I believe in the … Catholic Church.
The Apostles’ Creed includes the words, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” To say, “I believe in the Church” causes little anxiety to any of us. To say that we believe in the “catholic church” is a bird of a very different colour.
In our culture the word “catholic” has picked up connotations that give reason for pause. In our tendencies for shorthand expressions, it has come to be an abbreviation for “The Roman Catholic Church”. For this reason there are some on the Protestant side of the Church who want to drop this word altogether! (The editors of some hymnals have substituted the phrase “the Holy Christian Church” to avoid using the word “catholic”.) Some of us are just tired of explaining the word to ourselves every time we recite the creed.
But it is a marvelous word, rich with history and meaning. Simply because one part of Christendom has taken it as their label does not mean the rest of us cannot use it. Some other churches call themselves “The Church of God” but so are we all! Some call themselves the “Church of Christ” and so are we all. And we are all catholic.
So what does this ancient word mean? It comes from two Greek words “Kata” which means “concerning” and “Olus” meaning “the whole.” It means that God’s church is universal: as wide as the world and as broad as the universe, as deep as human history and as high as the heavens. This great catholic church of God includes the entire “church militant” and the entire “church triumphant.”
The word “catholic” also means that God’s church is open to all persons regardless of colour, regardless of culture, regardless of race, age, language, education, gender, or background. This means that the church is never to be racially restrictive. It is not a church for “our kind of people” only. Whosoever will, may come.
But the word catholic has another implication. It means that my local church is not the whole church, or the most important part of God’s Church. It also means that my denomination is not the whole church or its most important branch. No local church or denomination is ever to be a law unto itself. We belong to something much bigger than ourselves.
The word “catholic” says God’s church is wider than local or denominational interests, and for that reason the well being of the whole of Christendom is always to be our concern. That is why we support the church in places of famine, earthquakes, war and poverty, even when we have no members or churches in those zones. The world is our parish, so we send our resources to the ends of our world. It is why we cooperate with para-church ministries, because their ministries are ours.
The Mission of the church
The word “catholic” has another meaning. We believe in a universal atonement. By that we mean that Jesus died for all persons without exception. The offer of salvation is therefore to be made to all, and as long as there are those who are outside the Kingdom of God, our task remains unfinished. We are to go into all the world, to every person, and offer them Christ. There can be no resting simply because “we are safe”. We must be global in our passion and compassion.
The church is out to convert the entire universe to God and Christ. We take seriously the dream that “righteousness would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” We work and pray that “all the kingdoms of this world would become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.” That too is what it means to be catholic in our Christianity.
Some denominations of Christendom have what is called “Closed Communion.” This means that if you do not belong to that denomination, you cannot take communion in their churches.
I confess that I have found that disturbing. There have been many times when I have been visiting other parts of God’s family, where I am not allowed to partake because I do not belong. I feel a deep sadness at such moments, because I do belong to the whole church, because I belong to God. And when I am dis-membered by any part of God’s family, I lament the deep fracturedness of the great church of God.
Our church at its very beginning declared its communion services “open”. Open to all who follow God. Open to anyone who professes to be a Christian. But would you be willing to go one step further, as John Wesley did, and create a communion table “open” even to those not yet Christians? John Wesley knew that communion could be a converting sacrament as well as a confirming and purifying sacrament. He invited people who wished to be Christians, who wanted to flee from the wrath to come, to come to God to the Lord’s table and find grace to help. It may well be one of the reasons our communion rail also serves as an altar for Christian conversion.
Someone accused me some time ago of being a “Closet Catholic” I informed him that there is nothing closeted about me! I confess out loud and without any penitence, that I am a catholic and more than glad to be part of that “One holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
Think It Through…
One of the trends within pragmatic North American Christianity is for churches to target certain groups within society. If a congregation programs its life to appeal to a specific target group, it will attract many from this sector of society. Such targeting works! It is a highly efficient methodology. But it does give mixed signals. It seems to infer that some people are more valued by our church than others. When churches aim to create “homogeneous units” with everyone being GenX or Boomers, or Anglos or Hispanics, the church may impair its witness. When a church is a kaleidoscope of races, and languages, and cultures and interests it demonstrates our intent to close our doors to no one but to open our arms to all.
Question: how then does a church legitimately target one sector of society without discouraging others from participating?
Would you join others in offering God this ancient prayer?
O God we pray for Your whole church throughout the whole world:
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, teach it.
Where it is superstitious, correct it.
Where it is in the wrong, reform it.
Where it is in need, supply it.
Where it is divided, repair it.
Where it is persecuted, comfort it.
Where it is dying, resurrect it.
Where it is tired, rejuvenate it.
Where it is discouraged, grant it Your courage.
And where the church is healthy, confirm it in all goodness.
For the praise of Christ we ask this. Amen.
For the Small Group Leader
Would you lead your group in a discussion of St. Paul’s words to the church found in Galatians 3:28. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ”
Published in Light and Life, July-August, 2001.