Sermons | “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” (part 1) 11/09/11

“I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” (part 1)
SERMON FOR 11.09.11:  Rev’d Marjorie Brown

Today is a solemn anniversary.  Papers, radio and TV have dwelt on the 9/11 attacks all week, trying to make sense in retrospect of what happened on that day.  Christians have no particular instant expertise in global politics, but I would like to suggest that we do have a way of coming at such events.  It is called theological reflection.


The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth said that all theological thinking is nachdenken, “thinking-after” the reality of God.  He was extremely interested in the events of his own lifetime, not least of course the rise of fascism in Germany, but his starting-point was not the newspaper but the Bible.  In thinking theologically, we begin not with our own human concerns but with what God has done and shown us.


The chief question for Christians is not, how does our faith respond to the reality of the world?  But rather, how can we make sense of the world, and act appropriately, in the light of the ultimate reality that God has revealed to us?


So I want to start today not with the anniversary of 9/11 but with the Apostles’ Creed, in which baptismal candidates declare “I believe in the holy catholic Church.”  This phrase can be dated back to at least the year 375.  It was later expanded in the Nicene Creed that we say every Sunday to “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”, but the shorter version will do to launch our reflection.


As the Roman Empire crumbled around them, Christians declared their faith in the holy catholic Church.  In the heyday of institutional religion in the middle ages, they believed in the holy catholic Church, whether they lived on the eastern or the western side of the great schism that had divided it.  As the Reformation split the western Church and led to years of bloody religious warfare in Europe, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans all continued to declare a faith in the holy catholic Church.  On both sides of the great European wars of the last century, Christians believed they were acting in accordance with their faith in the holy catholic Church.  And today, in our postmodern era of choosing your own framework for interpreting the world, millions of people, including us here at St Mary’s, say those words and try to make sense of them.


The first thing to notice about the phrase “holy catholic Church” is that it refers to a community and not just to one person in relation to God.  Church in Greek is ek-klesia, the gathering of those who are called out.  So we are set apart in some way.  Holy also refers to this set-apartness – not to our worthiness or righteousness, but to our orientation towards God.  And then catholic is added to the mix, laying stress on the universality of the Church and its wholeness and orthodoxy.  I will come back to the catholic nature of the Church in future weeks.


So the Church is a community set apart for God but existing everywhere, throughout the world and throughout history.  How and why did it come into being?


Let’s remember again that we are doing nach-denken, thinking-after God, and not a piece of human history.  What God showed us in Christ’s death and resurrection is that we are forgiven sinners.  Our readings today are all about forgiveness and the human tendency to dole out forgiveness grudgingly.  Joseph’s brothers are afraid that he will still be holding a grudge against them because they sold him into slavery many years before.  Paul warns the Christians of Rome not to judge their fellow Christians or quarrel over differences – clearly this was something they were prone to.  And the gospel story warns us not to withhold forgiveness of the small debts our neighbours owe us, forgetting that all our debt to God has been wiped clean.


When Jesus was raised from the dead, he came back to his disciples who had deserted and betrayed him with words of forgiveness and peace.  He breathed the Spirit on them to initiate a new community of those who know that they are forgiven.  The message they were to go out and share is that all are invited into this community.   The new life that Christ offers through the Spirit is not the lonely life of a moral athlete or the selfish life of a spiritual connoisseur.  It is the humble, joyful, constantly renewed community life of a family in which sins are mutually forgiven again and again – the mystical number of seventy-seven simply represents infinity.  In this Christian community, the Church, we are drawn into the eternal life-giving love of the Trinity, in service to the world.


Over the centuries there have been many pictures or models of what the Church is like.  I would like to outline five traditional images of the Church, along the lines suggested by the theologian Avery Dulles.


Some see the Church primarily as an institution, a fortress, built on the rock of faith, safe and secure and defending those inside it from all error.  That is perhaps a reasonable starting-place – after all the wise man built his house upon a rock, as the Sunday school children like to remind us in their song.  But it misses out the work of the Spirit and gives us a rather static and inward-looking model, heavy on authority and not very encouraging of the gifts of all its members.  It is also fearful of outsiders.


