The Communion of Saints (Apostles' Creed, Pt. 10)


TEXT: Hebrews 12:1-4

The parsonage lights were burning even later than usual this week as a couple of innocent questions sent me on a wild romp through my family genealogy. Courtesy of the Mormon website, which I believe is the most extensive, free genealogy site available online, I was able to follow my mother’s line all the way back into the pre-history of the British Isles. It seems her family pretty much owned all of England, Scotland, and Ireland up until about 1000 AD.

Apparently my mother is connected to all the early Kings of Scotland, King Alfred the Great of England, Charlemagne, and a guy named Niall of The Nine Hostages who was a warrior who began the line of Irish Kings and who commanded the troops that kidnapped St. Patrick from his native Scotland and brought him to Ireland. And if you go back a couple centuries before Niall, we get to someone I thought was only a fictional character in nursery rhymes...Old King Cole. That merry old soul apparently is based in a real person, the King of all Britain in 125 AD.

Writing out a line of descent from myself and my brother here in 2004 that can go person to person uninterrupted back to Old King Cole’s father Cyllin, who was born about 99 AD was a phenomenal exercise. I have always loved early British and Celtic history, but this week, coming to know that many of those I have read about could be ancestors of mine, changed the way I felt. I wasn’t just interested anymore. I was bonded. When I read the names of Kings who were dubbed “The Pious,” I felt personally happy. When I read of Niall’s hostage-taking, I felt like I needed to pray for forgiveness and cleansing. When I found Alfred the Great I felt strong, when I came to Ethelred II who was called “The Unready” I felt a little shaky.

I think what I was experiencing in learning about my ancestors is what we mean when we talk about The Communion of Saints. That is the line of the Apostle’s Creed that we are dealing with this week, and it is a mysterious line for a lot of people. We tend to think of “saints” as those specially named by the Roman Catholic church as worthy of honor and reverence, and we tend to think of Communion as our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But the notion of the Communion of Saints is a much broader idea.

In a way, The Communion of Saints, is the individual version of what we talked about last week...the holy catholic church. Last week we talked about our corporate connection...that the word “catholic” means universal and we believe that all churches founded on relationship with Jesus Christ are really one universal body of holy catholic church. The communion of saints takes that concept and brings it down to the individual level.

The word “saint” as it is used here in the Creed, is adopting the meaning that it has in the Bible. Paul writes to the “saints” in different places, and what he means is simply the Christians–the believers. Chances are the Roman Catholic church is not going to be canonizing any of us in this room as “saints” according to its criteria. But in the eyes of the Bible, all of us who have professed faith in Jesus Christ can freely be referred to as saints. Saints are the ones who believe the good news of Jesus Christ.

Communion does mean what we do when we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but it doesn’t only mean that. The whole reason we call the celebration of the Lord’s Supper “communion” is because of what we believe we are doing at that moment. We believe that we are communing, fellowshipping, sharing deeply both with one another and with God. We share bread from the same loaf and drink from the same cup...we take the same food that everybody else takes and we take it from the same source to emphasize that we are all children of the same God and are nourished by that same Holy Spirit.

When United Methodists celebrate Communion, no one is excluded...the smallest child, those who belong to other faith traditions or even those who have no faith tradition at all. We open up the Lord’s Table as a way of affirming that we find our unity in a relationship with Jesus, and Jesus never turned anyone away who came to him. Sometimes they refused to come and sometimes they willingly walked away. But Jesus fed all who came to him both with the bread of the earth and with the bread of heaven. And so we do likewise.

When we say in the Creed that we believe in the communion of saints, we are affirming what we do at the Lord’s table, but we are also recognizing that communion is bigger than that. Again, it is like the holy catholic church. Last week I quoted Bonhoeffer, who pointed out that unity with our Christian brothers and sisters is not an ideal for which we strive but a reality in which we participate.

What we believe in the church is that communion with each other is not something we strive for, it is the reality we have to learn to live with. If you imagine that once you touch the Spirit of Jesus, an invisible cord connects you to him forever. That means that all of us have a cord that is connected to the same source...which means we’re all related in a sense, like those on my family tree that can trace back to a common ancestor. We are all in communion. We may be very different, we may disagree on lots of things, we may not even like each other. Too bad. We’re in communion. We’re family.

When we say, “I believe in the communion of saints,” we are saying that we believe in the power of the community of believers to strengthen our faith. It means we believe that together we can make it...what happens to one of us happens to all. That’s what Christian faith is supposed to lone rangers. We are not meant to go it alone as individual persons, individual churches, or individual denominations. We are all in this together. But the concept is bigger even than that. In the passage that we read from Hebrews, the author is talking about being surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses.” The witnesses he is talking about is the preceding chapter, Hebrews 11. There we have been presented with a whole litany of God’s faithful...Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, and a bunch of others.

As we learn at the beginning of Hebrews 12, the whole purpose of reminding people of those faithful folks of the past is to give strength to the faithful folks of the present. The concept of the communion of saints doesn’t mean that we can draw strength just from those who are living. By remembering the stories and the faithfulness of others, we can find the strength to be faithful ourselves. Again, it’s like I experienced in thinking of my ancestors. I want now to read more about their lives. I want to know the stories of the struggles they faced and how they responded. I want to know how Alfred the Great united Britain and how Charlemagne united Europe because their blood flows in my veins and I feel that somehow I could draw on their strength.

In the same way, when I hear of the saints...the Christians of the past, I am connected even more directly to that cloud of witnesses. The blood of Alfred the Great and Charlemagne has been diluted over a thousand years before getting to me. But the spirit of Jesus flows through my body as if it were the first generation. And since every Christian who has ever lived still lives in and through that same Spirit, one tug on the spiritual cord and the strength of spirit of all the saints is here to commune with me, to strengthen me, and to be my faithfulness when I am struggling to be faithful on my own.

Think back to the cloud of witnesses in your own life...the saints who taught you about faith. Maybe they were saints you knew personally...parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, friends who helped you find your way to faith. Or maybe they were saints of days long gone whose stories gave you inspiration or helped you in some way to be more faithful.  They are here, urging you on, lifting you up, calling you to your highest self.  I believe in the communion of saints.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

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