Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Holiness of the Church?

The Christian community confesses in its creed to believe in “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” For all the casualness with which this confession trips off the tongue of the average believer on a Sunday morning, this is a remarkable statement. It presents many challenges to the theologian, not least of which is the question of how the church can be called “holy” when it is made up of many sinners. One does not have to look very hard to discover grievous sin in the life of the church. The problem is universally present throughout the diverse expressions of the church. Not one of the many Christian communions is immune to it. One reason for this contradiction can be found in the very purpose of the Church as existing for and through sinners. Taken in this way, it is no more surprising to discover sin in the church than it would be to discover drunkenness in an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting. Thomas Oden believes that the presence of sin in the church is actually an ironic indication of its calling to be a holy people dedicated to the ministry of the gospel. He writes, “the deeper irony is that the signs of sin that attach to the church are indirect evidences of its holiness. It could not be a holy church if it had clean hands, as if separated from its mission and task of saving sinners.”[1] The Church is a “pilgrim people,”[2] a community of people on a journey towards a shared destiny, and it exists in the time between the Kingdom’s inauguration and its final consummation. As such, it is a community both of fulfillment and hope, manifesting the signs of the Kingdom’s arrival in Jesus Christ but also groaning in anticipation of his second coming. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it this way,

“The Church... will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven,” at the time of Christ’s glorious return. Until that day, “the Church progresses on her pilgrimage amidst this world’s persecutions and God’s consolations.” Here below she knows that she is in exile far from the Lord, and longs for the full coming of the Kingdom, when she will “be united in glory with her king.” The Church, and through her the world, will not be perfected in glory without great trials. Only then will “all the just from the time of Adam, ‘from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect,’... be gathered together in the universal Church in the Father’s presence.” [3]

The holiness of the Church is ultimately eschatological. John writes, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2 ESV). At the Lord’s appearing his Church will at last be revealed in all her pristine beauty. The end of the ages has already come upon us in Christ, therefore the promised holiness of the Church has already been established even though we wait for its fullness. Bellow, we shall explore three ways in which the holiness of the Church is a present reality.  
The first way in which the church is holy is in its ability to nurture faith and holiness in its members. The Church is the place where the Word of God is proclaimed, the Sacraments are administered, and the saints are trained in righteousness. The Church is the mother of the faithful. This was expressed famously by Cyprian who wrote, “you cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother.” While the exclusiveness of Cyprian’s claim may—perhaps justifiably—make some uncomfortable, it nevertheless expresses well the essential role of the Church in the life of the believer. John Calvin agrees with Cyprian, and connects mother church with “heavenly Jerusalem” also described as mother in Galatians 4:36. He writes,

“The heavenly Jerusalem, which derives its origin from heaven and dwells above by faith, is the mother of believers. For she has the incorruptible seed of life deposited in her by which she forms us, cherishes us in her womb and brings us to light. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, he who refuses to be a son of the Church desires in vain to have God as his Father. For it is only through the ministry of the Church that God begets sons for Himself and brings them up until they pass through adolescence and reach manhood. This is a title of wonderful and the highest honor.”[4]
It is through the church that we receive nurture and instruction from Christ as he conforms us to his image through the Spirit. The motherhood of the church is an expression of Christ’s own holy love for his people. The Mystical theologian Julian of Norwich describes Christ himself as our mother. She writes,
“Our own true Mother Jesus, he who is all love, bears us to joy and endless living—blessed may he be! Thus he sustains us within himself in love and labor until the full time when he gladly suffered the sharpest throes and most grievous pains that ever were or shall be, and died at last…The mother may suckle her children with her own milk, but our precious Mother Jesus, he may feed us with himself. And he does this most courteously, with much tenderness, with the Blessed Sacrament that is our precious food of true life. And with the sweet sacraments he sustains us with every mercy and grace.”[5]
The Church itself is a kind of sacrament in which the love of God in Christ is made present to sinners. The holiness of the church – through which she is able to impart grace and righteousness to her members – consists of the presence of Christ in her. Julian reports Christ as saying to her, “All the health and life of the sacraments, all the power and grace of my word, all the good that is ordained in the Church for you, I it am.”[6]
            The second way the Church is holy is as the bride of Christ. The church was anticipated by Jesus’ calling of his disciples and the institution of the Eucharist in the upper room, but it was ultimately born through Christ’s own labor pains upon the cross. The Catholic Catechism states, "The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus."[7] The symbolism of this incident described in John 19:34 is incredibly rich. The Early Church fathers saw in this image a parallel to Eve being taken from Adam’s side in Genesis 2:21-22[8]. Again the Catholic Catechism says, “For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the 'wondrous sacrament of the whole Church’. As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam's side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross.”[9] The Church is the bride of Christ, taken from his own side, set apart, and betrothed to him (2 Corinthians 11:2-3). Christ gave himself up to death upon the cross for the sake of his bride the church. The Scriptures proclaim, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27 ESV). Although the Church continues to be beset by many sins, she is holy by virtue of her union with her bridegroom. Martin Luther writes,

Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and mine is his,” as the bride in the Song of Solomon (2:16) says, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”[10]
As Christ’s own bride everything that is his belongs to the Church. She inherits the holiness of her Lord and bridegroom even ahead of the time when she is fully sanctified.
            Finally, the Church is holy because the Church is the Body and Temple of God, and the bearer of God’s presence in the world. As the bride of Christ, the Church is one flesh with him. Paul acknowledges the close relationship between the Church as the bride of Christ and the body of Christ when he writes, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:23 ESV). The metaphor of the Church as Christ’s body is one that is used often in scripture and that carries a lot of significance for ecclesiology. One important way in which the metaphor functions is by identifying the Church as the dwelling place of God, the bearer of his presence in the world. In the Old Testament, the Temple was the place where God was present with his people and his glory abided. In his earthly ministry, Jesus identified himself as the temple of God (John 2:21) and Paul would later refer to the Church as a temple. Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 ESV). The Church is holy therefore because she is the steward of holiness for the sake of the world. The Church is the corporate, visible, body of Christ on earth called out to continue his mission and to be his hands and feet in the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

Through his Spirit, the crucified and risen Lord exists as the Church, as the new man. It is just as true to say that his Body is the new humanity as to say that he is God incarnate dwelling in eternity. As the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ bodily, so the Christian believers are filled with Christ (Col. 2:9; Eph. 3:19). Indeed, they are themselves that fullness in so far as they are in the Body and so far as it is he alone who filleth all in all.[11]

Although the physical presence of Christ in the world is continued through the Church, the bodily being of Christ is in no way limited to his Church. As the Ascension shows, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Christ is larger than his church and stands over and against her as her Lord. Bonhoeffer continues, “The same Christ who is present in his Church will also come again. It is the same Lord and the same Church in both places, and it is one and the same Body, whether we think of his presence on earth or of his coming again on the clouds of heaven.”[12] The Church anticipates the new heavens and earth which will be filled with God’s glory and where God himself will dwell with human beings.
            The holiness of the Church is finally a paradox and mystery, but we see glimpses of her splendor in the fact that she is the mother of saints, the bride of Christ, and the bearer of God’s presence in our fallen world. As we wait for the parousia, Christ is washing us in the water and blood that pours from his blessed side. We are declared holy in him, and we are being sanctified in our patient waiting for his return through the power of his word and sacramental presence among us.

Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Martyred Christian. Macmillan Pub Co, 1985.

Catholic. Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition. 2002- ed. Doubleday Religion, 2003.

Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Edited by Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell. 2nd ed. Augsberg Fortress - eBooks Account, 2005.

Norwich, Julian of. Revelation of Love. Translated by John Skinner. First. Image Books, 1997.

Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. HarperOne, 2009.

[1] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (HarperOne, 2009), 731.
[2] Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes  (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World 1965)
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition (0002- ed.; Doubleday Religion, 2003). 769.
[4] Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians ( trans. Parker T.H.L; Eerdmans, 1974) 87-8.
[5] Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love (trans. John Skinner; First.; Image Books, 1997), 134.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 766.
[8] An example of this would be St. John Chrysotom’s The Blood and Water from His Side and Homily 85 on the Gospel of John.
[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church.
[10] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (ed. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell; 2nd ed.; Augsberg Fortress - eBooks Account, 2005), 397-398.
[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, in The Martyred Christian (Macmillan Pub Co, 1985), 54–55.
[12] Ibid., 55.