To speak of holy church, first we take ground of the gospel, where Christ saith (Matthew 16) The gates of hell shall not have might against holy church. For the more clear declaring of this matter, and avoiding of objections that may be put forth, understand that there are three churches, of which God’s law often makes mention, and much they differ from each other, to them that take good heed.
The first is called a little flock, as Christ saith in Luke 12. Dread ye nothing, my little flock, it pleaseth your Father to give you a kingdom; and this church is called the chosen number of them that shall be saved. Also Paul saith, (Ephesians 5), Christ hath chosen him a glorious church, neither having spot, nor blain, nor any other such thing, but that this church may be holy and undefiled. This church is called Christ’s spouse. She is likened to a woman clad in the sun, as St. John saith in the Apocalypse. This church is likened to Peter’s little boat, which was in the midst of the sea (Matthew 14. Mark 6). The little boat was cast about in the midst of the sea with the waves. This boat both sank and swam, but never might it drown. So holy church suffers many perils, and sometimes bodily death, by the pursuit of enemies, but it shall never be damned.
This church is likened to paradise. The trees that bear fruit are good holy livers here on earth. The fruits of those trees are the works of holy saints. The tree of life is our Lord Jesus Christ. The tree of knowing good and evil, is the free choice of man’s will. But however we speak in diverse names or likenesses of this holy church, they teach nought else but this one name, that is to say, the congregation or gathering together faithful souls that lastingly keep faith and truth, in word and in deed, to God and to man, and raise their life and sure hope of mercy, and grace, and bliss, at their end, and cover over this building in perfect charity that shall not fail in weal or in woe. Of this Paul spake to the Corinthians, and in them to all others, saying. The temple of God is holy, and that are ye. And by this we understand that the soul of a righteous man is the seat of God. Well ought such a man to be watchful and wise, that hath the great Lord God of Israel dwelling in his soul; and so saith St. Augustine, ” O thou christian soul, awake, and if there be in thee any power of charity, that §ustaineth all things, follow thou the steps of thy Lord. Take heed how many thousands of martyrs have made a smooth, plain way, to thee. There have passed before thee children and young damsels, and yet thou dreadest! Arise thou soul, for He shall lead thee who is the Way, Truth, and Life; the Way not erring; the Truth not beguiling, and the Life not failing! Way in example. Truth in permission, and Life in meed.”
Thus wandereth holy church in earth, in prayers, fastings, and wakings; in abstinence, tribulations, and anguish; in persecutions, in much need, and in prisons; in bonds, in cold, and in much heaviness; in thirst, in hunger, and in blamings; in reprovings, in slanders, and in patience; in long abiding-, in simpleness, and in weeping; in forgiving, in soberness, and in chastity; in speediness, in largeness, and in charity. These are groanings of man’s soul that longeth in love after Christ her spouse, till she have brought herself, a child of God, to bliss without end. And then for greatness of God’s reward, the more she suffered, the more is her joy. For so saith St. Paul, Romans 8. The sufferings of this time that we suffer in this mortal life, are as no sufferings in comparison to the glory that is to come, that shall be showed in us.
For then we shall be endowed with four dowers in our body, of which St. Paul speaketh, 1 Corinthians 15. The body that is sown in corruption shall rise without corruption, in this chosen church at the day of doom, and this is called immortality. The body that is sown unworthy, shall rise in glory, and this is called clerte (clearness). The body that is sown in infirmity, shall rise in power, and this is called agility. The body that is sown earthly, shall rise spiritual, and this is called subtilty (spirituality).
But there are four other substantial rewards with which we shall be endowed in our souls. In plain speech, the first is knowledge without error; the second, mind without forgetting; the third, will without gainsaying; the fourth, fruition or enjoyment of the Godhead, and love of God everlasting. Oh a wonderful joy is this, when the soul shall be fed with the sight of the Godhead, clad in the light of the Godhead, and ever occupied in the worship of the Godhead! Paul, (1 Corinthians 2) saith. Bodily eye hath never seen, neither ear hath heard, neither hath entered into man’s heart, those things that God hath ordained to them that love him. Who should not move his feeble understanding to think on the choir that praiseth in heaven the goodness of this unsearchable Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?
[Then follows a description of the glories of heaven; also an allegorical exposition of Revelation 12:1. respecting the woman that appeared in heaven, clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars; it contains some striking references to the work of Christ, and his union with his church.]
Other lights borrow their shining from the sun, both moon and stars in their due course, else they are obscured with darkness that may not comfort night or day. So all men’s work, in word or deed, borrow their light at Christ Jesus; for he is the Sun of righteousness. David declares, (Psalm 112) what this light meaneth. Light is sprung up to the righteous, that wandereth in the darkness of this life; and this is our Lord Jesus Christ, who of his own mercy hath showed it to his people.
