St Andrew’s Croydon
Sunday 7th August 2005
Two Sermons on the Nature of the Church
No. 1: I Believe in One, Holy……..Church
When someone asks the Man-in-the-Street where St Andrew’s Church is, he’s bound to point them towards the building we are in at this moment: and in all probability that’s all they wanted to know. So far, so helpful.
But calling this building ‘the church’ is misleading: because those two words ‘The Church’, which we shall be saying in the Creed in a few minutes’ time – ‘We believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church, don’t refer to this building or any other. If St Andrew’s burnt down or needed serious repairs and we had to meet in the Church Hall over the road, we should still be just as much ‘St Andrew’s Church’ as we are today gathered here in this building.
The sermons for this Sunday and next will be about what ‘The Church’ is, and what those words One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic really mean. Today we shall look at the two words ‘One’ and ‘Holy’; next Sunday we shall think about ‘Catholic and Apostolic’.
* * *
‘The Church’ as the Creed understands it, means people: human beings, angelic beings and the faithful departed. Here we join ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’. It’s also described as the Body of Christ, Jesus himself being its head. Angelic beings are something we think about at the end of September on the feast of St Michael. Today we shall consider the Church only as it concerns human beings.
The Church of St Andrew, Croydon, consists at the very least of the people who worship here, Sunday by Sunday. I say ‘at the very least’ because anyone who has been baptised becomes a member of the Church, whether they worship here or not; but it is about the regular, worshipping Church in this place that we are thinking this morning.
You and I are the Church of Jesus Christ in this place. But because the Church is One – ‘elect from every nation, Yet one o’er all the earth’, as the hymn puts it – it follows, for example, that those Christians who went to Mass in Hong Kong seven hours ago (by our time), like those in Buenos Aires who will be at Mass in five hours time are all part of the One Church. As another hymn says: ‘As o’er each continent and island The dawn leads on another day, The voice of prayer is never silent, Nor dies the strain of praise away’ and in the following verse it goes on to say ‘and hour by hour fresh lips are making Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
But the One Church doesn’t just stop with this world. It comprises every person who has been saved through faith in Jesus Christ whether they are alive today or long-since dead. So in the One Church we are one with St Andrew himself, St Stephen, the Apostles, Martyrs and the Blessed Virgin Mary to name just a few, whenever we meet together in Croydon, Hong Kong or Lewisham to celebrate the Holy Eucharist of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
In a few minutes we shall return to the One-ness of the Church. But let’s first consider the Church’s holiness as in the phrase ‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’.
The word ‘Holy’ comes from an ancient English word helig. A lot of other common words including wholeness, health, holiness and healing come from the same root. It means something that is complete, God-given, life-giving and perfect in itself.
Now it hardly needs saying that the Church on earth has never achieved more than an approximation to these virtues. In that first hymn we find the lines Though with a scornful wonder, Men see her (the Church) sore oppressed, By schisms rent asunder, By heresies distressed; however, in the following verse it looks forward to the time when with the vision glorious Her longing eyes are blest, And the great Church victorious Shall be the Church at rest.
In other words we are looking at two quite different visions of the holiness of God’s Church: one is what we should, and are trying to be today (with limited success!; the other is what we shall be like when God’s plan reaches its final goal – what His Church in heaven already is. It is the first of these which concerns us today: what we should be (but are not).
A helpful way of looking at it is to think of a piece of string. There’s a piece in my hand at this moment. You may not all be able to see it in here; however, when you go home you can find some string (or a length of wool will do just as well) and try out these experiments for yourself.
Look closely at your piece of string and you will see that it is made up of several quite separate threads. Separate one of those threads out at the end and try pulling it gently whilst holding onto the other end of the string. It will break easily. But try breaking the whole string itself using the same degree of force and you will find it won’t break nearly so easily, if at all.
Now, string and wool, owe their ability to tie-up parcels, or be knitted into a jumper that won’t fall to pieces the moment we put it on, to the strengths which their components, threads and wisps, gain from two processes in their manufacture which combine to bring them together, but lack when they are left to themselves. Those processes are called carding and spinning.
Firstly, the threads and wisps begin their useful life by going through a machine which makes the individual threads or wisps all face the same way. If you just scrunch up the threads or wisps into a ball they would certainly be together, but no stronger than single threads. That process is called carding.
But it isn’t enough just to get the threads facing the same way. To turn them into string or wool those lined-up threads have then to be spun together. That’s what makes string and wool strong as we saw a moment or two ago. Carding is an essential, but by itself it achieves nothing.
The same is true of the Church. To make us Holy and One, we have firstly to let God make us all ‘face the same direction’. That’s why every Eucharist includes the Ministry of the Word and not just the Ministry of the Sacrament.
In the Ministry of the Word we learn the truth about God and ourselves by reading the Bible and listening to the preacher explaining what it means. It corresponds to the carding process.
The Ministry of the Sacrament brings us together at God’s Table where we feed on that spiritual food which makes us strong and healthy and binds us together us into a single length of string. It converts ordinary, weak people, into tough, upstanding soldiers of Christ
People who say ‘Why does it matter what we believe so long as we attend church?’ are like uncarded wool: individual wisps or threads scrunched up into a ball all facing different ways. Gathered together, yes, but as easily torn apart as cotton-wool. And those who say ‘Why come to Church when we already believe the same thing?’ are like carded wool which hasn’t been properly spun together: although they are all ‘facing the same way’, they haven’t become properly intertwined (or integrated) with their fellow Christians. They are just as easily broken as the uncarded ones whose ‘togetherness’ consists of no more than having been scrunched up into a ball.
So God has to do two things to us through his Church on earth if we are to become perfect. First He has to ‘card’ us (or ‘make us face the same direction) and then He must ‘intertwine’ us ‘into communion’ with Him and one another. Anyone who is missing either of these processes and tries to ‘go it alone’ will eventually be stretched beyond breaking-point by the demands of life; but a communicant Christian (in the fullest sense of the word) won’t break under tension.
That little parable of the piece of string – which you can try out for yourself when you go home, will hopefully make it easier to understand why we as the Church on earth must become both One and Holy if we are to become what God intends us to be – the Body of Christ, risen, ascended and glorified in the company of angels and saints in the Kingdom of Heaven.
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