I believe in: the Holy Catholic Church
....in the holy catholic church
If you start talking to a modern Aussie about the "catholic church" they will probably have in mind Popes in white, cardinals in red, priests in black, as well as steeples and scandals.
As you may have guessed by the way I started this article, this is not what we're talking about!
Over years, words often evolve from their intended meaning, like apocalypse or terrible or awesome. Or, for another example "Panadol" has become synonymous with "paracetamol" or "painkiller", despite the fact that Panadol is just a brand.
In the case of "catholic" it has become synonymous with the traditional institutional church of the West, but, the word simply means something like "universal".
So in our summary of the Christian faith (the Apostle's Creed), we profess "I believe... in the Holy Universal Church."
What do we mean when we say this? Let's break it down!
The Church is Holy
The Christian church is holy. It is special. It is set apart.
Did you ever have a Grandmother who had a special cabinet with the fine china and silverware reserved for special occasions? (perhaps you have one yourself?) We could say this is "holy" crockery. Not because there is some mystical endowment in that dishware, but because it has been reserved for a special job. It has a higher purpose than the "profane" dishes used everyday.
This example only goes so far, but you get the drift right? God's people, His Church, is dedicated to God for His special use. The church is made up of all kinds of vessels that are set aside for God.
Holiness does carry with it a sense of purity - and this is reflected in the famous words from Ephesians 5 where Paul compares Husbands and Wives to Christ and the Church. Particularly relevant is the way that Paul describes the way that Jesus loves His Church: "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Eph 5:25–27).
The Church is Universal
Christians are notorious for creating new schisms in the Church every other week.
The biggest of those schisms came out of the institutional church of the Roman empire when the Latin-culture church of the west split from the Greek-culture church of the east in 1054 AD. This is where the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches took on their own identities.
Famously Martin Luther would come along some 500 years later in the west to spark the protest that began the Reformation churches in different countries.
You get the gist - we can divide the church every which way - by theology, by tradition, by geography, by time.
But here's the thing, despite the external differences between this denomination and that tradition, Christians believe in a invisible reality - that there is one Church.
There is ultimately only one Church from all time and all places.
While some wish that there was still only one institutional organisation of church on earth, our physical earthly divisions are a sad reality (and sometimes a healthy necessity - 1 Cor 11:18–19, 1 Tim 4:1). Yet the spiritual reality is that Jesus has only one Bride for whom He died.
We share an undeniable link with all Christians, no matter their stripe; if we have real faith in Jesus we are in His everywhere-church.
One day the whole Church will assemble before the throne of Jesus without division of ethnicity, language and affiliation: "There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (Re 7:9).
The Church is a.... errr... Church.
This would seem to be self evident - but it is an intense truth hidden in plain sight. A forgotten treasure to be recovered!
We throw this word around so much to mean different things contextually like a building, or a particular meeting of Christians on Sunday, or an organisation. But what is the church at base?
It is an assembly, gathering, congregation and community of people, and we use it to talk specifically about the assembly of God's own people purchased with the blood of Jesus.
One of the most epic and terrifying pictures of God's church was in in the desert wilderness, when God's people gathered around the tabernacle to live and worship with God in their midst.
When Israel moved into the Promised Land, it became harder to live as this church while scattered across the countryside, but they would regularly travel to Jerusalem to worship and honour God.
Then, as God enacted the next phase of His mission to save humanity He removed His presence from one physical location in Israel to send His Spirit into all of God's people and scatter them across the world into smaller guerrilla groups.
While we still belong to one invisible catholic community of God's people, it is expressed in local smaller gatherings that mirror the great assembly to come. The New Testament makes it clear that we are to submit to a local group of believers, with leaders, and boundaries who regularly gather together to build each other up in faith under Chief Shepherd Jesus.
The church has a kind of indefinite quality most of the time. Where is Flooding Creek right now? There is no building that is Flooding Creek, and the incorporated association isn't the church. We're only the church of Flooding creek because of our affiliation with one another in space and time. But even when we get together as a body, there are often people who are away. Yet, that doesn't make us any less the church on those occasions... it's difficult to make nice neat boundaries around church. Nevertheless, the most concrete moments that the Church of Jesus is expressed, is when His people gather in time and space under His word and remember His death until He comes.
"I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, LORD,
as you know.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly" (Ps 40:9–10).
So, we believe in the holy, universal church - won by Jesus, powered by the Spirit for the Glory of the Father.
P.S. I leave you with my favourite picture of church:
"On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken." (Is 25:6–8).