In this article we shall think first about the Holiness of the Church then its Oneness.
What does holy and holiness really mean? In Old Testament Hebrew the word for ‘holy’ is kadosh; and in New Testament Greek hagios. It simply means ‘separated or set apart’, the same in both Testaments, and is used for God and for his people. In Leviticus 19:2 Moses speaks to the whole Israelite people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. In 1 Peter 1:15 the writer speaks to the Christian assembly: “As he who has called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct”; and again in Chapter 2:9: “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”.
This shows how holy is invariably used in a faith-religious context with strong moral emphasis, and with real everyday relevance and application for the whole of life. It means being set apart and dedicated for a higher wider purpose or ‘consecration’. And the Christian Church is certainly not an exclusive club with a ghetto mentality! Indeed our Lord spoke of his readiness to give himself utterly for his disciples and for all of us and his whole world, when he said: “And for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:19). Some translations have ‘sanctify’ which means the same.
Thinking about the holiness of God as taught in holy Scripture, and supremely as seen in Jesus, we could sum it up like this: God is faultless and unfailing in perfect Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Purity; in Understanding and Wisdom; in glorious Eternal Purpose for all Creation; and above all in Compassion, Justice and Mercy. And there is no malice or evil intent or sin in God.
Such is our Holy God, and we who bear his image and likeness are called and challenged to be holy too. . . nothing less. To put it mildly it’s a very tall order; a tremendous challenge! But the Church of Christ has never hesitated to accept that vocation enshrining it in its Creeds as its sure belief, knowing that the God who calls us never fails to equip us with his grace. It means to become and to be what we truly are, by the grace of justification (put right with God), and sanctification (made holy by God).
This is why the Church speaks of Holy Baptism, Holy Confirmation, Holy Eucharist and Communion, Holy Marriage and Holy Orders (Ordained Ministry); Holy Scripture and Holy forgiveness, freely available for everyone forever. And a Holy Fellowship too, both universal and local, of those who seek to help, support and care for each other, in the loving holiness journey.
There are times of course when ‘Holy Church’ has seemed anything but holy. There are not a few dreadful pages in its history. But there are far more better pages; and such there will always be, for however much you and I let the side down (as we sadly do), our holy God and Saviour never lets us go, leading us on to better holier ways.
When we looked at the meaning of ‘Catholic’ it was necessary to see something also of the Church’s Oneness and Unity. ‘Catholic’ we learnt means holding the true universally received Faith of the Church, the one common biblical Faith of the New Testament – a Faith which by its very nature unites us. ‘Catholic or world-wide’ also means embracing all nations, races, colours; all social groups, ages, abilities; gender and sexuality. No one is excluded from the Gospel of Christ and the Christian Family.
So an essential component of the Church’s unity and harmony is its adherence to the Gospel truth, that ‘there is only one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all’ (Ephesians 4:3). And “of us all” means exactly that – all peoples across all continents, all human families, all shapes and sizes; all made one-in-Christ by Baptism forever. (We shall look at this again later).
The Church is fundamentally One because there is only one God. And so there can only be one sure organization with the mission and task of bringing God’s Creative-Saving Love to all humanity. This, the Christian Church faithfully fulfils by God’s clear guiding Light and divine grace. And though other world faiths may teach much that is good, only faith in Christ Jesus provides the fullness of truth.
The Church’s Unity however, though truly real in its undergirding essence of Baptismal Life is still sadly impaired in various other levels. At Communion, before sharing ‘The Peace’, the president often says: “We are the Body of Christ and in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12,13). Indeed we are the Body of Christ whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist or whatever. Our prayer and hope should be that this becomes a full complete reality, embracing all the Churches; with sharing of all Ministries and the Sacramental Bread and Cup of the Eucharist; and in worship and prayer, in learning together, and witness and service to others. May this vital ecumenical task grow until we are all truly and wholly visibly One, just as Jesus longed and prayed: according to his will and in his good time across our whole world (John 17:19-23).
The causes of division are many and complex, often purely political or nationalistic. But sadly deficiency in holiness and love, and lack of humility before the whole truth, is also its cause. Too often also, assertions are made by some Churches or groups that only they have got it right; and that too can bring about division! Real holiness, genuine love with patient truth-seeking dialogue, and above all earnest prayer, are the surest ways to bring about the unity we yearn for. And this must apply to all the Churches who look to Christ as head and Lord, and seek to do God’s will for all his peoples.
An act of praise to acknowledge the holiness of God, his Church, and each one of us:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord;
Holy is the Lord God almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.