22 Pentecost: 28 October 2007
(Acts 2:37-47/Psalm 133/1 Peter 2:4-10/Matthew 16:13-20)
…the one holy catholic and apostolic Church
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brother Jim Thompson came,
with overalls and a white shirt buttoned at the collar,
with a walking cane and a Bible
that had stood fifty years of pounding,
and with that old fire burning through his cataracts.
Didn’t need no seminary.
Always preached the Bible
and the Lord Jesus Christ
crucified and buried and
raised from the dead.
Brother Hamer came
and Brother Ewart
and the three Walker boys,
They came through rain,
wrestling with the wheels of their out-of-county cars,
sliding in ruts so deep the tail pipes dragged.
They parked under the trees and along the road,
then walked, shined shoes and all,
through the mud,
picking their way along the high spots
like children jumping puddles.
Into the church of their fathers,
the place they had felt the call,
the old home church
where thousands of hands had pressed
on the bowed heads of new preacher boys,
of sun-reddened young men called by the Lord,
called from the cotton fields to preach the word.
They had felt the hands,
these old preachers,
felt those blunt-fingered, work-hardened hands,
felt them like a blessing,
like an offering,
like a burden.
Felt them at weddings and baptizings,
felt them in the heat of a summer revival sermon,
in the agony of a baby’s funeral,
in the desperate prayer against some killer disease,
in the frustrating visit with a mind gone senile.
And now the old preachers came to lay their hands
on the head of a new kind of preacher,
a preacher from the seminary,
a preacher who studied the Bible in Greek and Hebrew,
who knew about religions they never heard of,
who knew about computers
with memory banks full of sermons
and many other modern things.
A new kind of preacher,
a preacher who still would feel on her head
like a commandment
from all the preachers and deacons who ever were.
Ordination, James Autry
I’ve felt these hands as blessing and offering and burden three times – deacon, elder, pastor – my father’s hands; two generations of church men, the old ones who still smoked on the church stoop between Sunday School and church and their sons who hoped and prayed they could fill those good men’s shoes; your hands. Blessing, offering, burden – that sums it up nicely. With the press of your hands still imprinted on my head I committed before God and that great cloud of witnesses in this world and the world to come that I would “proclaim the faith of the church and no other.” Knowing that I will one day stand before the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ to give account of my stewardship, knowing that teachers will be judged more strictly, I take this commitment most seriously.
As an elder and pastor my charge is to contend for that faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3) – to faithfully pass on to this generation and the next that faith which has been believed “always, everywhere, and by all” (Commonitory, Vincent of Lérins): not my faith, but the faith of the church and no other. This is my blessing, my offering, and my burden – mainly blessing and offering. But not today. Today this charge is burden. Today we say, I believe in the holy catholic Church, or, in the longer version of the Nicene Creed, We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. And this weighs on me as a heavy burden. When we arrive at this statement, I don’t know how to fulfill my commitment to proclaim the faith of the church, because I don’t know what the faith of the church is – right here at this point. Here’s the problem. I can stand with my Orthodox and Catholic brothers and sisters and proclaim our common belief in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church but I cannot, on the basis of that belief, then join them at the table of our Lord. And why? Because they do not believe we are part of that one holy catholic and apostolic church. The Catholics do not share Eucharistic fellowship with the Orthodox. The Orthodox do not share Eucharistic fellowship with the Catholics. Neither of them share Eucharistic fellowship with Protestants. And it is all because we have no common faith in, no common understanding of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. I can tell you what each group believes about the church, but I cannot tell you what the church believes about the church simply because there is no consensus of the faithful. Everyone seems to believe that there is indeed one holy catholic and apostolic church, but no one seems to believe that anyone else is part of it. It is as if Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – a church noted for internal struggle and division – had been ripped from Scripture and lost to our collective memory.
21The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Cor 12:21-27, NIV).
While Paul was speaking of the local church as the body of Christ, certainly his insistence on its divine, fundamental unity could be extended to the universal church as well. We need our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters and they need each other and us. Despite their protestations, we are one.
While it may not be possible to tell what the church actually believes about itself, it is possible to tell what the church should believe about itself. And it’s all there in the creed: We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
The creed starts with this basic understanding: The church is one. Thomas Campbell, a leader in the Restoration Movement of the 18th-19th centuries, expressed this fundamental understanding in his book Declaration and Address.
[That] the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else as none else can be truly and properly called Christians (Prop. 1).
Campbell says the church is essentially one, that is, one in its very essence. It cannot be different because the Lord has created the church in precisely this way.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:4-6, NRSV).
There is one church precisely because there is one Spirit who calls it together and gives it life, because there is one Lord – Jesus Christ – its head, because there is one common faith by which we are born anew, because there is one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and because there is one God who is above all and through all and in all.
Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Hear, O his people, the church, his church, is one.
But being one does not mean that each church is, or must be, identical. We must be careful never to mistake the church’s essential unity for cookie-cutter uniformity: within unity there lies great room for diversity. Clearly, from St. Luke’s record in Acts, the Jerusalem church and the Antiochian church had significant differences. James – the brother of our Lord and himself a devout, messianic Jew – led the primarily, or exclusively, Jewish Jerusalem church. Observance of the Mosaic Law was apparently typical among the brothers and sisters there. In Antioch, though, the situation was decidedly different. That vibrant, evangelistic congregation was an eclectic mix of Jews and Gentiles sharing a common life together without the restrictions of Mosaic Law. What was required of Jerusalem and Antioch was not uniformity, but a determination to live their new lives in Christ together in spite of – and just maybe in celebration of – their very real differences.
