Summary: The eighth phrase of the Creed: "The holy catholic church."
THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH
Line by line we are making it through the Apostle’s Creed, and the line we are looking at this week is easily the most misunderstood line in the whole thing. “I believe in the holy catholic church. I remember when I first learned the creed. When I got to this line, good Scotch Protestant that I am, I would always close my mouth, picking back up with the Communion of Saints. It didn’t seem like I should be affirming the Catholic church unless we were going to talk about all the others, too.
I know I’m not alone in that. In fact, so many other people think about the line that way, that when they printed the Creed in our hymnal, they put a little asterisk next to the word “catholic” in order to explain what it really means. The word “catholic” with a small “c” means universal. John Wesley once preached a sermon called “The Catholic Spirit.” He was not talking about the spirit of the Roman Catholic Church. He was talking about the universal spirit...the Holy Spirit that allows us to see everyone universally as our brothers and sisters, much as we talked about last week.
When the church in Rome was thinking of a name for itself, it adopted the name “Catholic” because they wanted to make a statement saying that they were the one universal church. They weren’t, even then, but that’s beside the point. If we said, “I believe in the Roman Catholic Church,” that could be more problematic since we would be naming one church but not others. But we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church” to make a much deeper and broader statement. “I believe in the holy catholic church” says that we believe that all Christians everywhere are really one, universal church.
On its most basic level, saying you believe this part of the creed means that you can’t automatically designate the members of some other church or denomination as going to hell. I’ve said before that we really can’t do that to anybody...it’s not our decision...but this sentence acknowledges that we believe all other Christian churches are, at a fundamental level, of the same faith as we are. So if you have a strong hatred for some other church or denomination, this line says that Christianity doesn’t teach such a prejudice. In a sense we ARE affirming the Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Baptists and Presbyterians and Pentecostals and UCC and any other church founded on faith in Jesus Christ. We are saying that we are all connected...we are all one church...one holy, catholic church.
Now, as even the most cursory glance will tell you, if we believe that, it’s awfully hard to tell. Churches often seem to be so into marketing and promoting their own particular name brand of faith that the heart of the Gospel suffers. God forbid that I should ever be more committed to making someone a United Methodist than to helping someone become a Christian. And yet it happens. This line reminds us that bashing other churches is not what our Christian faith teaches.
One of the interesting things about Christianity is that it has room within it for both unity and plurality. Like Judaism and Islam we believe in just one God. But we believe that the one God is expressed in three equal yet distinct ways...as the God who creates from heaven, usually designated Father; as God who comes to earth and relates to us in human flesh, the one we call Jesus, the Son; and as the Holy Spirit, which is in and through all living things, bringing particular gifts and powers to each.
It’s the same thing with churches. We believe in the holy catholic church. We believe in only one church...the church of Jesus Christ...yet we believe that one church has many manifestations. Now when I say that, please realize that this is not the passage telling us how to relate to those who are not Christians. That came last week in “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” This passage recognizes that even in the earliest days of the faith, we couldn’t even get along WITHIN the Christian faith, let alone outside.
And yet, unity as Christians is clearly what the Bible teaches. In Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, he prays that all of his followers would be united, that both those alive then and those who would come later would be one...finding their unity not in doctrines but in a common love of Jesus.
This past weekend I was away in Worcester doing a stewardship workshop. The keynote speaker for the event was Dr. Leonard Sweet, and he talked about the reason that so many people are connecting to Mel Gibson’s The Passion when they don’t particularly connect with the Church. He said, and I agree, that the church has almost completely forgotten that we are not founded on a set of principles or doctrines. We are founded on a person...Jesus Christ. Nobody these days is particularly interested in propositions, but they are very interested in relationship, which is what the Christian church is uniquely positioned to offer, if we will but remember. At the core of our faith is not a “what,” but a “who.”