Sunday March 8, 2015
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: The Right Rev’d Allen Shin
Bishop Suffragan, Diocese of New York
The Church is...Holy
Good evening. I am delighted to be here with you this evening for Choral Evensong and to reflect upon the word of God with you. Thank you Fr. Turner for your invitation and hospitality and to the staff for their welcome and preparation.
I have been asked to give a Lenten reflection on what it means when we say in the Nicene Creed that the Church is holy. This is a huge and difficult topic. I tried to avoid it but when Fr. Turner gave me the choice of Sundays to preach, this was the only Sunday evening I could make. So God’s joke is on me. I hope that my half-baked ideas this evening can do even an iota of justice to this enormous topic, which really deserves a far fuller and lengthier explication than I am capable of offering in this evening’s homily.
Holiness is a tricky thing like humility. The tricky thing about humility is that the moment I try to be humble or am aware of my being humble, chances are that I am no longer being truly humble. That’s probably true of all virtues, and it’s true of holiness. The moment I try to be holy or am aware of my being holy, chances are that I am really not genuinely holy but probably pretending to be holy. Like humility, genuine holiness is not something we can manufacture or force.
Holiness is also not something I can declare for myself. Like honor, it’s something I can only earn over time and that through disciplines and tribulations. It is something that is bestowed upon a person by other people who recognize a certain quality of holiness in that person.
So, what is that quality of holiness? What is the Holy Church? I don’t know if any of the previous preachers covered this historical tidbit about the Nicene Creed. What we call the Nicene Creed is not the creed declared by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Rather, it was ratified by the Council of Constantinople in 381.
It is also interesting to note that the creed ratified by the First Council of Nicaea does not contain the parts concerning the Holy Spirit and the Church. Perhaps the Nicene Fathers were wiser not to include such lofty ideals of the Church as they went about demolishing the churches of the Arian heretics. Not that they were successful in getting rid of the Arian heretics and their churches right away. The church histories from the fifth and the sixth centuries show that the Arian Christians and their churches were still around a couple of centuries after the Council of Nicaea.
From early on in its history, the church was never “one” and the various factions were in constant struggle and infighting to claim the high prize of the catholic and the apostolic heritage. The Nicene Fathers perhaps were realistic about the state of the Church, while the Constantinopolitan Fathers were idealistic or perhaps even romantic about the state of the Church.
It’s kind of like the story of Joseph and his brothers. I have to admit that the mischievous side of me delighted in this evening’s OT lesson. We could not have a better family story with all its dysfunctional dynamics and drama which is ripe for comparison with the Church. It has all the juicy dramas of parental favoritism, sibling jealousy, bloody violence and, yes, of repentance, forgiveness, love and grace. The story of Joseph in the end is the story of the redemptive grace of God, and that is what makes this story a holy scripture.
Or it’s like Mark’s story of the demoniac of Gerasenes who is healed and freed by Jesus from the shackles and chains of his demonic possession. This miraculous healing story is a holy story, because it is the story of Jesus Christ who incarnates and reveals the healing grace of God.
So, the church is holy insofar as it is redeemed and healed by the incarnational grace of God in Jesus Christ. The Church has made many blunders in its history and fractures and fragmentations and broken communions. But, again and again the Church has found itself redeemed by the sheer grace of God in crucified Christ.
Many people these days say that they can’t find God in church. I don’t find that surprising. Churches can be as inhospitable as any other institution. I have wondered at times why we even bother to call the church holy. But, then, the church is a human institution and thus a sinful institution. It is full of ordinary people, sinners like you and me, who do cruel and stupid things. The church, like the incarnation itself, is a shaky proposition. But, therein lies the paradox of the church’s holiness which is utterly dependent upon God’s redemptive grace incarnate in Jesus Christ. Apart from the grace of Christ’s self-giving love we cannot talk about the holy church. In fact, without the grace of Christ, we cannot talk about the church at all.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once said this about holiness: “Holiness in the New Testament is Jesus going right into the middle of the mess and the suffering of human nature. Being holy is being absolutely involved, not being absolutely separated.”
This means that the church is holy because of you and me, insofar as we are willing to hand our souls and bodies with all their messy sinfulness over to God’s redemptive grace in Jesus Christ, and insofar as we are willing and able to go out into the world and embrace the painful messiness of human conditions to proclaim and witness to the crucified Christ.
Occasionally people come up with schemes for making the Church “holier”, which usually means making sure that some people don't get in, or some people who are in get out. Such a scheme almost always ends up creating a mess, an exclusive, anxious, and self-conscious mess.
Holiness cannot be manufactured or programmed. But, it has to do with going where it's most difficult in the name of Jesus who went to the place where it was most difficult.
So, Rowan Williams describes the Holy Church as “a Church that is taken over by the excitement of the extraordinariness of God, a Church that wants to talk about the beauty and splendor of God, and wants to show the self-giving, self-forgetting love of Christ by being at the heart of humanity, by being where people are most human, by being truly incarnate of God’s love.”
The Greek word for church is ekklesia, a congregation of people who are called out, not separated out and away from the world, but separated out precisely into the messiness of this world, into the midst of human suffering, into the most difficult place of human conditions. That is what it means to the holy Church.
One of the paradoxes of the mystical life, Thomas Merton said, is that “a man cannot enter into the deepest center of himself and pass through that center into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of selfless love.”
What Rowan Williams and Thomas Merton both are describing is holiness and the holy church. At the heart of such holiness is empathy, the divine empathy which makes possible the incarnation of God’s self-emptying love in Jesus Christ.
Thus, holiness of the church is utterly dependent upon the redemptive, self-giving, self-sacrificing grace of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, who alone heals and who alone liberates the church from the shackles and chains of its institutional sinfulness. All Christians are called to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus. The church cannot earn holiness without the discipline and the tribulations of the cross of Christ.
© Allen Shin