14.6.15 – 10am St Peter’s, Hackness
‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’
We’re drawing near the end of a series of sermons on the Creed – that declaration of Christian faith we say week by week in churches. Today we’re looking at a phrase near the end of the Creed that often raises an eyebrow – ‘I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.’ ‘What, are we in a catholic church?!’ people sometimes look at each other and whisper. ‘We thought it was Church of England?’ Yes it is Church of England – I’ll explain later, because it’s probably worth going through those words one by one – so perhaps a 5 point sermon – one… holy… catholic… apostolic… Church.
But first a reminder about what we mean when we say, ‘I believe’ at all. It’s not supposed to be about our considered opinions – rather it’s about what we live our lives by – what we trust in – the beliefs that shape what we do and how we live. In the way we might say ‘I believe in a bridge’ – meaning I’m willing to walk across it and let it hold my weight – in this way we say, ‘I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church’.
In our society we very much tend to think of the church as the building – or the people who meet in a particular building, and we think of there being a lot of churches (plural). We think of St Peter’s as ‘a’ church and part of the North Scarborough Group Ministry which consists of 8 churches (meaning the buildings) – or perhaps 6 churches (meaning the regular Sunday congregations). And we think that Scarborough has a lot of churches in it – it used to have more, but some have closed. There are Anglican churches like ours, Methodist churches, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Salvation Army, Christian Fellowship, Kingdom Faith – the list could go on and on.
There’s also perhaps some level of confusion as well because there are groups like the Unitarians who also use the word ‘church’ – who I would consider fellow travellers on the spiritual journey, but whose faith is only loosely what we might describe as ‘Christian’. Then there are groups like spiritualist churches or that fellow in the local paper this week who thinks he’s possessed by St Paul, who really aren’t Christian at all in any sense I could easily recognize, but still use the name of ‘church’. It’s all a bit confusing for us – what must it look like to those outside our churches?
But the Creed refers to the Church as ‘one’. There may be historical divisions but, in the eyes of God, there is only one Church. That emphatically does not mean that only one Christian group is in the right – the true Church of God – and the rest are in error and outside the ‘true’ Church – as the Roman Catholic church seems to say. I don’t know whether they would actually say that, but that is the implication of saying non-Roman Catholics can’t receive communion in a Roman Catholic church. The Creed is not – not – not – saying there is one denomination here on earth who are in the right, while the rest are wrong. It is referring to what has sometimes been called ‘the Church invisible’ – that is the sum total of all who trust in Jesus. It may be that some who have been churchgoers all their lives have never really trusted in Jesus. They may be part of the visible church but not part of the invisible Church. And there may be countless people who we wouldn’t really regard as Christians who are, surprisingly to us, in the eyes of God, part of the Church invisible.
Being one Church can be a bit of a challenge to us as we deal with the diversity of expressions and divisions within this one Church – even on as small a scale as the Northern Group we struggle to get the sense we are one. We struggle to get people to attend joint events. People may say, or perhaps think, ‘I only go to ‘my’ church’ – referring (usually) to a building or (perhaps) to a local church community, as long as they meet in that building.
So what does it mean to be one Church. It’s a challenge because we do disagree with each other over different issues – I’ve had a bit of a disagreement with the Roman Catholic church in this sermon already. But we are called, by God, to be one.
In our first Bible reading from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says “there is one body” – his image for the Church was the body of Christ – even though all the bits of the body are different they care for one another and work together. If you stub your toe, the rest of the body reacts and tries to comfort the wounded part. If Christians in Iraq are suffering we ought to feel it, and be concerned and react to comfort them. There is one body, Paul says, we share in one spirit, we have one hope, one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith. Even though there are differences of belief, and there were many in Paul’s day as well, there is still one faith. There is one baptism – in fact it is true, even in our state of division, that the different Christian churches recognize one baptism. If you want to get married in a Roman Catholic church they, I think, ask to see proof of baptism for at least one of you, and if they see you were baptised at St Peter’s, Hackness or in the Baptist church or wherever, they will accept that. You are not baptised Church of England or Catholic or whatever – you are baptised a Christian.
