Sermons & services

I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church

Published Sunday 15th May 2022, at 1:44 p.m.

What is the Church? And why do we say we believe in it? Like we do with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Surely it would be idolatrous if the Church was merely a human institution, like the BBC or the City of London Corporation. But it’s not. Scripture tells us the Church is the Body of Christ; the Temple of the Holy Spirit; the Bride of Christ. So just as in the Incarnation, God the Son takes on a human body; so with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God the Son takes on a new Body: the Church. You and me. His Body through which his presence continues here on earth. As St Theresa of Avila famously put it: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” As Jesus says in St John’s Gospel: those who believe in me will also do the works that I do. That is why the Creed says we are one. We may be visibly, and sinfully, divided, but we are One through our common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. And through our common baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, by which we become members of His mystical body: the living sacrament of His continuing presence in the world. So the Church is a sacrament. A sacrament, you’ll remember from your catechism days, has a visible and invisible element. The visible element is you and me – the people – and the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. As St Ignatius of Antioch wrote at the beginning of the 2nd century: Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. And it is Catholic: universal. Which is why the Church of England continues to profess – if not necessarily to practice – the faith which is katholicos: literally according to the whole. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, once put it: the Church of England “has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ's Church from the beginning.” Now this is important for a number of reasons. One is that the Church of England is not a Protestant church: we are not Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals. We are both Catholic and reformed. That has always been the classical Anglican position. Second, I am not allowed to preach any old thing that comes into my head – you might be surprised to hear - but only what has been believed and professed by the Church down through the ages. Neither for that matter is any priest or bishop. We must only preach that which we have received. That which has been handed on to us by our forebears in the faith. Traditio in latin, from where we get the word: tradition. So we are one and we are catholic, and we are apostolic. We are church which believes that bishops are an essential – if sometimes vexing – necessity as the focus of unity and the visible source of our sacramental life together. Remember that quote from St Ignatius: Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. But there is another – more important – part to this. If the Church is a Body and Christ is the Head, then the Holy Spirt is the soul that gives it life: because he is the Lord and giver of life. In the 2nd century, a Christian writer called Tertullian wrote about how the non-Christians of his time remarked: “How [these Christians] love one another!” This is, perhaps, the true mark of the church, because love is the greatest of the theological virtues, as St Paul tells us, and we love in so far as we allow the Holy Spirit into our lives to make us holy: to fill us with God’s love and holiness. The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given us, as St Paul tells us And this is where the Book of Common Prayer does something really odd. In the version of the Creed we’ve just sung, you’ll notice that the word holy is missing. I have no idea why, but when the Creed appeared in the First Prayer Book of 1549, the word holy had been removed from the Creed. It should say I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, but it doesn’t. Though it’s still there in the Apostles Creed, used at Matins and Evensong. Why is it missing? My predecessor here at St James – John Paul – is alleged to have said that it was simply a printing error: the printers forget to put the word in! Whatever the reason, it is a serious omission. We, individually and together, are holy, but we are only holy with God’s holiness through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
The Church is only holy with God’s holiness. The saints – any and all of them – have only lived saintly lives insofar as they have allowed God’s love into their lives, God’s holiness into their lives, through the inpouring of the Holy Spirit. When we say God is holy, it’s easy to think of that as God’s transcendence, his otherness, his majesty and glory. Remember that picture from the prophet Isaiah: holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. But in Jesus we see that God’s holiness is also imminent: closer to us than we are to ourselves because he became one like us in all things, to share in everything that it means to be human. He is Immanuel: God is with us. In other words, in Jesus we see what God’s holiness really looks like: and what it looks like is love, humble self-sacrificial love, lived in the service of others. And if we are to live lives lived in the imitation of Christ – as we are called to do – we can’t do it under our own steam: we need God’s holiness, we need God’s love, to be poured into our lives hearts by the Holy Spirit. And this is really important because of another meaning of the word, Church. In Greek, the word for the building where people worship, is basileia, from where we get the word, basilica. The word used for the church community is ecclesia, from which we get the word, ecclesiastical. That comes from two Greek terms. Ek which means from. And kalein, which means to call. So the church – the ecclesia – is a group that has been called out from something. That has been set apart. So first, we have been called. Called by Jesus himself to follow him, to become his friends, his brothers and sisters. Remember Jesus said: You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15.16). What are we called from? We are called from out of a world that is fallen: called out of a fallen way of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving. We are called to leave a world characterised by self-love and the worship of false gods: to move from the kingdom of this world, into God’s kingdom. As Paul put it to the Colossians: let us give thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. But this isn’t just about us. We have been called by Christ, not just for our sakes, but the sake of the world. This is about mission. We are called from the world, for the sake of the world. The church is missional by its very nature: we are called to make disciples of all people. Mission is hard-wired into our DNA. Or at least we should be. If we’re not – if we’re obsessed about internal wrangling and dispute, church projects, liturgy – then we have run into big trouble. We are called to gaze outwards on to the world, to echo the voice of Jesus calling others to follow him, gathering others into relationship with their God and creator. From its very beginning, the missionary dimension makes up the Church. It needs to be ours. It has to be ours. Not just because without it we don’t have much of a long-term future. As if that wasn’t important enough. But simply because it is what we are called to be do – and to be – as the church. A church that does not exist for itself but for the good of the world, and for the glory of God. Amen.