Summary: The ninth phrase of the Creed: "The communion of saints"
I BELIEVE IN THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
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 geneaology. Courtesy of the Mormon website, which I believe is the most extensive, free geneaology 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. She’s 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 are 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 church...one universal body of believers...one 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.