“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.” (Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams)
Last week we began looking at the four marks or notes of the Church that we recite each week in the Nicene Creed: one holy catholic and apostolic. We learned that as one in the Church, we stand in union with one another and with Christ Jesus, no longer divided by our differences, but united in one flesh, bound together in love. We also learned that we cannot be one, unless we are also holy catholic and apostolic, so today, we look more closely at the second mark: holy.
Years ago, the chaplain of the football team at Notre Dame was a beloved old Irish priest.
At confession one day, a football player told the priest that he had acted in an unsportsmanlike manner at a recent football game. “I lost my temper and said some bad words to one of my opponents.” “Ahhh, that’s a terrible thing for a Notre Dame lad to be doin’,” the priest said. He took a piece of chalk and drew a mark across the sleeve of his coat.
“That’s not all, Father. I got mad and punched one of my opponents.”
“Saints preserve us!” the priest said, making another chalk mark.
“There’s more. As I got out of a pileup, I kicked two of the other team’s players.”
“Oh, goodness me!” the priest wailed, making two more chalk marks on his sleeve. “Who in the world were we playin’ when you did these awful things?”
“The Baptists down at Baylor.”
“Ah, well,” said the priest, wiping his sleeve, “boys will be boys.”
Beginning with the top ten, many believe the Christian faith to be about the “You shall” and “Thou shall not” statements. “You shall love the Lord your God…” and “Thou shall not steal, murder, covet and so on.”
When we are able to keep these laws we see success, which we equate to holiness and when we fail to keep these laws, not only do we think we are unholy failures, but we become discouraged from trying. The “You shalls” and “Thou shall nots,” instead of being goals, become constant reminders of our inadequacies of achieving holiness.
Put another way, we think of being holy as not having any chalk marks on our sleeves, as being good little boys and girls. In a way, it’s almost like seeing God as Santa Claus, he knows whose been naughty and nice and he will reward or punish accordingly.
So we strive for success, but we fail. St. Paul understood this: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
I want to follow the “You shalls” and “Thou shall nots,” but I can’t. I am a failure. I am unholy. We cry out with Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
That sounds like failure. Yet, it is in discovering our inabilities to maintain the law and crying out – “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” – that we take our first real step towards holiness, because it is in admitting our failures that we discover our need for a Savior and it is then that we go to the one place where we we can find that Savior and where we can be made holy: the foot of the cross.
Yes, we are walking through Advent toward the manger, but the manger forever lies in the shadow of the cross. Jesus came into the world, born in a manger, yet he achieved holiness for us all in his death on the cross. As Paul clearly states in his letter to the Hebrews, by the will of God, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
So at the foot of the cross we cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And at the foot of the cross we find the means to our holiness, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Holiness is not based on what we can do. It is not achieved through our own attempts of keeping the “You shalls” and “Thou shall nots,” but only through the cross and the blood of Christ, only through grace, do we become holy as our God is holy.
Holiness is not about being nice little boys and girls. Holiness is found only in one place and in one person. Holiness is found at the foot of the cross in the person of Jesus Christ. Not only does that apply to individuals, but to the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
I’ve been in a lot of churches where the building is nice and clean, the people are nice and clean, and the clergy are nice and clean. Everything is nice and clean and I’ve gone to those churches and after leaving, the first thing I wanted to do was go home and take a shower. Nice and clean does not equate to holiness.
A church can think that it holy because it has all the outward appearances of holiness. Smells and bells. People dressed appropriately. Saying the right words. Being nice to one another. A church can appear holy because it has no apparent chalk marks on its collective sleeve, but in truth, unless a church gathers at the foot of the cross recognizing its need for grace that comes only from Jesus, then that church is not holy.
Like individuals, a church can try and follow all the established rules, but before long we will publicly and privately fail. When that happens, members become discouraged, tensions rise, oneness is lost, and holiness is not achieved.
Wretched man that I am! Wretched church that we are! Who will rescue us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The holy church is one that recognizes its need for a Savior, not only individually, but corporately. It is a church that is prepared to gather as one at the foot of the cross and as one, be cleansed by the blood of Christ. It is a church that recognizes its own need for grace and it is a church that freely extends that same grace to all those who come seeking the Savior.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, during the Eucharist when the bread and wine are elevated, the priest declares, “Holy things for holy people.” Yet the people don’t agree. They protest saying, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father.” Alone, we are not holy, but as one flesh with Jesus, we are made holy.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Yes, indeed! Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Let us pray: Breathe in us, O Holy Spirit, that our thoughts may all be holy. Act in us, O Holy Spirit, that our work, too, may be holy. Draw our hearts, O Holy Spirit, that we love only what is holy. Strengthen us, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard us so, O Holy Spirit, that we may always be holy. Amen.