Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I believe in the Holy Church

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
I Peter 2:9

The French author Georges  Bernanos published a few decades ago one of the more interesting sermons I have ever read.  What made it so interesting is that he wrote it from the perspective of an agnostic, an outsider to the Church.  If we let a unbeliever into one of our pulpits for twenty minutes on a Sunday morning, what exactly would he or she have to tell us about ourselves and the faith we claim to profess?  I will read you just a small portion of that sermon:
Need I remind you that God came in Person to the Jewish people.  They saw Him.  They heard Him.  Their hands touched Him.  They asked for signs; he gave them those signs.  He healed the sick and raised the dead.  Then he ascended once again to the Heavens.  When we seek Him now, in this world, it is you we find, and only you.  Oh, I respect the Church—but the history of the Church herself, after all, does not surrender its secret to the first-comer…It is you, Christians, who participate in divinity, as your liturgy proclaims; it is you ‘divine men’ who ever since His Ascension have been His representatives on earth.  Well, you must admit that one would hardly know it at first glance.[1] 

The agnostic’s complaint is an old one, and often a very fair one.  As I Peter says, we have been called out as “a holy nation,” a people set aside for God’s purposes.  Christ has called us to be salt and light, to stand out in a dark and troubled world.  We have received the Holy Spirit, who is at work within us to purify our hearts and to give us the strength and courage to do God’s will.  And yet, so often, in the things we say and do, we Christians seem to rise no higher than the low standards set by the society around us.  So many polls show that in the kinds of morality that statistics can measure: divorce, violent crime, domestic abuse, sexual promiscuity: in all those areas, religious commitment makes very little difference—we are little different from the pagans.  Scandals involving high profile Christian leaders emerge so often that they hardly attract our notice.  The Christian hypocrite has become a stock character in movies and television, a person whose talk of God and the Bible is undone by his way of life.

As I say, the complaint is hardly a new one.  In the New Testament, we find some rather scathing descriptions by Saint Paul of the immorality within the new churches he founded in Greece and Asia Minor.  The scandal of their infighting and lax personal standards could even cause offense to outsiders in the notoriously live-and-let-live first century.  And yet, he consistently addresses them, in his letters as the agioi, the saints, the holy ones.  “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”[2] begins the letter to his most notorious daughter church.  He addresses the Ephesians as “the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus,”[3] and writes another letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.”[4]

Now Saint Paul wasn’t delusional, and I don’t think he was acquainted with what we call “reverse psychology”—if you make them think they’re good boys and girls, one day they just might surprise you.  No, he was talking about God’s vision for the Church, the purpose that He is accomplishing through Christ and the Holy Spirit that is, for now, still unfinished.

There are two Greek words that we translate as holy.  Agios, the word that Paul uses in those introductions, means set apart, dedicated to a special, sacred purpose.  The Church in Corinth, for all its flaws, was that one society in Corinth dedicated to doing Christ’s work.  It met for worship, it taught God’s word, it was working to share the faith with others.  Its purposes and tasks were holy, even when those who were called out to do them turned out, as he wrote in his second letter to that congregation, to be “broken vessels.”[5]  God had told Moses as the people were wandering in the wilderness that he had was calling Israel to be this kind of holy nation, the one group of people set apart out of all the world’s tribes to be his own, to bear his purposes for the rest of the world.  In the text I read you at the beginning of this talk, Peter is saying that this privilege and responsibility is now being passed on to the Church.  God has called you out of darkness, He has brought you into fellowship with His Son, He has given you the Holy Spirit, and so you must be holy.

Holiness is built into the mission of the Church.  It defines the church from other kinds of human groups.  And the members of the Church also, in one sense, have become holy through Christ’s work of salvation.  We have become, in Christ, “the righteousness of God,”[6] Saint Paul tell us in II Corinthians.  The Book of Hebrews calls us sharers or “partakers of God’s holiness.”[7] As we are united with Christ through His Spirit, we share in all his own gifts—and among these is that righteousness or holiness that gives us access to fellowship with our holy God.

We may be called holy because we have come to know and love the Holy One, but that kind of holiness is not an accomplishment so much as a summons.  We are called to become osios, which is that other Greek word for holiness.  Osios is the pure and exalted way of life that marks out people who live as God’s own.  We have been brought into the holy people so that we might become holy in that way.  The Spirit is at work within us to change us completely, desire by desire, action by action, thought by thought, until we become completely given over to God’s purposes, what Saint Paul calls “having the mind of Christ.”   

