I have often been troubled by proclaiming that I believe in “one holy Catholic and apostolic Church” which is far from holy here and now. One holy Church? Where? Holy? How? Yes, there are some saints I know who are alive and breathing, but the Church as a whole is far from holy. I myself am far from holy.
Even more disturbing, when St. Paul asks, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2) he’s asking a great question, because by our baptisms, we Christians are all dead to sin, and yet we all continue to live in it.
This has long bothered me, this view of what should be contrasted with the realization of what is.
But yesterday I read one of Bl. John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons that addressed this.
Although he did not use this quotation from St. Paul, it is a quotation that illustrates the point Newman makes.
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. (1 Cor. 5:7)
In other words, you are unleavened bread (not infected with the leaven of insincerity and duplicity, but direct and uninfected, straightforward and uncorrupted), and therefore remove the leaven that is in you. You are pure, therefore become pure.
But … if we are unleavened, why do we need to become unleavened? If we are unleavened, why are we puffed up with all this risen dough? If the Church is holy, why is it filled with sinners? If “it is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me”, then why am I still the same old selfish idiot I was before my baptism or my conversion?
Newman responds thus …
- First, Our Lord tells us that “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Mat. 24:14) The Gospel is preached, in one sense, as a witness against the nations, who will, in many ways, reject it. Thus, the lack of faith and fidelity to Christ that we see around us ’twas ever thus. Sanctification is not a social program but a mystery, and many, even many in the Church, don’t have time for this mystery.
- But second, and more importantly, Scripture describes what God does from His point of view, from the point of view of the perfected end. From the Divine perspective, God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart”, but from the human perspective, Pharaoh digs in his heels of his own free will until he reaps the fruit of his stubbornness – a heart of stone. “Scripture more commonly speaks of the Divine design and substantial work, than of the measure of fulfillment which it receives at this time or that,” Newman writes. God sees outside of time, His works whole and complete. We see from within a process, fumbling about in our slow participation in God’s grace. St. Paul, writing from the Divine perspective, tells his churches that they have “been quickened in Christ” (Eph. 2:5), Christ presenting Himself a “glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27) – saying these sorts of things all the while he is upbraiding his churches for their sins and venality (“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … After starting in the Spirit, are you now finishing in the flesh?” – Gal. 3:1-3), and at times even saying both things at once, “Your are pure, so make yourself pure” (“get rid of the leaven, since you are already unleavened”). And therefore, the “elect” and “predestined” are simply those who cooperate with God’s grace, viewed by Him and described by Scripture from the eternal, and not the temporal, point of view: seen as perfect, and not in process. They are described as “predestined” from the view of their final end; while they themselves, in time, are stumbling and rising again along their imperfect way.
- Some of us satiric types, especially those poets among us, are pained by how short we fall from the elusive Kingdom that sometimes shows itself among us. It is this vision of the Kingdom and of the true Church that tantalizes us. We are granted rare visions of the Kingdom – of the Church as she will be, the spotless bride joined with the Bridegroom at the end of time, a vision of the Church as she actually is, in one sense, as she is in a reality that we strive to participate in. We often don’t know what to make of such visions: to rejoice in them or to despair at how far off they seem. But Newman says we are given these as “pledges” – “a pledge of God’s purpose, a witness of man’s depravity”. In other words, when we see what could be, what should be, and in a way, what already is, albeit outside of time and outside of this world, we are given both a foretaste of heaven and a testimony to man’s depravity and of our own sinful nature, seeing both the light and the dark, the darkness (in a sense) made visible by the light. For we are to look, we sinners, not merely at the glorious face of God, but at the contemptuous face of man who continues to turn from Him.