My father was a sport’s nut. From footballs to bowling balls he loved it all. Dear to his heart however was basketball because that was his game in high school. I have a great picture of him as a skinny high school kid with his hair parted in the middle, wearing a baggy uniform, basketball in hand. He went by the name “Flash Kasch.”
One year he came to visit me in Tallahassee and so I took him to an FSU basketball game in the new coliseum. I think it was the happiest that I had ever seen him. The atmosphere was intoxicating. It was high energy with the band playing and what made it even more so high energy was the fans. The FSU fans are brutal! They yell the whole game at a deafening pitch. The pep band has a life-sized dummy dressed as a referee so that any time a ref makes a call that they don’t like they throw the dummy courtside and someone jumps up and down on it. When the opposition is trying to make a free throw the crowd behind the goal does anything and everything to distract him. What made my father laugh out loud was when it came down to one minute before half time and the opposing team had the ball. With one minute to go the crowd started chanting “10,9,8,7…” This got the guy with the ball so rattled that he took a desperation shot which missed and FSU was able to get the ball, come down the court and score before the buzzer sounded. It will always be a great memory for me of time with my father.
If you have ever played a sport where the fans cheer you on, like we did at the FSU game, you know that there is a powerful connection between the players and the fans. Something happens that is empowering. I doubt that that power can be weighed or measured or even proven scientifically, but then again neither can love and it is one of the most powerful forces in nature. But if you have played or if you have been a true fan you know that power is real. The players feed off of the energy of their fans and it takes their play to a whole other level. They are able to do things on game day that they would not have been able to do during practice.
This analogy of players being cheered on by fans comes to mind when I think of what we celebrate today, which is the communion of the saints. In Hebrews 11 we are given a list of saints that have gone before us. It mentions Abraham and Isaac and Joseph and Moses and Rahab and David and Gideon and Barak and Samson and on and on. Then Hebrews 12 begins, “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and sin which clings do closely and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us….” This sounds to me that we are to see the communion of the saints as those who inspire us to not only run the race but to finish it and to receive the crown that does not fade away.
It has been my experience however that All Saints’ Day and this doctrine of the communion of the saints are not given the attention that they are due. It certainly does not get the attention of All Hallow’s Eve and that is to our spiritual detriment. I read that in the Orthodox Church, All Saint’s Day is considered so important that if you miss it you may not receive communion again until you make a confession. And yet in too much of the Anglican world, particularly if it falls on a weekday, it is not that much of a priority. That says to me that we have not done a good job in informing the Church about this doctrine and its accompanying feast day. So allow me to give it a start.
Let’s consider the priority that the Church catholic gives to the communion of the saints. If you pray the Daily Office you join with Christians in the Roman and Orthodox and Anglican Communions, along with many Protestant Churches, and declare that you believe in the communion of the saints. We do this through the Apostle’s Creed, which we also recite at Baptisms and Funerals. And we need to remember that we claim that the Creed is a non negotiable. It is non negotiable because it contains the essentials of the faith that are to be believed by all Christians, at all times and in all places. This makes the communion of the saints an essential truth that stands alongside the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. But why would the Church through the ages make this doctrine so important?
First the communion of the saints is important because it defines the Body of Christ and if you think it through you will realize that it is pretty difficult to claim that you have right belief as a Christian if you have wrong belief about the Body of Christ. What is right belief about the Body of Christ? I Cor 12:13 says “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Eph 4 says “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;” Romans 12:5 says “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
This is a very different image than that which is promoted in much of American Christianity that is radically individualistic and might I add, unbiblical. I was a part of a campus ministry that had us share the Gospel with individuals, invite them to say a sinner’s prayer, tell them that they are now Christians and send them on their way. No mention of being baptized into Christ’s Body. No mention of being a part of Christ’s Body. No mention of each of us belonging to the other. And it is that kind of error that gave birth to the type of videos we saw about a year ago about loving Jesus but hating religion, as if Christianity is a purely private matter. That kind of thinking was so far from the understanding of the early Church that one of the Church Fathers, speaking of those who had strayed from the Church said, “He can no longer have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother.” To put it another way, it is impossible to be joined to God and not be joined to His family. Not being connected to Christ’s Body opens us to false teachings, false Gospels and even a false Christ.
Not only is Christianity NOT a private matter it is so corporate that it includes both the saints on earth and also the saints in heaven, for there is only one Body of Christ. We are as essentially connected to them as we are to one another here on earth.
