Communion of Saints
A reading from St Paul's letter to the Ephesians, the second chapter, beginning with the 19th verse Hear the Word of God, so then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
Let's pray Gracious God, open our minds to these words and open our hearts to the living Word of Christ that we may be changed today and forever, amen.
So, as you know, last Tuesday, October 31st, was Halloween and in our country largely a day set aside for tricks and treats, for dressing up in costumes, for parties, for the great pumpkin, things like that. Mostly a day for children to have fun. But as you probably also know, the original purposes of Halloween were not always so fun and benign.
Halloween was a day set apart as a special day for those who would worship evil spirits and who opposed the Christian gospel, all Hallows Eve. It was called that because it came before all Hallows Day, which is November 1st, that's the Christian holy day, of which Halloween is the opposition to All Hallows Day.
Remember in the Lord's Prayer where we say Hallowed be Thy name. What we're saying is Holy be your name, lord. So it's all Holy's Day. All Saints Day is November the 1st. Today is All Saints Sunday, and so we gather to honor and remember and to celebrate the lives of the saints.
Now we can get a little confused with that. All Saints Day was a big celebration of the early Methodist. Our founder, John Wesley, really appreciated the importance of All Saints Day. But in our tradition of the Methodism we don't focus so much on individual big dog saints. We take care of all the saints among us. There's nothing wrong with having spiritual heroes. We need all we can get, but most often the spiritual heroes are the ones that live next door.
That's the context of what we're talking about this morning, what we said in the Apostles' Creed earlier, the communion of saints. In verse 19,. You heard Paul say we are citizens with the saints, members of the household of God.
Now I'm going to challenge you a little bit. I want you to take a second and look around the room. I mean, really do it. Don't do it in your mind. Look around, look at everybody sitting around you in front, back, side to side and then I want you to look at the choir. See the choir up here. I want you to look at the pianists. I want you to look at the musicians. You can look at Charlie and I if you want. That's a push. All these people. You're looking at every single person in this room. That's who the saints are. It's a bit of a stretch to some of us, isn't it?
Throughout the Bible, though, the term saint is used synonymously with the idea of being holy. It's one of the most common references to the people of God. Most of Paul's letters, like this one to the Ephesians, begin and end with addressing the saints in the church, and he's writing to all Christians. The word saint literally means a holy one, and this is where we get into trouble, because we have a poor understanding of what holiness is all about. It doesn't mean pure. It doesn't mean better. It certainly doesn't mean perfect. It means set apart for God, meaning more, but certainly nothing less.
A saint is someone who pleases God by being used for his purposes, but we get this bad idea of what a saint should be.
Two brothers had terrified their small town for decades. They caused trouble for their family, they stirred up all kinds of ruckus in town, they were dishonest in business and just generally mean fellows. One day out of the blue, the younger brother died and so the older brother went to the pastor in town and asked him if he would preside over his brother's funeral service. And it's important, he told the pastor, that in the course of that service that you say that my brother was a saint.
Well, the preacher being a man of integrity of course, said I can't do that. There's no way I can do that. Y'all know what kind of trouble you caused this community. We know he was far from a saint.
Well at that point the older brother pulled out his checkbook and said preacher, I'm prepared to give you $10,000 for your building program If you will say in my brother's funeral service that he was a saint.
Well, the preacher was non-committal and the day of the service arrived, he went through his funeral homily and then he said this everyone here knows that the deceased was a wicked man. He chased women, he drank too much, he terrorized his employees, he even cheated on his taxes. But as evil and sinful as he was, compared to his brother he was a saint.
Saints are not perfect people. They are simply people trying to live their best for what God has in front of them. People who seek to follow God in all they do. Saints are people like you, people who feed the hungry, who care for the sick, who visit the elderly, who provide for their families day in and day out. And, according to St Paul, the only requirement for sainthood is to put our faith in Christ Jesus as the cornerstone of our salvation.
When we talk about the communities that we are involved in as the church, we talk about the communion of saints, and that means the fellowship of all believers. No matter what church we attend, no matter what denomination we belong to, no matter what nation we are citizens of, no matter what ethnic group or race we are part of, we all share in the communion of saints through our faith in Christ, and Holy Communion is the most widely celebrated event that reminds us of our communion together in the Lord.
Holy Communion is the action of the faithful. The word communion literally means fellowship and, as St John explains in his first letter, “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us.” And truly, our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus. When we share in the Lord's Supper, this room becomes a fellowship hall. Christ Himself has prepared the meal. That's why we always celebrate communion with an open invitation for all to take part, because this is not a Methodist meal. This is the dinner party hosted by Jesus, and he welcomes all the saints to His table.
Not only is the communion of saints, though, as sharing with the saints gathered around us. It is also as sharing with the saints who have gone on to glory. We in this world are part of what's known as the “church militant,” the churches that exist now, living by faith and hope, battling with evil, working to grow into Christlikeness, fighting the good fight. That's who we are.
But the body of Christians who have already transferred to glory, well, they're living the fuller vision of God, serving Him victoriously, no longer suffering. That is the “church triumphant,” the church victorious, as St John describes it in one of the most inspiring passages in the Bible. From the Revelation, chapter 7, we get this picture of the saints in glory.
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
That is the church triumphant. See, there are two churches in existence and we live side by side, those of us who are here and those who are already gathered around the throne and we are in communion with one another. We sang about it earlier “O blessed Communion, fellowship Divine, we feebly struggle, they in glory shine, yet all are one in thee, for all are thine, allelujah, allelujah. “
A minister friend of mine had gone to serve an appointment in a large downtown church that was very historic and one day he was trying to get a feel for the legacy of this place. So he went into the office and he pulled out the old giant church roll book going back 150 years, and it began to look through those pages. And several decades earlier a very faithful church secretary had been putting people's names, and people who were baptized, people who joined and, of course, people who died. But on some of them, this dear lady, instead of noting that they were deceased, instead she had written this notation “transferred to the church triumphant.” I love that. Transferred to the church triumphant.
Those who we honor this morning, who have died in the faith, are not in suspended animation. They are not excluded from the fellowship with the church on earth. They have transferred to the church triumphant and as the church of Jesus Christ, we are bound not only with each other here on earth, but with all those who have gone on before us. That theology is even reflected in our communion service. You'll hear these words again in a moment, and so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, they do a much better job of reminding themselves that they worship alongside of the saints gathered around the throne of God, and we need to rejoice in the fact that those who have died in the faith are dead only in this world. They are alive forever in the next.
The church is not divided even by death. Now we are part of the communion of saints. We are united with those Christians who live on the other side of the world and those who live on the other side of the tracks, and we are also united with Christians who died 2,000 years ago and those who are yet to be born.
And on this particular day, we are united with those who have shared their life with us, the people God has placed in our paths to bless us, to encourage us, to lead us to the Lord, and so we honor their memories this morning as the saints in our own life and especially, we are united as we gather this morning in this meal and in this service of worship with Jesus Christ, whose presence is here among us.