A fella reports: I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off.
So I ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
“Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Well… are you religious?” He said yes.
I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God!”
“Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God!”
“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off.
Don’t kid yourselves, that joke could very easily apply to Episcopalians and the Anglican Church in North America. Pick your favorite denominational fight and insert the name.
So far in our look at the four marks of the Church – one holy catholic and apostolic – we have covered one and holy. From those two words we can draw the following definition of what we mean when we speak those words as we recite the Nicene Creed: As the Church, we stand as one at the foot of the cross in union with one another and with Christ Jesus, united in one flesh, bound together in love, and made holy, not through our own efforts, but by means of grace, made available through the shed blood of Christ Jesus. Today we look more closely at what it means to be catholic, and I can assure you, shouting “Die, heretic scum,” then shoving someone off a bridge is not in the formula.
For some, this word catholic is understood as our practices. Our liturgy and how we worship. In a way, it does, but that is not a full understanding. For others, catholic is defined as “universal.” But that definition is also lacking, because it is easy to view that as being individual parts, even though geographically separate, coming together under one umbrella, separate yet together. So, perhaps a better way of saying catholic would be to say, whole or complete.
That wholeness or completeness does not begin with the church. It begins with the wholeness of the individual.
Consider the episode in Mark’s Gospel when four individuals bring their friend, who is paralyzed, to Jesus. You’ll remember that the crowd was so large that they couldn’t get into the house where Jesus was, so they carried their friend to the roof and lowered him down to Jesus through a hole they had made. What did they expect by doing this? They thought Jesus would heal his paralysis, but instead, Jesus surprised them all, including the religious leaders, by healing the paralyzed man’s soul. “When Jesus saw the faith of the friends, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”
The religious leaders upon hearing this were angry, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus response: “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them.
Yes, Jesus is declaring his authority to forgive sins, but he is also showing his concern for the wholeness of the individual in body and soul. Not only healing the soul, but also healing the body of its affliction. Does that mean that if I’m not healed in body, then I am not made whole in Christ? Absolutely not. For these bodies of ours are only broken temporarily, and as we read in the Book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Jesus will make all things new, all things whole. Complete. To the person who is hurting, it can sound a bit trite, but to quote the walrus (a.k.a. John Lennon), “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
Archbishop Rowan Williams stated, “The whole human person is touched, healed, and transfigured by the Gospel and the catholic church is the church which is able to address every level of human being; heart, mind, and body.” So the catholic church is one that addresses the wholeness of the individual, but also brings about the completeness of all creation under the authority of Christ.
What does that look like? Today, in a town in rural China, fewer than a dozen people gather at someone’s home to share a meal and worship together as a Christian community. Their existence may or may not be tolerated, depending on the local governments view of Christianity. Yet, they gather. They pray, sing hymns, hear the word of God, and fellowship. They are a part of the catholic church, but not just because they are Christian. They are a part of the catholic church because we are not whole, we are not complete without them and they are not complete without us. As individual congregations, we are each expressions of the Church, but as the catholic church, with all those varying expressions (races, forms of worship, nationalities, etc.) we form the singular expression of the Church. And just as Christ brings healing of body and soul to the individual, he also brings healing of body and soul to the Church, so that even the Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879 and 1915 can find peace.
Saint Paul wrote, Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body…. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “There is something in the depths of our being that hungers for wholeness and finality. Because we are made for eternal life, we are made for an act that gathers up all the powers and capacities of our being and offers them simultaneously and forever to God.”
We are one holy catholic and apostolic church. We are a catholic church, because, as a church under grace, united at the foot of the cross, we offer up all the powers and capacities of our collective being and offer them simultaneously and forever to God. Only in that action do we become whole.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.