That is one of the key points of the Book of Revelation. Rather than digging around in that book to discern which political figure is the third toe of the dragon we are to see that the saints in heaven are praying and pleading for us. We are to see that it is they whom we join in worship as we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. It is why the altar should be on the wall facing east, so that both priest and people together can look to and join the company of heaven rather than the priest facing the people, which contains our worship to this earthly space. We are to see the victory of that part of the Body of Christ in glory and take courage and hope from them so that we will be faithful witnesses in this life even unto death. So yes, the communion of the saints is important.
Second the communion of the saints is important because unlike my analogy of FSU having a home court advantage, we don’t have that advantage. We don’t have that advantage because this is not our home. We live in a hostile environment where we are daily assaulted by the world, the flesh and the devil. We fight against principalities and powers. We pray daily not to enter temptation and to be delivered from evil. And so because we don’t have a home court advantage and because so much is stacked against us, we need all of the help that we can get. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to know that myriads before us have finished the race and won the crown. We need to know that heaven is praying for us. Like the servant of the prophet who had his eyes opened to see the armies of heaven, we need to know that we are surrounded and supported.
Third, the communion of saints puts our challenges in proper perspective. Unless you are not paying attention it is pretty clear that there is an increasing double standard against Christianity in this nation. Did you see last week that the courts ordered a company to pay $240,000 to two Muslim truck drivers who were fired because they said it was against their religion to deliver beer? And yet Christians are fined and even lose their businesses when they make the same defense, as we have seen recently with some bakers and florists and owners of event sites. It seems these days that freedom of religion is for everyone else but us.
As concerning and as frustratingly unfair that is, the communion of the saints remind us to take courage and remember that we haven’t been fed to the lions or boiled in oil……..at least not yet. And so we should not lose hope. The temptation is to throw up our hands and let the world go to hell in a hand basket but that is not the commission that Jesus gave to us. No matter how bleak it gets we are to be living and proclaiming the kingdom of God. We are to love and serve others, no matter how they treat us. We are to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment and we can’t do that if we are hiding in our churches.
The fourth reason that the communion of saints is so important is because it informs us why we are here and where we are going. If you have been a Christian for some time you probably have forgotten or not known the quiet desperation with which most people live their lives. You can see it all over social media.
I honestly feel badly for the secularist who thinks that this is all there is and therefore lives their life accordingly. They slug through 5 days so that they can live it up on the weekend. They slug through another 50 weeks so that they can enjoy 2 weeks of vacation. They try to be happy and they hope to have a meaningful relationship with someone but often even that falls apart. They lack a genuine sense of purpose so they latch on to a cause or two on order to find meaning. But then when they are honest with themselves they discover that the cause that they have embraced, with religious fervor, is more of a political invention than the truth. After it is all said and done their biggest hope is not to die alone in a nursing home. That is a tragic view of life but many many people go through life that way?
The communion of the saints tells us that our life has more purpose and meaning than that. They are witnesses that we are citizens of heaven with them, which means that in this life we are ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom. We are ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom that will come to earth and make all things new. We are a part of, what Dallas Willard calls, a divine conspiracy to supplant the kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of God. The communion of saints is witness that we are to live this life in light of the reality of that coming kingdom. It remind us that this life is preparation for the life to come and so while the secularists store up their riches on earth, we store up ours in heaven. While they seek revenge, we are to forgive. While they demand retribution, we are to extend mercy. While they divide we are to have a ministries of reconciliation. While they live life with a tight fist, we live life with an open hand. While they think that whatever they have it is rightfully theirs, we know that it all belongs to God. While they live in fear, we live in faith, hope and love. The communion of saints is a witness that what we are told about life in the kingdom is true.
I need to finish the line from Hebrews that I read at the beginning in order to give balance to all that I have just said. In Hebrew’s 12, after we have been told that we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, the text says, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for he joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
This is an important thought to complete the idea of the communion of the saints because it avoids the errors of the Middle Ages that placed too much of an emphasis on the saints. Many even thought of the saints in mediator roles so that rather than going directly to God through Christ, you first had to attain the intercessions of the saints. Anglican liturgy corrects that error when it refers to Christ as “our only Mediator and Advocate.”
While we are to be inspired by their witness and devotion, we must know that our ultimate model and the perfecter of our faith is Jesus. The saints do not detract from His glory any more than the angels do and it is together with them that we raise our voice of praise. So I believe in the communion of the saints. And if you get real quiet, you might just hear them cheering you on. Amen.