Yesterday, at the All Souls Mass I spoke about the Communion of the Saints. I attempted to show why that belief is so important for us to confess and I attempted to explain what we mean and what we don’t mean when we speak of the Communion of the Saints. Today I want to talk about the benefits of believing in the Communion of the Saints.
But first I want to address a common objection that I have heard. It’s a simplistic argument but I have heard it many times. “If I have Jesus why do I need the saints?” Let me address how illogical this question is and then I will give a biblically informed response. I would ask the person, “Is it true that according to the New Testament all believers are considered saints?”The correct answer is “Yes.” “Then that would make you a saint.” “Yes.” “Then you just asked‘If I have Jesus why do I need me?’” Or lets try it another way. “Do not the saints, both those on earth and those in heaven, make up the Body of Christ?” Again the correct answer is“Yes” “Then you just asked, ‘If I have Jesus why would I need the Body of Christ?’”
Beyond pointing out the illogic of the question let me offer a simple response. “We need the saints because that is how God set up the universe.” The Communion of the Saints is not the Church’s idea rather it is God’s. The same can be said about angels. “If I have Jesus why would I need angels.”? Again, because that is how God set up the universe. We know that Jesus had a perfect relationship with His heavenly Father and yet Scripture records two occasions where angels came to minister to Him. One was after the 40 days of temptation and one was at the garden the night that He was betrayed. If Jesus was one with the Father why did He need angels to minister to Him? Because that is how God set up the universe and who are we to question His ways?
Since God has set up the Communion of the Saints what are the benefits? I will offer a number. First they fill need in our lives. Unless you are a narcissist you need a hero, someone to challenge you and inspire you to be a better you. This has been true across humanity and throughout history. Think of the ancient myths and legends and how invariably they involve a hero. Hercules, Beowulf, Achilles, Romulus and Remus, the list is endless. Who are our heroes today? Look at the movies. Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman. Again the list is endless.
The saints fill this role in much better ways. I mean I can’t really relate to Batman. I’m not rich and I don’t drive at night. But the saints were real folk and like real folk they also had their issues and I can relate to that. St. Jerome, the brilliant translator of the Bible, was evidently a very difficult person with which to get along. St. John of the Cross battled spiritual and emotional depression. As we all know St. Peter suffered from foot in mouth disease. This list is also endless.
What is important is that as far as we know these saints completed the race, and in spite of their issues, received a crown of glory that never fades away. The danger of current sports heroes or current celebrity heroes or even current preacher heroes is that we don’t know the end of their story, we don’t know if they will finish the race or if they will drop out or if they will be disqualified.
Secondly the saints show us a different way than the way of the world. Let me tell you about Alphonsus Rodriguez who died in 1617. He was the son of a prosperous merchant in Segovia. He began his studies to become a Jesuit but when his father died he had to return home to run his family business. He fell in love and married and had two children. His wife died bearing his third child, then his other two children died, then his mother died, and then his business collapsed. Although completely broken he offered the shattered pieces of his life to God.
He was denied entrance into the Jesuits because his lack of education but they made him a lay brother of the order and gave him the job of being a doorkeeper. For 40 years he opened the door for others with such love and devotion that they said that he performed it as if it were a sacrament. His Christlikeness became so well known that students began seeking him out for spiritual direction. Rodriguez was so well respected that Spanish nobility along with throngs of the poor and the sick attended his funeral testifying to his miraculous life as a doorkeeper. When we confess the Communion of the Saints we are speaking truth against the constant quest for power, against the materialism of atheism and against the secularism of western culture.
The Communion of the Saints reorients us. At least six days a week we are being bombarded with lies and half-truths from the world, the flesh and the devil and sadly from ABC, NBC and CBS. It is very easy in the midst of all of these lies to become disoriented and even to begin to drift. At first the drift is every so slightly but before we realize it we are way off course.
