The Communion of Saints is an active, living fellowship of all that is good in Creation.
"Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people." Mark 1:17 (GNT)
We're more familiar with the way it's in the King James Version, "I will make you fishers of men."
Preached Extemporaneously [Video] on January 24, 2021
for Briensburg UMC
Our lectionary gospel reading for this week is from Mark chapter one, about the calling of Simon and Andrew and James and John. We continue this epiphany series about the best part of heaven, which in a word is relationships. And this week concludes the week of prayer for Christian unity with Ecumenical Sunday.
Our affirmation that we are considering along with this series, the Apostles Creed has a statement, We believe in... the communion of saints." That phrase is not in the Nicene Creed, but it does correspond with part of what we were talking about last time, "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church." That part about the apostolic church being the corresponding part to the communion of saints, because it is the church that is in harmony with that of the apostles. We continue to build on the unity that's expressed in earlier phrases that we've been looking at.And keep in mind how Jesus said, "If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to me." Think also about John 3:16 with the emphasis on the world, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
These are universal expressions along with the craves that express unity. Even if we don't agree on what the phrases that we're saying together mean, how to interpret them. We may have different ideas and that's true about this about everything about our faith, is that the Bible and the creeds and the rituals of the church and the liturgies, and everything, we might have different ideas and understandings about what they mean and how they're to be interpreted.
But at least we have enough in common to express them with similar words a lot of times. Today is a special day for me and my family, as my dad would be 90 years old today. He passed away two months ago, this week.
But a lot of the comfort that I have sought is what had brought us to this series in the first place, because this particular idea of the communion of the saints, has been where I have been seeking my refuge in the scriptures, about the continuing life and everlasting life, and the resurrection and all that goes with the communion of the saints.
The idea of continuing relationship, which is the best part of what heaven is about the best part of earth as well. Relationships that we have and cherish with one another, and promise that the life that we share in Christ is eternal. And that we not only will be together again someday, but that there are many very real senses in which in the spirit we remain together, even when we lay aside our earthly tabernacle.
And we've been going over those throughout this series, but this particular part about the communion of saints, takes it to this other level. I think, last week we talked about the communion as applies to the church being one body in Christ. And we talked about the stones and all of us being fit together into the Church like stones in a building. And other stones being brought in and shaped and getting ready to be placed in the body and in the building. And those existing being fixed, to receive them.
… to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ... Ephesians 3:9 (KJV)
The word for Church that we talked about in previous was ecclesia, and that as well was translated from the Greek to the word Church. But this week, the communion of saints refers more to the koinonia dimension of our relationship, the fellowship, the community. So in addition to our being structurally a part of one body or one building, or however we might want to think about that connection that we have, this one is more about what we're doing as that connection.
How we're relating to each other, within that connection as a fellowship, as a community as an active living loving universal relationship. And it lets us open our hearts and minds as much as we're willing to do. Religious people often have a tendency to close their minds and hearts to each other and to anything that's different than their own experience, their own beliefs and their own practices.
But there's another aspect of faith whereby instead of closing ourselves, we open ourselves, open our hearts, open our minds to more people, more relationships. More inclusion of not only each other, but of all of God's creation, of all of humanity, and of all of the other species God's created. And of all the other things that God created on earth and then celestial bodies that God created. All of the universe that God has made.
And the communion of saints invites us to be adding to our experience in relationship, rather than subtracting from it, and to find ways to come. And when we come to those edges where we feel like that's as far as we can go with other people, just to press that envelope a little bit further, and embrace more ideas more people more of God's creation, which God created everything and he called all the people and called us good.
He created all the different parts of heaven and earth, everything that's in the creation story. God created everything and as he created them he said "This is good." So we should see it as good too. And the more we can wrap our minds around things and people that we don't agree with as still being good, and seeking the image of God in them.
The more we reflect the fullness of God's creation of what God is inviting us to have this everlasting life. In Ephesians chapter three in the King James it says to make all men say, what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world have been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ.
I think at least we can try to wrap our minds around the idea that everybody who believes in Jesus is not only part of the same body and connection, but part of this fellowship of love. This fellowship of the redeemed. The community that is active and loving and growing together.
And as we do that then we do open ourselves to and we open ourselves to other people's ideas and opinions, then sometimes that's scary, because we might think we might end up believing something that's not true. But the promise of the spirit is that the Holy Spirit will come and lead us into all truth.
And we can't be led into the truth by the Spirit if we're not willing to open our hearts and minds to the ways that the spirit moves us and speaks to us, and to the conversations and relationships that will expand our understanding and bring us into living out that truth. So we don't need to be afraid of talking to each other.