From the very beginning of the Church’s life, there have always been people who we have recognized as especially osios, especially pure and devoted to God.  They show us in special ways what it means to truly follow Christ.  They are the little signs to the world that despite all the contrary evidence, the Church truly is a holy society, reaching toward that purpose God has set before us.

I could cite several examples from within Anglican history of a person whose holiness was well known and admired in his or her own time and in the ages that followed.  But the figure of George Herbert, the priest poet of Fugglestone and Bemerton stands out in many ways.  Herbert was a priest of the Church of England in the seventeenth century.  Born into a noble family, he served in parliament for a time and looked forward to a lucrative and successful career at Court.  His patron, James I, died in 1625, and he decided against the counsel of nearly all his friends, to give up on future prospects of worldly success, and to seek ordination.  His biographer, Isaak Walton, recalled a meeting that he had with one of his closest friends just before he went to see the bishop.  His friend criticized the priesthood as a task far below his station and abilities, but Herbert responded to him with these words,
Though the Iniquity of the late times have made Clergy-men meanly valued, and the sacred name of Priest contemptible; yet will I labour to make it honourable, by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them; knowing, that I never can do too much for him, that hath done so much for me, as to make me a Christian.[8] 

Herbert was assigned to a small, insignificant rural parish near Salisbury.  His churches had dirt floors—one still does--and for the three years that remained until his premature death, he poured all his energies and gifts into doing God’s work there.  In the discussion notes you can read Walton’s moving account of the prayer of self-dedication he offered after the bishop had instituted him into the parish.  We know much about his methods, because he prepared a little book of advice called “The Country Parson” which has been much loved and studied by subsequent generations of Anglican clergy.  The aim and focus of the book is pretty well summarized by the first piece of advice he gives under the heading, “The Countrey Parson's Library.”  “The Countrey Parson’s Library,” he writes, “is a holy Life: for besides the blessing that that brings upon it, there being a promise, that if the Kingdome of God be first sought, all other things shall be added, even it selfe is a Sermon.”[9]  He urges that a priest be wise, a store of advice for his people on all matters, theological and practical.  He urges generosity and sacrifice, diligence in ministering to all kinds of parishioners, constant prayer.  But the priest, for Herbert, will have the greatest influence through the kind of person he is, more than the things he does or the words he says.  The life of a Parson, for him, is “itself a sermon.” 

Walton recounts that Herbert was greatly loved and admired by his flock.  They trusted him with their fears and needs, they grew in understanding and devotion, even the plowmen in the field would stop to say their prayers when he rung the bells for Mattins and Evensong.  His own holiness called others to holiness, his example urged them to also seek God’s help to change their own lives.

We also have great understanding of Herbert’s inner life through his many meditative poems, collected together after his death in a volume called The Temple.  In them, we see that Herbert’s personal example was not molded by his own effort, but came out of a deep reliance on God’s grace.  His poems recount deep struggles with pride and depression, and his continual return to Christ for forgiveness and strength.  Your packet contains one of them, a moving meditation on the life of a priest.  It is titled “Aaron,” and meditates on the dress and calling of the first priest of the Old Testament.  Herbert describes the dress of the priest and the way it is designed to recall the inner strength and devotion of those called to stand before God at his Altar.  Yet he hardly measures up, with “profanesse in my head, defects and darknesse in my breast.”  And yet, through his fellowship with Christ, he is equipped to fulfill the ministry to which God has called him: “Christ is my onely head,” he writes, “My alone onely heart and breast/ My onely musick, striking me ev’n dead;/ That to the old man I may rest, And be in him new drest.”[10]

We may not all be called, as Herbert was, to the responsibilities of a priest, but we are all called to be holy, to do our part in showing the Church to be that body set aside for God’s purpose, doing his will, showing Him to others in the way we live.   The agnostic’s sermon reminds us that the world is waiting to see God in us.  With God’s help, may our lives be what Herbert called "true sermons," speaking consistently of His goodness and truth.

[1] Bernanos, Georges.  “A Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of Saint Therese of Liseux.”  The Heroic Face of Innocence.  Trans. Pamela Morris and David L. Schindler.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 30-31.
[2] I  Cor. 1:2.
[3] Eph. 1:1.
[4] Phil. 1:1.
[5] II Cor. 4:7.
[6] II Cor. 5:31.
[7] Heb. 12:10.
[8] Walton, “The Life of Mr. George Herbert.”  The Lives of Doctor John Donne, Sir Henry Wooton, Knight, Mr. Richard Hooker and Mr. George Herbert.”  New York: Scott-Thaw, 1904, 172.
[9] The Countrey Parson, XXIII.
[10] “Aaron”

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