Others see the Church as essentially a herald of good news, a witness to the word and work of God, called to proclaim it to the world.  This is a more active picture.  But the problem is that it suggests the Church was called into being at one time in the past and all it needs to do now is to repeat what it knows.  The dimension of living in the Spirit is underplayed and the emphasis is rather on our human effort as preachers, bringing people in – but what do they do once they have decided to join?


Another model of the Church is a fellowship or communion.  This is an attractive model but again it puts a lot of emphasis on our ability to live together peacefully and lovingly.  The Church will always include people who find it hard to co-exist, and yet we all still belong to Christ.  Friendly fellowship is not the same thing as mystical communion with God, and it can be tempting to feel that fellowship is an end in itself, so that we become a sort of club.


A fourth model is the Church as sacrament, a visible sign of God’s presence in the world.  Where the Eucharist is celebrated, there the Church is brought into being.  This image emphasizes the holiness of the Church, its rootedness in relationship with God, and the work of the Spirit in forming the Church.  It emphasizes that our fulfilment in God is yet to come, but we have a foretaste of it in our life of worship and communion.  The danger with this image is a temptation to be a bit fussy about liturgy, inward looking and oblivious to the needs of the world.


The final traditional model is the Church as servant, to be found meeting the needs of the world around us, the community that exists for the sake of those who are not its members, as Archbishop Temple said.  This is a vision rooted in the manifesto Jesus gave in the synagogue in Nazareth, to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to captives, health to the sick and so on.  So it has a strong gospel basis.  Yet the question must be asked, how does the Church remain distinctive, more than just another version of a socially engaged form of activism?


You’ll see that none of these models is being held up as the perfect and complete one.  Some more recent models try to combine several of the traditional ones.  The Vatican II model is of the pilgrim people of God, journeying on to a goal we have not yet reached, empowered by the Spirit to proclaim the good news and serve the world, sharing fellowship and mystical communion with Christ through our sacramental life together.  Perhaps this rather baggy image is as good as we can get to a helpful picture.


Each of us will have a model in our own heads, based on how we have been brought up and taught and what we have experienced in our Christian life.  It is helpful to stop and think what model we most often depend on – institution, herald, fellowship, sacrament, servant, or some combination of these.  It would be good to think about this collectively as a parish community.  For the next two weeks I would like to keep reflecting on this theme, what it means to believe in the holy catholic Church and how St Mary’s is a sign of this reality.


But I would like to end today by returning to the thinking-after process.  If, somehow, God the Holy Trinity has given us the Church, rooted in Christ and empowered by the Spirit, how do we interpret the world through that gift?  How, specifically, do we reflect on an event like 9/11?


Perhaps the Church as an institution doesn’t have much to offer except to remind the world of its traditional teaching that all war, especially retaliatory war, partakes of human sin.  Even when it is the least bad option in a terrible situation, it is not the authentic way of Christ.


The Church as herald proclaims the good news of forgiveness of sin and calls us to forgive each other as God has forgiven us – this is of course easier to say than to do, especially in terms of international relations.  But to set aside that message completely, as seems to have happened after 9/11, does not put us on a helpful path.


The Church as fellowship and mystical communion reminds us that we are called to a high standard of peacemaking and mutual care.  The Church as sacrament challenges us to be a sign of God’s presence in this sinful world.  The Church as servant sets before us the standards of the kingdom of God, in which we are to give priority to the poor and the excluded – that may well mean raising a lot of hard questions about the foreign policy of western countries.


What we cannot do in our theological reflection is give way to cynicism or despair.  If we are “thinking after” what God has revealed to us, then we know that the deep structure of reality is one of love and forgiveness.  God’s purposes are for our flourishing.  Hope always persists.  Whatever happens through human sin, there is a bigger picture of salvation and a new creation.  In all our grief and repentance and analysis, let us remember this above all.