We don't need to be afraid to learn from each other. We take what we hear and we study to show ourselves approved, rightly dividing the word of truth. We study it and we try to reconcile what we understand with what other people are experiencing and what they're understanding. We have this beautiful song,
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above
And it has an extra couple of verses that are not usually in the hymnals, but you can find them pretty easily when you look it up (Blest Be the Tie that Binds, John Fawcett, 1782):
From sorrow toil and pain
And sin we shall be free
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity
In first John, chapter one, John wrote, "we declare these things that you may have fellowship with us." And later he said, "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another." I When Jesus went along the seashore there and began to invite the first disciples to come with him, he would make them fishers of men.
He was inviting people into a relationship into fellowship with him. Not just into being a robot that followed trudged along or a slave or something that trudged along behind him. But a friendship a relationship in fact, the night he gave himself up he says not going to call you servants anymore or anything like that you're my friends. You're my friends.
And this friendship that we've entered into with Christ and with each other, is the best part about eternal life. It's what heaven is all about. It's what earth is all about really. Building these relationships and friendships and growing in into them and through them, and that's with God and with each other.
Growing into these friendships, we experience part of that eternal life as we grow in love. And those relationships become spiritual. That's more important than anything we have physically that we share. Even being able to shake each other's hand and smile at each other, all of that is wonderful and it hurts so bad when we lose that.
But that's not the most important part about our relationship. The most important part is the caring and the encouragement and support and friendship. All these invisible parts of the relationship that continue, even when the body is laid aside. And so that's the eternal life that we have. That's the part that we want to focus on that were invited in the scripture, and in our relationship with Christ, to focus on that everlasting part.
There's a hymn by John Oxenham:
In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.
Saints are everyone to some degree, especially everyone who believes in Christ has placed their faith in Christ, that's comes down to the Christian definition of saints.
That's all the people that have ever lived, who have placed their faith in Christ, at whatever level of sainthood we may be. And most people never make it to any canonized state of sainthood. But we have some those through that the Church has elevated in that way by recognizing them in a special official Saint way, as examples for all of us to look up to and can follow and learn from.
But in reality, we all learn from each other and respect each other as saints hopefully. Trying to work our way along and help and encourage each other along the way. So everybody and that includes everybody in heaven, everybody on earth. All who are now believers and all who will become believers, which can take in a lot of territory because the promise of scripture, is that eventually "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." (Philippians 2:10-11).
And then however broadly we can understand that, we can at least know that everybody who's going to be a believer is going to be a Saint. So we're all either saints in the making or saints along the way. And we have a lot of songs about that and we have scriptures about it, building each other the saints of God.
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. Acts 2:1 (KJV)
And Christ calls us to be in harmony with one another, all the saints. That's a part of what this communion of saints is, is the harmony that we share. The book of Acts tells about the Holy Spirit coming and it says, just prior to the Spirit being poured out on the day of Pentecost, said "and when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place." (Acts 2:1).
That being of one accord is harmony. It's the kind of harmony by definition, it's the harmony that we find in music, when we play different notes that each have their own tones their own sounds. And when we play them together though, they can be brought into harmony or discord, but we don't really like to intentionally create discord, do we.
We try to create harmony with our music. And so notes are brought into harmony with one another and create beautiful sounds and become a melody or a song with various harmonies and it sounds good, it works. And as while we're called into by our faith is into unity that brings us all into harmony with each other, while we retain our individuality and we have our different ideas and our different ways and everything else.
We retain all this freedom, but we work together to be in harmony with one another. When Christ brought people into his group there at the beginning like these that we were talking about Peter or all of them. All of his apostles today was Simon, Andrew, James and John that he called to be fishers of men.
And then the other disciples that he called and those that he set apart as apostles, were called to be in harmony with them, who were in harmony with him. He brought them into this relationship, and then they all lived together and work together and talk together and grew together. Even though they were all different people into this relationship, where they were all in harmony with Christ and in harmony with each other.
And then as the book of Acts and the letters and all unfold as their ministries unfolded, then they brought other people into harmony with them, and through them with Christ, and together with each other. And everybody is brought in and they've made him these fishers of men went out and brought people in to this relationship of harmony, and love with God and with each other.
And it's been continuing all down through the ages as it's been passed down to us, and we pass it to others. We get together for bible study. And we all express our different understandings and views of what we're reading. And sometimes we might agree with just about everything, sometimes we might not agree with anything that somebody else says.
But in the process of discussing it and thinking about it and working through it, we come to some new understandings through those conversations. And so it's because we're all one mystical body as we talked about, with the idea of the church ecclesiastically, the assembly and the gathering of the church.
That also offers us the opportunity to be one mystical body in the sense of koinonia and the sense of community and fellowship, that we're one that we're growing together, that we're supporting each other, that we're in spiritual solidarity as some have called it. And we're like The Three Musketeers, "all for one and one for all."
