Sermon: Advent 1 – “One”

Bishop Daniel Sylvester Tuttle is a hero of mine. He was the first missionary Bishop to the Diocese of Montana, and I studied his life while I was in seminary. He arrived in Montana in 1867. He woke the first morning there to two inches of fresh snow on the ground. The date was July 18th. His autobiography, The Reminiscences of a Missionary Bishop, is a delight to read and a glimpse of the early church in America. He writes of his travels, the people he met, his joys and disappointments. From the comfort of my armchair, I found some of his difficulties to be quite humorous.

Writing home to his wife in New York, he described his Sunday School teachers in one of the communities he served: there was “a Quaker, a Baptist, and two Methodists and one ‘churchman’.” Not a bad sounding lot, but of these, one was an absolute drunk and another was a habitual gambler. The vestry was worse. He writes, “Before I went to choir meeting, Major Veale, my only faithful churchman here, called.  He and I are putting our heads together about the election of a new vestry at Eastertide.  We mean to cut down the number from nine to seven.  We mean to throw out at least drunkards and violent swearers.  Aside from him the other six, at the best, will have to be Unitarians, moderate drinkers and decent world’s men.” Now that I think about it, that kind of represents St. Matthew’s vestry.

It is easy to look at the church and define it by what it has done right and what it has done wrong and by what it’s members have done right and wrong. By looking at Bishop Tuttle’s church and how the world would have defined the church based on it, we could shake our heads and wonder how it has lasted so long. But it has.

The world defines the church from the outside looking in, but the church has attempted to define itself. For many, this defining is evolutionary and fluid; however, the early church provided us with a definition that has stood the test of time and is recited each week when we say the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” – the four marks or four notes of the church. One holy catholic apostolic.

These words were first used in 381 at the Council of Constantinople to describe the church and provide the foundational marks, or characteristics, of the Church.

In the Book of Common Prayer, as you read those words, “one holy catholic and apostolic,” if you are an English teacher, you have probably noticed the lack of commas in that sentence. If you are Grammar Nazi, it probably makes you crazy, but believe it or not, the missing commas are making a theological statement. These words are interdependent. They modify each other and the church, so you cannot omit any of them without fundamentally changing the whole thing. The church is holy because it is one, it is catholic because it is apostolic, and so on. The missing commas demonstrate the inseparable nature of the four marks. Yet the church is none of these things on its own, because without Jesus at the center, it is nothing more than a civic organization with fancy buildings.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes, “The church is one because Jesus Christ is one; the church is holy because Jesus Christ is holy; the church is catholic because Jesus Christ is the saviour of all; the church is apostolic because, as the Father has sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us.”

So these four inseparable marks define the Church as it stands with and in Jesus. Although inseparable, to more fully understand their nature, we need to consider them individually, and it begins with “one.”

In 1968 the rock band “Three Dog Night” sang, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” (I apologize to those of you who go home with that song stuck in your head.) From a worldly perspective, one can be quite lonely, but for the Church, one is complete unity.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed to his Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” In Christ we are not lonely individuals, but one. The Apostle Paul understood it this way, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” And later Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus prayed that we may be one and through our baptism, we are not joined to Jesus, but made one with him as his body. No longer separated by our differences, but united in one flesh, and allowed to come before the throne of Our Father.

In considering this one body, the Body of Christ, we often think of it as all the Christian people combined, but it is clear in Paul’s earlier writings that he also considered each local community of faith to be the Body of Christ. What does that mean? It means that you can look around you at the people of St. Matthew’s and see and experience the blessings of being the complete Body of Christ. That doesn’t downplay the significance of the larger body, but it does mean that all the gifts and talents are present for us to be what Christ prayed for an intended us to become. That is a tremendous blessing, but it also comes with a responsibility: we all have a part to play. Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Individually members of it. Individually you have your part to play as a member of the whole.

Through our combined work, individually and corporately, we become one Church, standing before the one God and Father of us all.

St. Cyprian beautifully describes this one-ness: “Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree; when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. Thus also the Church, shining with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spread her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her Head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animate.”

One holy catholic and apostolic Church. As one, we stand in union with one another and with Christ Jesus, bound together in love as the Church.

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, look upon our community of faith which is the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to witness to his love by loving all our fellow creatures without exception. Under the leadership of our Bishops keep us faithful to Christ’s mission of calling all men and women to your service so that there may be “one fold and one shepherd.” We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

One Reply to “Sermon: Advent 1 – “One””

  1. Fr. John, this is a marvelous message. I watched a Fox news special on Faith in America and what is happening with the apparent decline. I converted to Catholicism when I was 21 and left with divorces under my belt – hence meeting you as the pastor in Anaconda, Montana.

    I am quite sure you have countless people who have let you know how you as a person and as a minister of God have affected them…I am one of these. With a spiritual crisis of faith that hit me with a failed marriage those many years ago, it occurred to me that the loss was not at all about romance, but about the fear that I could not reconcile my ideas of spirit and God with my own personal experience. Seemingly so insignificant in the scheme of things, I permitted the event to camouflage the core of me.

    Attending your services and being aware of your past experiences led me to follow your ministry with not curiosity, but HOPE. Faith has remained strong with you…just as in Star Wars, it is deeply ingrained and intertwined in your soul.

    Happy Christmas. I look forward to reading your sermons from afar. And to thank you because you have and continue to make a difference.

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