Whatever any man doeth that has not this light, it leads blindlings to the dungeon of hell. But when this Sun shineth in his works, he grows by heat of God’s grace, and ripens in virtue, as does the corn, to be reaped in his time to God’s barn. Oh with how much diligence should this Lord be served for this gift of great price ! Moses said, Deut. iv. There is no nation under heaven that hath their God so nigh to them, as our God is to us. For Christ saith, (Matthew 28) Lo, I am with you all the days of your life, unto the end of the world.
Worthily is holy church likened to a woman, for she hath both sons and daughters; but not without the help and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, as the gospel witnesses, (John 15) Without me, saith Christ, ye may do nothing — that is to say, nothing thankworthy. Here some object, that the gospel is not of authority, but inasmuch as the church hath authorized it. For they say that no man knoweth such words to be the gospel, but as the church hath determined. This conclusion seems to savour of heresy, by the witness of St. Augustine, who says, “Heresy is a false teaching, contrary to holy writ, fool-hardily defended; most because of worship and worldly winning.” And since all these are found in this objection, it is full suspect of heresy. — St. James destroyeth this objection, and saith, God hath of his own free will begotten us through the word of truth, that we may be some beginning of his creature. And this creature is holy church, that was chosen in the time of grace, by the water of cleansing, by Christ’s blood of again-buying, (Redemption) and by power of the Holy Ghost hallowing. Were it not then against reason, and open heresy, to maintain that the word of God, which hath gotten this creature, holy church, should not be of authority, without the authority of this creature, holy church? Wherefore, this conclusion being approved, we grant of belief that the church is inferior to Christ and his gospel, in four manners.
- As the moon to the sun, of which it is enlightened. The church is fair as the moon (Song of Songs 6).
- As the earth to the firmament, of which it is watered or made fruitful. As dew cometh down from the firmament, and turneth not thither again, but watereth the earth, and maketh it plenteous of fruits, so the word of God nourished holy church, and maketh it to bring forth good virtues.
- As the flesh to the Spirit, of whom it is quickened. It is the Spirit that quickeneth, and giveth life (John 6).
- As the body is to the head, of whom it is governed, God the Father, hath made his Son, Christ, head of the church, Ephesians 5. Christ is head of the body of the church, and every chosen man and woman is called a son or daughter of this church, but all together are the full body of this church, as Paul saith, Romans 12.
We may be one body in Christ, as each of us are other’s members. But some children of this woman are simple labourers, and for that they impart of their true travail, therefore they represent the good love of the Holy Ghost. And these dread the Lord, and walk in the way of his commandments, as the prophet saith, Psalm 128. Blessed are all labourers that dread the Lord, and walk in his ways. For thou shalt live by the labour of thine hands. Thou art blessed, and well shall be to thee. And this is the lowest estate, which we call the commons.
Some of this woman’s children take the material sword, and are made ministers of Christ’s Godhead, having power and dread unto wrath and vengeance of them that do evil, and praising of them that do well. And so by the authority of St. John Baptist, Luke 3. of St. Peter, 1 Pet. 2. and of St. Paul, Romans 8. it pertains to the order of knighthood to defend God’s law, to maintain good livers, and sorely to punish misdoers. And this is called the second estate in holy church.
But some children of this woman ascend into the highest order of priesthood, and are made ministers of Christ’s manhood, and these have knowledge and wisdom to open to the people the way of truth. St. Augustine saith, “Knighthood represents the might and the power of the. Father, as the vicar of the Godhead; (Romans 13:4) and priesthood, represents the wisdom of the Son, as the vicar of Christ’s manhood.” These knights teach to us the dread of God’s righteousness, that punisheth obstinate sinners who turn from his law in the evil of their hearts; and priests by their office teach us the love that God hath to his people, who forgiveth them all their sins when they come to him and do true penance; then help priests with sacraments to please God and win his love. For Paul admonishes the priest Timothy, and in him all other priests, to take good heed to five things in which their office standeth.
- Awake thou priest in busy prayer, praying for the people devoutly.
- Travail thou priest in the lessons of holy writ, studying God’s law only.
- Do thou the work of the gospel, preaching God’s word truly.
- Fulfil thou thy ministry, ministering the sacraments freely.
- Be thou sober in word and deed, doing and suffering lastingly.
Upon these three estates standeth the church of God; and by the virtue of Christ’s incarnation it groweth in merit to come to bliss. Odo saith, that Christ Jesus took flesh and blood, and was born both God and man, to unite our nature to his Godhead. For when he took our manhood he granted us his Godhead, and in that time, in special manner, he first gave earnest to his church. After this was Jesus Christ baptized in the river Jordan; and thrice tempted of the fiend, to teach us meekly to suffer temptation. And he took death upon a cross, by the cruel judgment of the Jews, and then the church was troth plighted to Christ, and called by name his fair, holy spouse. And as she had grace, by devotion of faith, so hath she worthiness of this name. But when this church is brought to heaven, and resteth in bliss with Christ, then is this marriage fully solemnized. While this life endures in earth, the church is called militant, and when it sleeps in purgatory, she is called slepand (sleeping). But when she hath rest of all her travail, then is she called the church triumphant.