What affects one of us affects all of us. Paul talked about this in talking about the body of Christ, that when all or one part or another, but each part affects the other and each part needs the other. Anything that happens to one part of our body, we can't really isolate that so much. We can see where something might have happened, we might have hit our thumb with a hammer or something and that part hurts more than the rest, but the whole body hurts with it. And as it's healed, the whole body is healed with it too.
Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. John 4:24 (MSG)
Talking with the woman at the well in John chapter four, Jesus said, talking about you must worship in Spirit and in truth. "God is Spirit and those that worship, must worship in Spirit and in truth." (John 4:24 KJV)
And the message translation it says, your worship, must engage your Spirit in the pursuit of truth. I like that, very engaging to say your Spirit engage, engage your spirit. And if we are engaged spiritually with each other, to the extent we are engaged spiritually with each other, then even those with different religions and different religious views than ours, no matter how different those may be, or how we may disagree.
If we're engaged in a pursuit of truth and we're engaged to Spirit, then the truth will rise in that and Christ will shine his light in that. And the Holy Spirit will move us forward in that, and everybody will find some growth. Everybody will find some blessing and some common ground where we worship on.
When we worship and when we pray, we're "surrounded by a cloud of witnesses." (Hebrews 12:1). That includes all these people that we love who have gone to heaven before us, and all the other company of heaven and everybody else, and all the angels, all the saints, everybody that's in heaven they're not that far away from us.
They surround us when we worship when we pray. We join them in what they're already doing. The Bible presents us plenty of energy, especially in the book of Revelation of those who have gone before us, and the other angels and everybody else in heaven. They're already worshiping God, they're already praising God, and they're already praising and blessing him.
And so we are invited to join in that ongoing worship service. And the times when we come together and when we pray, even when we go into our prayer place about ourselves, and we pour our hearts out to God and we pray and we worship God, we're joining with everybody else who's doing that. And a lot of people right now, in any given moment around the world are praying and praising God. And so we're joining them and they're joining us.
And we're all joining everybody that's in heaven too. In our communion liturgy in the great Thanksgiving, we pray we say
With your people on earth and all the company of heaven
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
We join the saints in glory in our prayer and in our worship. Charles Wesley put it this way, in one of his hymns:
Thee in Thy glorious realm they praise,
And bow before Thy throne;
We in the kingdom of Thy grace:
The kingdoms are but one.
All of this really is inviting us to a spiritual relationship with God and with each other, that enables us to be sensitive to the presence of the beings we don't see, but who surround us.
The saints the angels our family and friends who have gone before us. And to have more than an ideological or a religious or creedal connection with the rest of the family of God here on earth. But rather to have a spiritual connection with them, and sense their presence, even though they might be on that side of the world.
But in the spirit, we're close together in our hearts and minds we're not very far away at all. In Christ, we're in a dimension that transcends time and space, and brings us spirit to spirit heart to heart, where we pray and worship and experience the love and life that Christ offers us by faith.
There's a song about higher ground it's called "Higher Ground." And it's about "Lord lift me up, put my feet on higher ground." It's about "a higher plane than I have found." And it has this line
For faith has caught the joyful sound,
The song of saints on higher ground (Highter Ground by Johnson Oatman)
I find a lot of comfort in that. And not only comfort, but encouragement and not only encouragement, but invitation and a sense of closeness and of love and of inspiration.
And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
Acts 4:32 (KJV)
In Acts chapter four, the Bible tells us some of the things the early Church was doing after the Holy Spirit was pointed out on them and they started worshiping together and living together and being in fellowship together. And in verse 32, it says, "and the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul, neither said any of them that all of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common."
The root of that word that's translated common in the King James Version, verse 4:32 is the same as this fellowship, the same root as koinonia (koinos). It's a fellowship of sharing. We share everything and not just our resources, not just our physical sharing, but sharing involve all that is good. All of the blessings of God we share.
God doesn't bless us so that we can just have these blessings for ourselves. God blesses us and part of the blessing that he blesses us is with the opportunity to have something that we can pass on. Something that we can share with others. That we can re gift. We share all the blessings of God. And we have this opportunity to be a part of the equitable distribution of all God's temporal and spiritual blessings throughout all of creation.
We can share the love and the goodness, and the encouragement that we find in Christ with other people and with other creatures, other objects of God's creation to make everything. To make the world a better place, to make the structures and organizations and institutions of the world better at what they are supposed to be.
To make our personal relationships with each other with people around us better, more fulfilling, more spiritual, more rich, more than they are always growing, always encouraging. And in doing that, everything then we can see as we unholy all the people.