All this because there is only one God and father of all who is over all and through all and in all. So, Paul writes, make every effort to keep unity – to be one with your fellow believers. See past the differences, love them, meet with them, care for them. There are many things the different denominations disagree about, but most now see that keeping unity is more important than those differences. It is more important to me that I love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and that together we bear witness to the love of God in Christ, than that we agree on everything. I think they are wrong about a number of things, and they think I am wrong. But the unity of the church is more important than that. That’s one of the big difficulties in the wider Anglican communion at the moment. Many disagree, for example with the ministry of women priests and bishops, many differ violently about attitudes to issues of sexuality. Why don’t we just say, ‘This is the agreed view of the Church of England – like it or leave!’? Because even though we may disagree they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Unity, despite the pains and tensions it causes, is more important.
The Church is one – not just Christians together locally, but millions of people across the world in China and South America, across Europe, in the Middle East and all over – we are one with them. And also across history – we are one with all the countless Christians who have gone before us and are now in the presence of God. Particularly as we share in communion, in a mystical way, we gather together with them – receiving the body of Christ, together we are the body of Christ – one body.
One Church – and one ‘holy’ Church. To say we are ‘Holy’ is not a claim to be better than anyone else – holier than thou! You don’t have to be what we might call a ‘holy’ person, to be part of the Church. Somebody once said that if you find the perfect church don’t join it cos you’ll spoil it! Rather than being a group of the specially good or spiritual or respectable, we gather together as a group of recovering sinners! A bit like alcoholics anonymous – to be a Christian is to admit you have a problem – that you need God’s help. Holy, as the word is used in the Bible, doesn’t usually mean especially good or pure, but its main meaning is ‘set apart’ – set apart for and from what? We are set apart from the world as dedicated to God. We have a purpose for which we are set apart – to make Christ known in the world – to witness to the love of God. The Church exists not for its own benefit but to bless the whole world. There’s lots more that can be said about that that we don’t have time to go into today.
But what about that word ‘catholic’? We are one holy catholic Church. We believe in a Church that is catholic (with a small ‘c’ – and that’s significant). The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’ or ‘all embracing’ – it’s what we have already thought about in the Church being one. The Church embraces all Christians. When the word is used with a capital ‘C’ is when it refers to the Roman Catholic Church. This is not what is being referred to in the Creed. The creed is older than the split between the Roman Catholic church of the west of Europe and the orthodox churches of the east.
In our Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16 we find one of Jesus few mentions of the word ‘Church’ when he refers to giving Peter the Keys to the Kingdom, and he says that on Peter he would build the Church. It would start with this ordinary fallible man, and by his actions he would be able to let people into the Kingdom, and perhaps by his mistakes he would shut people out. The idea that this is some sort of handing over of authority to the Pope as the successor of Peter is, again, I think, a misunderstanding.
But it is an important pointer to that other word we use – ‘Apostolic.’ The word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’ so calling the Church apostolic means it is sent to the world, but it also refers to tracing the Church’s origins to the apostles – Peter and the other witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection – those who met him alive after Easter. Saying the church is apostolic is saying it is founded on the witness of the apostles and linked through them directly to Jesus. Peter and the others passed on the leadership of the church to others and commissioned other leaders, and they in turn commissioned others so there is an unbroken line back to Jesus. Different churches find that idea more or less important. My personal opinion is that through the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit each and every one of us has a direct connection to Jesus ourselves and we don’t need the mediation of the church – apostolic or not. But having said that the idea of a Christian living and believing outside the community of the Church would have been nonsense to Paul and the early Christians – a bit like the idea of a disembodied hand or other body part running around on its own. We are part of the one body of Christ and can’t say we don’t need the rest of the body.
This brings us back to where we began – we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The final word is one we’ve been talking about all along – ‘Church’ – this time importantly with a capital ‘C’. Church with a small ‘c’ may refer to the building to any individual congregation, or even to a denomination – but with a capital ‘C’ the word refers to the one ‘Church’ of God. Jesus said he would build his Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. The word he used, and the word always used in the Bible for ‘church’ is the Greek ‘Ekklesia’. It literally means ‘the called out’. In the ancient world an ekklesia was a gathering of people called out from their homes to assemble in some public place for some reason or another – to have an election or hear a public pronouncement.
As a church with a small ‘c’ we are those called out by God to gather together locally in Jesus name, and as the Church with a capital ‘C’ we are those called out from all the world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ for all the world. We can only do that effectively if we are united with our brothers and sisters. Insofar as we are divided as individuals, as churches, as denominations – the witness to Jesus Christ is damaged.
We believe in this Church, the Creed states, like we might believe a bridge can hold our weight. Are we willing to trust the Church – despite all its human failings – as the vehicle of the good news of salvation – let it hold our weight and work with and in it for the glory of God?