A few years ago Beth and I flew to Italy on a brand new jet. One of the things I enjoyed most about the flight was that it had cameras all over the plane and so you could bring different views to the monitor before you. As we were landing I chose the camera that allowed me to see what the pilots were seeing. And there before us were two rows of lights marking the runway and guiding us home. It occurred to me that is how I see the saints. They are not home but they mark our way home. When we have drifted from the course they reorient us for a safe landing. In Jeremiah we read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls.” The saints show us those ancient paths.
The Cloud of Witnesses gives us perspective on our lives in a number of ways. Back to Hebrews 11. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins being destitute, afflicted, tormented…” And here I feel persecuted when the insurance company tells me that I haven’t met my deductible. But more than reminding me that I don’t have it too bad the saints call us to be better.
It was not until the 1950’s that runners broke the four-minute mile. Until that point no one thought that it was even possible. Today if you can’t run a four-minute mile you likely won’t make the team. The bar has been raised that high.
The saints raise the bar for us. If I was in this alone and heard a call to be more loving or more generous or more courageous, I could dismiss it by saying the only one to do that was Jesus and I’m not Jesus. But when I look back at my spiritual ancestors and see the love of Mother Theresa or the generosity of St. Francis or courage of St. Patrick, I know that the spiritual version of the four-minute mile has been broken and so I give it a try. And if I listen very carefully I can hear the cloud of witnesses cheering me on.
The Communion of Saints also model for us selfless service. In September of 1878, yellow fever hit epidemic proportions in Memphis, Tennessee. So many people died that the city lost its charter. Every one who could afford to do so fled the city, while Anglican nuns and clergy rushed in to offer care. They became known as Sister Constance and her companions. The cathedral was turned into a hospital. Constance was the first to die and then her companions followed. In all 38 Anglican and Roman clergy and nuns died in this selfless service of others. “They loved not their lives even unto death.” The high altar of the cathedral, consecrated on Whitsunday 1879, was commissioned by Bishop Quintard to memorialize the Sisters of St. Mary. Inscribed on the altar steps are “Alleluia Osanna,”which were Sister Constance’s last words.
Lastly the Communion of Saints inspires us to finish the race that we have begun. That is the message of Hebrew 12. The picture in my mind is that we are on the field in a very tough race and the cloud of witnesses in the stands is cheering us on. The text says that because we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses we are to “run with endurance the race the is set before us.” The key word here is, “endurance.”As you well know the Christian life is not a sprint, it is a marathon and marathons are tough. In the letters to Timothy and to Thessalonica, St. Paul prophesies that in the latter days there will be a great falling away from the faith. While I have never been one to try to predict the latter days I do know that t is all too easy to quit. I have seen many do so. This year alone between 8,000 and 10,000 churches will close their doors in the US.
I will make this personal. I was first ordained in 1979 so I’m sure it would not surprise you that I have had days when I said out loud to myself, “I don’t want to do this any more.”I recently hit that wall. In part because I don’t have the stamina that I did when I was younger and in part because ministering to the pain and trauma and heartache of folks that you love takes its toll over the years. I was in that mindset a couple of weeks ago when Beth and I went to Savannah to celebrate her 29thbirthday (Lord I apologize). As we were walking around Savannah we came across a square where the great Anglican preacher Fr. George Whitfield had preached to hundreds if not thousands. Just to be standing where he stood was enough inspiration to straighten up and get my head back in the race. The saints of God do that for us.
I would encourage you to read up on the saints and make it a goal to have a hero or heroes that will inspire you to run with endurance and to finish the race. I know that I need all of the help that God offers me and so I celebrate being surrounded by their fellowship of love and prayers. While it is true that the whole notion of the saints became riddled with superstition in the Middle Ages, we need not fear that it will happen to us. Anglican theology and worship is too Christ centered to see those abuses repeated. In an excellent article about the saints Fr. Wesley Walker reminds us that we should not allow abuses of a practice to negate that practice, especially when the practice predates the abuse. We know that if belief in the Communion of the Saints was so universal in the Church that it was placed in the Nicene Creed in 325, then it didn’t first appear in 324. The ancient practice of the Church was to pray for the faithful departed and to be comforted in the knowledge that they are praying for us. I believe in the Communion of the Saints.
“The lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds and thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.