I BELIEVE IN THE COMMUNION OF THE SAINTS
Hebrews 11:32-12:2, 18-19. 22-24, Matthew 18:15-22, Eph 3:14-21
We now turn to the line in the creed that says, “I believe in the communion of saints.” Let me try to download what is meant by the phrase, “The Communion of Saints.”
This line was added to the creed much later in history that the rest of the creed. Most of the Apostles’ Creed is rooted in the 2nd century. This phrase was added in the 6th century. Needless to say, this article of the creed has been the focus of much controversy.
Some traditions think that this means we can talk to those who have died and they can talk back to us. For others this smacks of Spiritualism and Séances and they want nothing to do with the idea. Let us take a look at the key words of this phrase.
Let us look at the word communion first. Communion – the Greek word is “koinonia.” The word means fellowship, friendship, partnership, relationship. It is a word used for a marriage relationship; a business relationship; the social life of a community; or the relationship with God Himself. The New Testament uses this word frequently to talk about the church. The church is a fellowship, a community, a partnership, a family sharing life together.
Throughout The New Testament the word “saint” is used to refer to all Christians. It is not a term used to describe the “incredibly good” who have died. Every Christian is a saint. Some are young, some old, some mature, some immature. If a person is committed to God, then they are saints. They belong to God as His children. They are saints.
What do we mean by “The communion of saints?”
Let us begin on sure ground and move to areas where we are less sure.
1. The fellowship of believers in the same church family.
The first view is that a church is a fellowship of Christians gathered together in one place, such as in Corinth, or in Jerusalem or in St. Catharines The local version of the church is a group of people united by a common faith in Jesus Christ. They know each other. They meet together often. They eat meals together. They take Holy Communion together. And when they do, it is a communion of the saints.
That Communion of the saints is always in jeopardy. People are so different. We see life through different colored glasses and from different perspectives, with different ways of processing life. It is easy for our diversity to become divisive. It is why the letters of the New Testament contain constant urgings to unity, to be of the same heart, to work together, to be at peace among ourselves, and so on. The fellowship of the saints is seen as crucial.
At the Communion table, we join together in this celebration, because in spite of our diversity we are one in faith, with One Lord who has called us to follow him. Whether we understand each other, or even like each other, we are members of a family in this place, and it is the intention of God that we function as a family and at the table we affirm that we belong to each other because we belong to the very same Father.
2. Fellowship of the believers at wider levels.
But there is a “Communion of Saints” that is much wider than the local church. We share life with other members of our own denomination around the world. We participate with them in a common mission. We share with these churches in the sending out of missionaries, the training of pastors, and the giving of international aid. We are connected to other churches of our specific denomination though we may never meet with each other in the flesh.
But we are connected to other churches of other denominations throughout the area. We share in conversation with God’s people from every part of the Christian church and often enjoy a rich interchange of life. Pastors participate in Ministerial Associations. Churches will often share resources with each other or join in programs of social assistance. The communion of saints across artificial boundaries is an enriching experience.
3. The communion of saints at the global level.
God has only one church, but it meets in many places under all sorts of labels. This one church has millions of outlets in the cities, towns and villages across this planet. People, who have never met each other are part of One Family, with their Faith in Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit their one common denominator. And when any church in Africa or any church in Asia are at the communion table, they are seated at the very same table, the Lord’s Table, and they are partaking of the very same meal. We are in those moments participating in the communion of Saints. We are in fellowship with all other participants of One Holy Catholic & Apostolic Church!
Now so far all Christians are in substantial agreement. This is all common ground. But there is another interpretation of these words that casts us into controversy.
4. The Communion with the saints of all the ages
The Book of Hebrews has a view of the Church of Jesus Christ that is somewhat unusual. The writer of this book pushes us towards another perspective on the church. Our tendency is to see the church either as a local fellowship or as the church scattered around the world. We tend to see the church networked together, as telephone lines connect us together or as the Internet connects us to all other computers around the globe. We are horizontally connected.
But the writer of the Book of Hebrews sees the church more three dimensionally. He sees the church as composed of all the Christians who are alive at this very moment, but also composed of all those Christians who have preceded us, plus all the Old Testament believers in God who preceded the birth of the church and perhaps more besides.
The writer of this book sees the Christians of the past not just as our ancestors. He sees them as our contemporaries. The church exists on two sides of a river; the two sides of the river of death. Some are camped on this side of death, while others are camped on the other side. Or, if you prefer a vertical arrangement of the universe, some live downstairs in the house (you and I) while others live upstairs (those that we have “loved long since and lost awhile”.) If you want more theological language, the church has two halves:
- the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.
- Those who still fight the good fight, and those who have gone to their eternal reward.