I’m not advocating unrestrained liberalism here – an “anything goes” approach to the faith. Far from it. Just as every circle must have a circumference, our faith must have boundaries of orthodoxy. No Christian church is free to deny the deity of Christ, for example, and remain in fellowship with the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. It is apostate and must repent or be excluded; it has, in reality, excluded itself. No church is free to replace the bread and wine of the Eucharist with Twinkies and grape Kool-Aide or to eliminate baptism in favor of a hazing ritual and an initiation fee. Certain elements of faith and practice are non-negotiable – but not every element of faith and practice. Scripture is our constitution; it is normative for both faith and practice, and the Creeds and Councils and writings of the Fathers help us interpret Scripture rightly. We look to what has been believed "always, everywhere, and by all” as a mark of the orthodox faith but allow for significant variations in the expression of that orthodox faith.
I will hazard a theological analogy here. The Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are one in essence, but three in persons. Within the unity of divine essence there is nevertheless diversity of personhood. Might this just be true of the church, as well? The church is one in essence – one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all – but diverse in expression. Perhaps we could say it this way: If the church is a language, then there are many dialects, all of which may, and must, communicate the truth. We believe in one … Church.
We also believe that the one Church is a holy Church. Groucho Marx once said, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I feel that way sometimes about the church. Why would I want to belong to a church that would let sinners like me in? How can it be holy if I belong to it? Let me suggest two answers that take us off the hook and one that puts us right back on again.
First, the church is holy because it is the temple of God, a temple indwelt by the Holy Spirit. In speaking of the danger of divisions in the church Paul writes to the Corinthians,
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him: for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple (1 Cor 3:16-17, NIV).
The context of this passage makes it clear that Paul is not speaking to individuals but to the church: the church is God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in that church; therefore, it is sacred. It is holy.
The church is also holy because it is set apart for God’s use. That is perhaps the most basic meaning of holy: set apart, consecrated for God’s use and to God’s glory. The church is holy because God has called us out of the world to be a kingdom and priests, because he has set us apart as his image bearers in this world.
In both of these meanings – holy as the temple of God and holy as being set apart for God’s use and glory – holiness is not an attribute of man, but of God. That’s how even a church that would let me in can still be considered holy. But I’m not totally off the hook just yet; there is another aspect of holiness that does involve me, that does make demands on you.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sister, by the mercies of God, to present you bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:1-2, NRSV).
Historically the church has emphasized orthodoxy – right faith – and somewhat neglected orthopraxy – right practice, right action, right living. The question, at least among many evangelical protestants, has for too long been, Have you prayed the sinner’s prayer? rather than, Are you living the disciple’s life? Yes, holiness is an attribute of God, but an attribute into which we are to grow. The Methodists call it sanctification – the process of a believer actually becoming holy in thought, word, and deed. The Orthodox call it theosis – deification – a deepening union with God. Regardless of what word we use, it is the goal of our faith.
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.
But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pe 1:14-16, NIV).
The church that welcomes sinners must also be the church that produces saints. We believe in one holy … Church.
The church is catholic the Creed says: small c, no Roman in front of it – just catholic. As far as we know St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-107) first used the term catholic church in writing a letter to the church at Smyrna while he was en route to his martyrdom. Ignatius was a strong proponent of the episcopacy; he felt the bishop was the unifying force and the protector of the faith in the church, and he wrote to the Smyrnaeans to encourage their obedience to their bishop.
Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church
— Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8, J.R. Willis translation.
As Ignatius uses the word katholikos (καθολικός), catholic means universal. The catholic church is that church dispersed throughout the whole earth which yet maintains a single faith. The catholic church is that church which unmistakeably bears the image of Christ. Irenaeus writing around 180 also emphasized this catholic nature of the church.
Although dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, the church has received this faith from the apostles and their disciples… Although she is scattered throughout the whole world, yet, she carefully preserves it, as if she occupied only one house. She also believes these points just as if she had only one soul, and one and the same heart. She proclaims these things, teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony – as if she possessed only one mouth. For although the languages of the world are different, yet the significance of the tradition is one and the same. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different. Neither do those in Spain, Gaul, the East, Egypt, Libya, or in the central regions of the world.
Jesus instructed his disciple to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world – in short, to call into being a truly catholic church, and that they did. The Christians in China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Turkey are as much our brothers and sisters as those Christian right across the street. We believe in one holy catholic…Church.
And that church is apostolic. Now some will argue – our Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican brothers and sisters, for example – that a church is only apostolic if it possesses a pedigree that reaches back to the apostles, that is, if there is an unbroken line of episcopal ordinations from the apostles to the present bishop – apostolic succession they call it. In all fairness, some of the Church Fathers may be read in agreement with this position. But in our time we have seen bishops in such apostolic succession so compromise the faith and practice of the church that it no longer resembles the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. More important it seems than such a historical pedigree is a spiritual pedigree. Can a church trace its faith and practice through an unbroken line to the apostles? Do we believe and profess and practice a faith that the apostles would recognize as their own? If so, the church is apostolic. If not, no Episcopal succession will make the church apostolic. So writes Tertullian (c. 197) of those churches who
although they do not have as their founder the apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for churches are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are considered to be no less apostolic because they are alike in doctrine.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
In the creed we confess a church that is essentially one because it has one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all; a church that is holy because it is set apart for God’s use and to his glory and because it is comprised of sinners who will not rest until they are saints; a church that is catholic because it bears the image of Christ throughout the entire world; a church that is apostolic because it faithfully preserves the faith and practice of those men who knew Jesus and who were commissioned to go into all the world making disciples and teaching them to observe all things that Jesus commanded. Whatever we may believe about the church, this is the reality of the church. And so, with thanks to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Spirit we proclaim that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
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