Today I am continuing with the series on the Nicene Creed, and we have reached, “We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” There’s a certain irony in tackling this subject on Storm Sunday as the church has tended to be a stormy organization with a lot of dissension.
Sometimes the church is described as a ship. In fact, the word “nave” for the body of a traditionally built church, came from the medieval Latin navis which means ship. It is thought that this may be a reference to the church as the “Ship of St Peter”.
This is an icon by Robert Lentz showing Catherine of Sienna with not a chip but a ship on her shoulder. Catherine lived in the 14th Century at a time when there was tremendous dissension in the Catholic church. Because of a major disagreement between the French king and the Pope early in the century, when a Frenchman was elected as Pope he chose to have his enclave in Avignon, France rather than in Rome. For the next 67 years all the popes were French and the papacy was widely regarded as corrupt. Catherine worked hard to get the Pope to move back to Rome. She got her wish in 1377 but unfortunately Pope Gregory XI died the following year and his successor was so unpopular that the Avignon papacy was revived. There were now two Popes and that caused huge problems as throughout Europe, people and countries had to choose which Pope they acknowledged and each side considered the other to be heretics.
Several weeks before Catherine’s death as she was praying before a mosaic in the original St. Peter’s Basilica, she saw Peter’s fishing boat leave the mosaic and land on her shoulder. It crushed her to the ground. She was virtually paralyzed from then until her death. In this icon, the ship on her shoulder is a symbol of how she carried the ship of the church by her prayers. Today she is considered to be a great teacher for those drawn to a life of mystical prayer as well as the patron saint for all those who feel crushed by religious institutions.
I know that there are several of us in this congregation who have either felt crushed by the church in one of its forms, or know people who have. That is probably why we find “One holy catholic and apostolic church” so difficult to believe in.
Let’s start with the word catholic. It comes from the Greek, and the early church translated it into Latin as universalis. However, “universal” does not adequately capture the rich meaning of katholikos as the ancient Greeks used it. Katholikos means ‘through the whole’ or ‘throughout the whole,’ perhaps closer to our word “holistic”. By the third century, “catholic” became less about a whole-making process and more about orthodoxy. Eventually, it was employed to distinguish orthodoxy from heresy.
And that’s the intention here in this creed from the 4th century. It is not talking about the church headed by the Pope – that came along rather later. In this context, apostolic and catholic mean close to the same thing. It is an apostolic church because it follows the faith handed down to the apostles which they in turn handed down to their followers. It is a catholic church because it is worldwide and orthodox.
From the modern perspective, this is an antiquated way of looking at things. We no longer think that the apostles all believed and taught exactly the same thing. It seems that in its first couple of hundred years, Christianity developed quite differently in different places. We used to think that there was one central orthodox Church and then a passel of heretics who taught different wrong things. Now it seems much more likely that as our faith developed among many small groups who each had access to different teachings and different scriptures, many different ideas developed. The Nicene creed itself, you will remember, was the result of a council called to try to establish orthodox belief about the relationship of Jesus to the Creator.
So why, you might ask, do we continue to say we believe in something I just told us never existed?
The answer for me lies in a whole different level of understanding. When we look at the church we see a mess. We see an institution which has splintered into a thousand little churches which have nothing to do with one another. We see an institution which has, in the name of God, oppressed and indeed murdered millions of people over the last 2,000 years. We see an institution which doesn’t seem to bear much relationship to the teachings or example of Jesus the Christ.
We heard in the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
The church is one of those foolish things that God has chosen. We are members of the foolishness of God. Surely God could have done a better job of calling his church. But apparently, this very messy, very human, very flawed institution is what God has chosen to expand his reign.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.
With our outer eyes we see a religious institution that too often crushes people but with our mystic lens we see the Body of Christ, those who are called to be a royal priesthood, those who are enrolled in the reign of God, and we see them muddling along. With our mystic lens we can see that God’s people are doing their best and that in Christ, God is gathering all things together. In Christ all things, including the church, are being made new.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed “I ask not only on behalf of these [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus prayed for us all to be one. And I think we have to believe that God answers Jesus’ prayers. So even though it seems that we are far from one holistic church which truly gets Jesus’ message, we believe in the mystical church, the one we can’t see yet.
And that’s an important part of why we are here this morning. I can certainly think of other things I could be doing this morning, and I’m sure you can too. But in God’s wisdom, she entrusted the reign of God to human care and nurturing. The church certainly hasn’t gotten everything right, in fact it seems quite the reverse.
We are at a formative time in the life of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church; a time when something new is emerging. Some people have likened this to the time of the Reformation. We don’t know exactly what is happening. But we have some glimpses, and those of us sitting here are part of this process.
We are being called to reform our faith so that it incorporates new understandings of science and society. A tremendous amount has happened in the last 500 years. The ideas that reformed the church then no longer seem as powerful and less people are choosing to participate in the church.
One thing that of course has changed everything is the environmental crisis that we are facing. Today is Storm Sunday. We all know that storms are getting stronger; the warming of the oceans and changes in weather patterns are making storms more extreme, drought more extreme, flooding more extreme.
We can’t ignore this. As a church we have to engage in action to reduce our own negative impacts on our environment. Yesterday, five of us joined the world-wide coastal clean up day to remove trash from alongside the ocean, trash which would get swept into the water and threaten the wildlife. How much better it would be if there were no trash in the first place. What would it take for us to become trash free as households and as a church?
We get to take individual and collective action but that alone will not be enough. We need to be informed and engaged citizens, taking part in the political process that is available to us so that our legislators are left in no doubt that we see environmental action as a high priority. The poor are the ones who are worst effected by climate change – the rich can move or mitigate its effects. But the poor are stuck.
The emerging church will have a powerful message about the environment and our deep connection with people across the planet. The emerging church will work for social and economic justice. The emerging church will incorporate contemporary understandings of creation and the cosmos into our theology. The emerging church will be a midwife for Creation as all things are made new in Christ.
That is what we are doing here at St. Benedict’s. Because we are part of the vanguard of the future. We are part of the church that is emerging.
We are an integral part of one holy, catholic and apostolic church.
And today I’m going to give the last word today to the Presiding Bishop.
 I Peter 2: 9, 10a
 John 17: 20,21