- Those who are still in school, and those who have graduated.
Why does this ancient writer think this way? Because he believes in the resurrection.
We should be aware that those that have “passed on” are more alive that they have ever been before. There are no dead saints; they merely went through the doorway called death ahead of us, to find life more abundant on the other side of the doorway.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews paints the picture for us. The church of his day is suffering under persecution. He reminds his discouraged readers; “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” He sees the grandstands of the universe filled with these witnesses. By the way, “Witnesses” is his name for saints who gave witness to their faith before the watching world when they were running their leg of the great relay race. These witnesses in the stands were runners, who though now retired, love the sport and crowd the stadium of the universe to see how we are doing, to see you and me run the race that stretches out before us.
In that stadium he sees people like Abel and Enoch, and Abraham and Sarah, and Gideon and Esther. In the words of that great prayer The Te Deum, he sees the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the glorious company of the apostles and the noble army of the martyrs” and all the saints who had graduated before his day. Some were famous, and some lived and died in obscurity, but now have taken their place in the stands, to watch us who run the race.
I often think back and remember those who nourished faith in me before they passed on, and on a day when I am tempted to feel a bit disheartened, I think I hear them cheering for me. When I begin to falter, I think I hear their gasp of anxiety for me. And I sense that I am not alone as I run the race before me.
The writer of the book of Hebrews paints the picture for this ancient church that was under great pressure. Many of them are winded in the race, and he writes with exhilaration to the new converts: “You have come, to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first born and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus….”
He sees in the grandstands, angels and saints, with God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord. And all of them in communion with each other. And with us.
Allan Walker tells the story of a young Anglican minister. He had been preaching in a tiny village country chapel, It was communion Sunday. Only a handful had gathered. He was a little depressed and discouraged at such a small gathering. He went on with the ancient ritual, but rather dejectedly. But as he read he came to the passage, “With angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we worship and adore Thy glorious name.” He paused and the wonder gripped him. “Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” God forgive me, he said, “I did not know I was in that kind of company.”
And I find pleasure that when we gather at the communion table of the Lord, we are joined with all saints in such a moment. The early church saw heaven as a place of a heavenly banquet with the Church triumphant meeting in festal gathering. And when we take the bread and the wine, we are partaking of the appetizer (the antipasto) to the meal that is spread for us too just beyond the doorway. We are already seated in heavenly places. And just around the corner, beyond our sight, are those who are sharing in the great celebration.
Have you noticed that early communion tables did not look like tables? They look more like the early tombs of the Roman Empire. Some of the earliest communion tables were the tombs of Christians who had passed on. In later years churches were built around these tombs. In some of the churches tombs were built into the walls of the churches, and into the floor, and installed in basement crypts, and in burial plots that encircled the church building, so that everyone coming to church would be reminded that they would be worshiping with all the saints, past, present and future.
But the words are controversial when it comes to the question “How much interchange is there between ourselves and those who have gone on before?”
The words at least mean that we feel the solidarity with those who have gone before. We are part of the same family that Paul and Peter and Luther, Calvin and Wesley and other well known saints were part of, for God only has one church, below and above. These marvelous saints belong to me. I belong to them. They being dead yet speak. I meet them as I read their words, and love them dearly.
The words at least mean that we shall one day meet them and the interchange will be part of the ingredient of heaven. “We shall know as we are known”. Peter Marshall in the moments of his dying, can say to Catherine his wife – “I will see you in the morning.” And at every Christian funeral that is our conviction. We shall have fellowship with those whom we have loved and lost.
But the question remains, “Is there communication now between the saints below and the saints above?”
The Roman Catholic Church says “yes.” The Protestant church has said “no.” The Roman church has said, we may ask the saints who have graduated for their intercession on our behalf. Most Protestant churches however have been adamant; no prayers for or to the saints have any value.
As for myself, I confess I do not know the answer to the question. The scriptures are not clear enough. But there are times I wonder. Two people from my early days as a Christian, who helped disciple me, have passed on. Harold Hobbs & Nora Westbrook. I often wonder, do they cheer for me? A few years ago I stopped by the gravesite of my mother. I had not been there for 25 years. I found myself having a one sided chat with my mom? Was there anyone listening, besides God? I do not know.
I am not sure I believe or disbelieve this interpretation of the words “the communion of saints.” Even if it does take place, it is not a central concern for the church. Fellowship with the local church and the wider church and the global church is where our primary interest must be focused. But without any equivocation, I can say, I do believe in the vital necessity of the communion of the saints.
My prayer for each of us is that we would be increasingly committed to God and His church, for it is my deep conviction that if we are in communion with the church, we shall find ourselves in closer communion with the God of the church as well.