Now we can see Christ and everybody, then that's a good thing. If we see the image of God, the God who created everybody in his image. So we have the opportunity then if we believe that to look for that image to find any image. To see the look through everything else and find the image of God, or find the reflection of God's love and spirit somewhere even in everybody.
Sometimes it seems it's more obscured than others. Sometimes it's a little easier to find them and others. But the joy of exploration in relationships is finding the best in other people, and letting them find the best in you and not hiding that lie.
So doing with sanctify and one another, we make one another holy in ways that we weren't before. It's true that relationship of love and consecration and spirituality, that we even can bring people into the fellowship of Christ, and into this relationship with God in Christ, that's what we're inviting people to.
Dear brothers [and sisters], you have been given freedom: not freedom to do wrong, but freedom to love and serve each other. Galatians 5:13 (TLB)
And so finally when part of our relationship is a relationship of service. In the living Bible for Galatians 5:13, "Dear brothers and sisters, you have been given freedom. Not freedom to do wrong, but freedom to love and serve each other." (Galatians 5:13 TLB). As in worship so in service, we're surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
Our family, our friends, wherever they may be in heaven and on earth. When we engage in Christian service that's pretty broad, but in serving and doing good and helping and ministering our spiritual gifts, all of those when we engage in service, then we're joining what Christ is already doing.
We're joining what other brothers and sisters in Christ are already doing. We're joining what our family and friends who have gone before us have been doing and what they're continuing to do in heaven. We're invited to be mindful of this communion of saints as we join with them and with Christ in loving Christian service.
Today, I thank especially my parents in heaven and of the other parents in heaven, family and friends who have gone on to glory. I think about the nature of their relationship on earth. My parents and your parents other people's parents and everybody's parents through that relationship, they nurtured their love for one another.
And they encouraged and strengthened and served and all these things we've just been talking about, they do that in the marriage. So that's a sacramental relationship that reflects their relationship, as what Paul said reflects the relationship between Christ and his Church. But then in heaven, that nature of that relationship changes as it does for all of us for the married couple and for everybody else.
Our relationships take on a different quality and a different nature in heaven. Even when one is in heaven and one is on earth, that changes the relationship. And when the other one then joins the first in heaven that changes begin. I know all about that, we just know that as it says when he appears, we will be like him. When we get there, we'll see what that hell means.
But we get a little glimpse of it in the way that we relate to each other now and in the scriptures, the things that Jesus says about that relationship. So when you think about that relationship is the same relationship in heaven. So our parents, everyone's parents, who have gone on before, and all the people in our family tree, then we study and look back through some times with our study of our genealogy and everything.
All those relationships they continue, but in a different way. But it's the same love that they nurtured and fostered and grew in on earth. And likewise for us in all of our relationships, not just in marriage, but in all of our relationships are reflected in that relationship with Christ that we begin here on earth continues forever.
It changes forms here on earth as we move along. And we can expect that it will continue to change in heaven. Our relationship with one another that has begun here, has worked out over the years with each other. It will continue to change as long as we're here on the earth. And as each of us takes our place in laying aside our earthly tabernacle and takes our place in heaven, that relationship will be adjusted accordingly. And yet, it will continue.
And we continue from one realm of glory to the next in love. In our rituals of the church, we have this blessing in the wedding ceremony, that there's some of our wedding ceremonies [we can apply to all our friendships].
By the same Spirit bless [us],
that [our] love for each other
may reflect the love of Christ for us
and grow from strength to strength
as [we] faithfully serve you in the world.
That's where they're nurturing that service. Where they're nurturing their fellowship their love, all these dimensions of fellowship and communion that they have with one another in that little community of a family. And they're nurturing and they're building and they're growing in whatever ways that it does.
Some might be better than others, but whatever they can get done there, however much progress they can make, they're doing that. And then that's what continues when they leave the world behind. And that's a reflection of all of us are doing with each other. We're all making as much progress as we can.
Some of our relationships are stronger and some are less. Some are more of a blessing and some less. Some grow well and some need a little extra tending. We have all these different relationships and we're in different places with each other. And everybody that we're in relationship with is at a different spiritual place themselves with Christ.
We're all in line working things through together. And with an understanding that this is a spiritual relationship that we can keep building on and growing into for all of eternity.
I'd like to close with this prayer that I prayed at dad's graveside two months ago. And is a prayer of the church and ritual for the funeral service. But it also is one that brings hope and imagery of this continuing eternal spiritual communion of the saints [of which we each are eternal members]:
we thank you for those we love but see no more.
Receive into your arms your servant[s],
and grant that increasing in knowledge and love of you,
[we] may go from strength to strength
in service to your heavenly kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.