Friday, June 7, 2019

One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic

This Sunday, Christians all over the world will observe the Feast of Pentecost, which people often call the Church's birthday. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the day that the Holy Spirit alighted on Jesus's followers, equipping them for ministry. The story illustrates what we call the four Notes or Marks of the Church : that the Church is (1) ONE, (2) HOLY, (3) CATHOLIC, and (4) APOSTOLIC. We affirm these qualities every Sunday when we recite the Nicene Creed; but many of us say the words without really reflecting on what they mean.

The statement that the Church is ONE, emphasizes its fundamental unity, such as when St. Paul refers to us as "the Body of Christ." It is often hard to appreciate or even believe that the Church is one, when there are so many divisions among Christians into different denominations, theological views, and worship styles. Nonetheless, we affirm that, however much we human beings may have fragmented the Church over the centuries, God is working through us to restore it to wholeness, which is why ecumenical work, for instance, is so important. Remembering that the Church's essence is to be ONE should impel us to seek out unity where we can.

The Church is also HOLY, in that it calls us into a particular kind of living. This lifestyle is modeled on the example of Jesus, who showed us how to spread peace, justice, and harmony by fashioning mutual, moral relationships with God and among all human beings. The Church's teachings, its sacramental life, and its mission in the world are tools for us to live as Jesus did, so that we can inhabit that holiness.

The Church is CATHOLIC, according to the original definition of the word, which is "universal." The Church is not limited to one locale, one denominational tradition, or one worship style; but rather embraces all Christians everywhere. The Pentecost story in Acts is a testament to the fact that Jesus's disciples were commanded to spread the Gospel to every family, tribe, language, people, and nation, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, the Church is APOSTOLIC, meaning that the Christian faith we practice is a legacy from the first apostles that has been handed down from generation to generation. Known as the "Vincentian Canon," St. Vincent of LĂ©rins in the 5th century affirmed the universality of this apostolic faith by claiming that it is "what has been believed everywhere, always, by all." Now, that may seem like a pretty bold and sweeping statement that may not hold up under scrutiny; and yet it is easy to perceive even in our own Sunday services the enduring legacy of the apostles: the reading of Scripture; the blessing and sharing of bread and wine; prayers for the Church and the world. There are still many common features between our faith and that of the apostles, as the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer makes clear.

Although the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, it is only so in an imperfect way. The Church is often prone to schism and disunity, corruption and vice, denominational prejudice, and theological error. When we recite the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, there's always a hint that we are making an aspirational statement, that we will work to make the Church a better and fuller embodiment of those four essential qualities that we claim for it. The Acts story is clear that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to all who were present, without distinction--men and women, slaves and free, old and young, worthy and unworthy. The apostolic ministry has been given to each one of us, and each of us is called to serve. Each one of us is called to embody the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church as we go about the ordinary activities of our daily lives. That should give us something deep to reflect on this Sunday, as we recount the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus's followers in the gust of wind that brings God's holy fire.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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