Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The "Holy" Church

In the previous couple of article, I have spoken about what (or who) makes the Church “one.” Today, I would like to focus on the second adjective that the Nicene Creed applies to the Church: that it is holy.

When we think of the concept of “holiness,” we tend to imagine a state in which a person can do no wrong and is preserved from evil or sinful behavior. More than that, a holy person only associates with other holy persons. To do otherwise might risk the loss of their “holy” status.

Just this past week someone told me of a group of churches whose location is not widely known. Each community meets in a house and in order to attend, you have to be invited by a member. What is the reason? Simply put, they want to preserve the doctrinal and moral integrity of their community from the “corrupting influences” of those who might “drop in.” In other words, they maintain their sense of holiness by excluding those who might not be as “pure” as they are.

I bring up this example not to point a finger or to judge, but to suggest that any Christian community could fall prey to the same temptation, if we are not vigilant. Most of our churches, while supposedly open to anyone, nevertheless tend to erect barriers at the door: barriers of class and income, barriers of dress and demeanor, and even barriers against those who do not share all our beliefs.

Underlying these invisible but very real restrictions is, I believe, a misunderstanding of what holiness really is.

According to the Scriptures, holiness is less a quality of personal purity than the vocation to belong to God. “I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev. 11:45) God has chosen His people, rescued them from the bondage of sin and death represented by slavery in Egypt, and now He wants them to be as holy as He is.

That holiness is the condition being set apart from a world that hates and rejects God. It is the calling to live as He made us to live, to be real human beings in His image and likeness, to love our Creator and each other as He loves us. He is our God and we are His people, and that mutual belonging is holiness.

Individual holiness, then, is not measured in the same way as, for instance, the purity of water. When I use holy water to bless people and things, I am not using some kind of “supercharged water”; it’s just regular water that has been offered to God to bless His creation. I don’t use holy water for any other purpose and I treat it with respect, not because it is somehow purer than tap water, but because it belongs to God for His use, and not say, for washing dishes.

What is true for holy water is true for us also. Baptized Christians are not “squeaky clean” human beings who must maintain their spiritual cleanliness by avoiding the unwashed masses who might pollute them. Holiness is not a self-initiated state of purity that we maintain by our own efforts.

On the contrary, Christians are holy in as much as they are ordinary human beings who belong to God for the purpose of showing forth His love for the world every day. Holiness is both God’s claim on us as His beloved children, and His challenge for us to live as His people, moment by moment. In this sense, everyone is called to be holy, not just an elect and select few.

The holiness of the Church, therefore, has little to do with the individual purity of its members. Rather, God is holy and the members of His Body the Church simply participate in that holiness by demonstrating the self-emptying love of God for the world in our daily choices and actions.

The regularity of our church attendance, the correctness of our doctrine, the zeal of our belief, or the strictness of our morality—none of these achievements in any way guarantees our holiness. Indeed, the Church’s holiness is tarnished when we uphold our communities as “societies of the pure,” because we usurp God’s holiness with our own claims to spiritual distinction.

For a couple years, I worked at the Salvation Army. In my short time there, I encountered folks who struggled with addictions and abuse, frailty and brokenness of every imaginable kind. On numerous occasions, however, I wondered how many of these homeless and indigent people would be welcome in a typical Christian church on a given Sunday?

If we hesitate to answer that question honestly, then it’s time for us to reevaluate our understanding of holiness. Ultimately, none of us can make a personal claim to be more holy than anyone else. We are all the spiritually marginalized people of God. Those of us who receive the Bread of divine life must reject the temptation to monopolize our claim as invited guests, and simply go about the daily task of showing the rest of the world where the spiritual banquet may be found.

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