Communion on a tombstone
Colossians 1:24, Revelation 12:10-11, Matthew 5:13-16
There were times throughout each year when the ancient church celebrated the great events of the life and death of Jesus Christ. Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Ascension Day. But once a year they felt compelled to celebrate All Saints Day, to remember that they had not only been redeemed by the life and death of Jesus Christ, but they had been redeemed by the life and death of some people who had intersected their lives.
Now on initial hearing that sounds very unorthodox. Some would say heretical. They would say “no way! We are saved Sola Christos as Martin Luther often said. We are saved by Christ alone. There is only one mediator, no other saviour, no other sacrifice!” And I find myself in ready agreement. But not exactly. St. Paul is partly to blame for my hesitancy.
The Suffering Saviour & His suffering Saints
Paul writes to the Colossian Christians about being co-sufferers along with Jesus Christ. It is the passage in Colossians 1:24 that gives me pause. Let me note it in several recent versions.
NRSV I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
NIV Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regards to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of His body, which is the church.
LIVING BIBLE But part of my work is to suffer for you, and I am glad, for I am helping to finish up the remainder of Christ’s suffering for his body, the church.
In another place, to the church in Philippi, Paul had said to the congregation,
“I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings
becoming like him in his death.” (Phil 3:10)
What does Paul mean? He is in prison as he writes to this congregation. He is in prison because of his work among the Gentile nations. The church in Colossae is concerned about his imprisonment and sufferings. They see it as waste and loss.
To the Corinthian church on one occasion Paul describes how life has been for him.
(II Corinthians 11:23-28)
Labour, Imprisonments, countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jewish leaders forty lashes minus one; three times I have been beaten with rods, once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked. For a night and a day I was adrift on the sea. On frequent journeys I have been in dangers from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from the Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”
The Christians in Colossae may be saying, “Paul take it easier!” But Paul sees these difficulties as necessary and he knows they are gain. His suffering on their behalf, has meant redemption for them. His pain has helped purchase life for the Colossians. Paul would say, “The gain has been worth the pain.”
Jesus Himself felt the same way; The book of Hebrews says about Jesus, “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the pain.” and Paul shares in the fellowship of suffering whose motto is, “redemption is worth any price we can pay.”
But Paul does not diminish the uniqueness of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
- The suffering of Christ was the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
The suffering of the saints was for the transmission of the good news
- The Suffering of Jesus brought about the cure for sin’s cancer
The suffering of the saints was for the distribution of that cure.
For if the saints do not disseminate, at the cost of their own time, energy, their resources and even their lives, the cure will not be effective in those who do not hear.
Lightfoot, the great historian, says that “The church is built up by repeated acts of self-denial in successive individuals and successive generations.” Paul is simply saying, “My suffering for you continues the work which Christ begun.” But he is also clear throughout this same letter that there is no shortcoming in what Christ did.
Church history is the story of those who gave themselves through life and in death for the distribution of the message of God’s love. It is a story that stretches from the Roman Catacombs to the persecution of Christians today. It is a story that stretches from Jerusalem to where you and I live today. The blood, sweat and tears, and the energy and gifts of the saints have always been the seed of the church.
The Church of Jesus Christ, recognizing these realities remembers that the Good News was not only purchased in the death of Christ, but was passed on to us in the sacrificial giving and living of those who preceded us. Without His suffering we are still in our sins. Without the suffering of the saints we would still be living in ignorance of the love of God.
But what does all this have to do with communion?
The Earliest Celebrations of Saints days
The early church understood this so well, and so commemorated not only the death of Christ, but on the anniversary of the death of a Christian martyr, they would gather together to hold a communion service. They would meet at the tomb of that person and share in a service of thanksgiving for the life and death of Christ, and the life and death of godly men and women.
This is the primary reason that Communion tables do not look like conventional tables. They look more like the early tombs of the Roman Empire for the communion tables of the first centuries were often the tombs of Christians. In later years churches were built around these tombs. But the shape of the communion table did not change much. It was always to be a reminder that life for us was purchased in the life and death of those who preceded us.
Listen to the account told by the disciples of Polycarp, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John. Polycarp had been martyred in Smyrna early in the second century. His friends wrote these words,
“We later took up his bones, more precious that costly stones and more valuable than gold, and we laid them in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, as far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who come hereafter.”
In the centuries that followed we surrounded our sanctuaries with the tombstones of those that had preceded us in faith. Or we placed plaques of remembrance on the walls of the church. It stemmed from the belief in the Communion of Saints.
The Communion Service on this Day
On All Saints Day we meet to worship God. But on this day we add a certain tone to our worship. It is a note of gratitude for all who have preceded us in the faith. It is a time for being thankful for patriarchs, and prophets and apostles. It is a time for being thankful for people like St. Francis and St. Teresa, It is a time for being thankful for courageous reformers like Luther and Calvin and Knox as well as Theresa of Avila and Francis Xavier.
But on a more humble level, it is a time to remember those who influenced us more directly. A parent, a friend, a minister, an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a youth worker, a work colleague. and any who passed on the good word about God’s love to us.
Let us share together in Holy Communion as we both worship God, and give thanks for all who came before us!