrating the work of the Holy Spirit?

Lutherans aren’t always real strong in talking about the Holy Spirit. We get a little nervous, like the Holy Spirit is too much of a wild card: unpredictable and perhaps therefore not so trustworthy. But Luther explained the Holy Spirit as the one who meets us where we are and leads us to Jesus, who then leads us to the heart of God.

The Holy Spirit points us to Jesus, helps us notice where in the real world we see Jesus, reminds us of those things Jesus taught and proclaimed. The Holy Spirit brings us into the presence of truth, showing us the way, connecting our will with God’s will in an answer to our prayers that “God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Another theologian Darrell Guder writes, “the catholicity of the church is demonstrated in all the ways that the church at every level witnesses to the one gospel that draws all people to Christ.”[1] All the ways we witness to the gospel, all the ways we tell the good news of God’s love, all the ways we love one another because God loved us first.

So Dr. Peterson continues, “A ‘catholic’ church opens itself to the wind of the [Holy] Spirit blowing it beyond the limits of particularity in order to embrace the world in its rich diversity…[catholic] is the ecclesiastical [ecclesiastical means ‘churchy’] word for ‘inclusive.’”[2]

I never thought about the word “catholic” as related to “inclusive,” but it began to make sense—this is about our interrelatedness with other Christians: the believers we’re sitting next to in this room, the Lutheran congregation down the road, as well as our connectedness with Lutherans all over the world…and also churches that aren’t Lutheran at all, but with whom we are connected as the Body of Christ. This is what it means to be a catholic church.

And how do we express this dimension of the church which we call “catholic”? Well it’s fun to celebrate diversity and the richness of differences between people and cultures and even faith practices, but inclusivity will also mean honesty in acknowledging all those forces that separated us from one another in the first place.

Dr. Peterson suggests churches question their own self-interests, from individual congregations to the national and international levels of church relationships. She writes, “For the American context, this includes rejecting all attempts to define one’s own cultural tradition or theology as normative for the global church.”[3]

So what does that mean as a spiritual practice? How do we live that out? For starters, we don’t assume that being German or Swedish or Norwegian defines what it means to be Lutheran. We start by noticing our culture, questioning our privilege, how white skin has been favored in some parts of the world and over time has evolved into white supremacy, and white supremacy has no place in a church devoted to Jesus.

And just as no one thinks they speak with an accent until someone else points it out, it’s our spiritual practice to be in relationship with Christians of many cultures. This is a way to notice our hypocrisies, where our actions don’t align with our confessions. If someone else points this out to us, that’s a gift: an opportunity for repentance and the beginning of reconciliation. This requires honesty and vulnerability and deep respect for the expressions of the Holy Spirit.

This is why it’s important to tell the stories of Christians, our brothers and sisters and siblings in Christ, from all around the church, all around the world, even throughout time, even re-learning our own history from a perspective we may not have considered.

This is why we practice radical hospitality, purposefully and openly welcoming people who have been rejected from other communities. One example of this is how we welcome people with LGBTQIA+ identities and why we display our rainbow pride flag and even when it isn’t pride month. This is how we live out the catholic, inclusive dimension of the church, speaking as we do with a Lutheran accent.

It is a spiritual practice to work for justice, to speak for those who are oppressed by their race or their gender or sexual identity or their physical abilities or their socioeconomic power. Dr. Peterson recalls Martin Luther’s sermons on the gospel of John—the Holy Spirit is not only our comforter but also the Spirit of truth, who, as Luther writes, “will fill us with a courage that is called a divine, holy and bold defiance.”[4]

If Martin Luther did anything right—and he didn’t do everything right[5]—he fully trusted in the God who called him to speak in defiance of the evils perpetuated by the religious establishment, and he trusted God because he received the grace and the peace that only God can offer.

Our church is not perfect, but we are being made perfect by God’s grace, continuing the faithful witness that has sustained us through so many generations, and looking ahead to the renewal and indeed the revival of the Holy Spirit in making all things new through Christ, redeeming all creation in the realm of God.

I’ll close with a prayer for the church, which is found in our hymnal. Let us pray.

Gracious Father, we pray for your holy catholic church. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it;

where in anything it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it;

where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it;

for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord.


Pastor Cheryl

[1] Darrell L. Guder, “Missional Connectedness: The Community of Communities in Mission,” in Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell Guder (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), 257; quoted in Cheryl M. Peterson, “The Marks of the Church As Spiritual Practices for Renewal and Revival,” in We Believe in the Holy Spirit: Global Perspectives on Lutheran Identities, ed. Chad M. Rimmer and Cheryl M. Peterson, Lutheran World Federation, 2021, page 177. [2] Ibid 177. [3] Ibid 178. [4] Martin Luther, Volume 24, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 14–16, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 118. (= D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritisch Gesamtausgabe (Weimarer Ausgabe), 45, 569). [5] Among other things, he had a sermon called “On the Jews and Their Lies,” which the ELCA formally rejected in “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community”: [6] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pew Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) 73.


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