Communion of Saints Pt 2

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.

The Communion of the Saints

Yesterday was the feast of All Saints, which we will celebrate tomorrow at what is commonly called All Saints’ Sunday, but today is the feast of All Souls. Why two feasts? It follows the pattern of Hebrews 11 that begins by recounting the deeds of the heroes of our faith. It mentions Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sara and Moses and many others. But towards the end of the chapter no names are given. Just their deeds. The text simply says, “others were tortured…still others had trial of mockings and scourging…They were stoned and sawn in two…they wandered about…” And I love this line; “of whom the world was not worthy.”

Thus on All Saints’ Day we honor the saints that are in the Hall of Fame. On All Soul’s Day we honor all the rest of the faithful departed. The Apocrypha make the distinction this way. “Some of them have left a name behind so that others declare their praise…But of others there is no memory…but these also were godly ones, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” That is a perfect description of Hebrews 11. Then chapter 12 begins “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us….”

Misconceptions about the saints abound especially here in the Bible Belt. Years ago I received a call from a guy who wanted to confront me about calling a church after a saint. He said that the church belonged to the Lord and so we shouldn’t name it after a saint. I explained the we fully realized that the church belonged to the Lord but there was a very long tradition of having patrons, so that as Scripture says, we are giving honor to whom it is due. He still objected and was very angry with me and slammed down his phone. So in his mind it was blasphemous to name a church after a saint but it was okay with the name “Franklin Road Baptist Church.” Go figure.

Each week we confess in the Nicene Creed that we believe in the Communion of the Saints. Celebrating All Saints and All Souls is a natural result of that belief but it also posses some questions. Why is belief in the Communion of the Saints important? What do we believe about the Communion of the Saints” and of what is the benefit of this belief? 

But before I address those questions let me clarify  potential misconceptions concerning our beliefs about the saints. First we reject a common belief that there are the saints in heaven and then there are us sinners here on earth. The New Testament is quite clear that all believers, those in heaven and those on earth, are saints in the eyes of God. St. Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi. “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Christ Jesus to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”I do find it troubling that he did not include the clergy with the saints but that is my problem. The believers in Philippi are called saints. 

Second we reject any notion of the saints being mediators, that is the idea that we pray to them and then they go to God on our behalf, like having a friend in the court. The Scripture is also clear on this. There is only One Mediator between God and man and that is Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5). Why would we have it any other way when we have the indescribable privilege of going directly to the Father in Jesus’ Name. 

Third, in particular reference to this feast of All Souls, we do not pray for the departed in order to help them get out of purgatory, because as Anglicans we do not believe in purgatory. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Any work that needed to be done to wash us from our sins was done when Jesus said, “It is finished” and then three days late came bursting out of His tomb conquering death and the grave. And then ascended to the Father presenting to Him His sacrifice.

So if we are not praying for the departed to get out of purgatory then why are we praying for them? That is one of the most frequent questions I am asked is “Why do y’all pray for the dead?”The short answer is “Because they aint dead.”Jesus said “But concerning the resurrection of the dead have you not read what was spoken to you by God saying ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” A believer passes through the gate of death into the presence of God. So we pray to God for the faithful departed because they still live.

We pray to God for the faithful departed, as is so beautifully put in the 1928 BCP, “…beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service; and to grant us grace so to follow their good examples that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly grace…” We may not need to pray for one another once the whole Church becomes the Church triumphant, and we receive our new bodies at the Resurrection, and we are placed in a new heaven and a new earth. But that has not happened yet and so we continue to pray. 

We pray to God for the faithful departed because death has not stopped our love for them. Praying for others keeps us linked or connected to them. And so because of my love for my Father I hold my Father’s memory alive when I mention him before God’s altar. 

We also pray to God WITH the faithful departed. This is chiefly done through worship. “Therefore joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name….”

I hope that clarifies a few things. Now I want to return to my original questions. Why is it important that we believe in the Communion of the Saints, what do we believe about it and what is the benefit of this belief? 

A chief reason that this belief is so important is because it flows from what we believe about the completed work of Christ and what we believe about the Church. If Jesus had not conquered death there would be no Communion of the Saints. There would be no voices in heaven with which to join our voices. There would only be the silence of the grave. But because the Old Testament Saints looked forward in faith to His victory, as we look back in faith to His victory, there is indeed a blessed Communion. 

The Communion of the Saints manifests what we believe about the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and just as there is only one Head there is only one Body. There is the Church triumphant in glory and the Church militant on earth, but there is only one Church, one Body. Thus we should be very diligent to work for unity with fellow saints on earth and we should maintain our unity with the saints in glory. The new catechism asks “How are the Church on earth and the Church in heaven joined?”  Answer. “All of the worship of the Church on earth is a participation in the eternal worship of the Church in heaven.” Hebrew 12:22-24. Thus to abandon worship, or to think that worship is all about me, is to abandon the Communion of the Saints

What do we believe about the Communion of the Saints? We believe that the Church triumphant is not passive towards us. Hebrews 12 tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I love the picture that the BCP paints for us through this collect. “Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know our selves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy…”

Wait a moment. Did that collect say that the saints in heaven are praying for us? Yes it did! But how do we know that? We know it from Revelation 5 and 8 that tell of golden bowls of incense, and the text tells us,“which are the prayers of the saints.” Their prayers for us imply that they know what is going on with us, which they most assuredly do. At the Transfiguration of Jesus we are told that Moses and Elijah were speaking with Him about His upcoming departure when the disciples didn’t yet realize that was about to happen.  

I have personally experienced this fellowship of love and prayer. When we were building All Saints’ in Smyrna it was one of the most challenging experiences that I ever had. The builder was a crook of the highest order and I was in a constant battle with him over his lies and his shoddy work. Our lawyer had been involved with the building of the Titans stadium. He said that work put him in contact with some Mafia types and he said that the Mafia was easier to deal with than our builder. The Bishop saw what stress I was under and offered to me to use his condo in St. Augustine, so Beth and I went down for a few days to try to decompress. 

As we were walking through the Old City I saw an Orthodox Shrine and I asked Beth to give me a few minutes to go in and say my prayers. I was still heavy with the burden of the project and I had serious doubts that we would be able to complete it, which would have been a financial disaster for the parish. I knelt before a number of life sized icons of various saints and I lit a candle and I cried out to the Lord for His mercy. Although my eyes were closed I could tell that I was not alone. I felt a distinct presence. It was as if each saint had stepped out of his icon and they were standing around me, giving me the assurance that God had heard my prayer and that all would be well. The burden lifted, we had a great time in St. Augustine and the project got completed. 

I went back to the shrine after the church was built to offer thanks to the Lord for hearing my prayer. I was also secretly hoping to have the same experience again but it was crickets that time. However as I was leaving the shrine I read a plaque on the wall that told of their history. It said that before coming to St. Augustine it was in a town called New Smyrna, which gave me goose bumps. I definitely believe in the Communion of the Saints. 

This belief in the Communion of the Saints directly confronts the me-and-Jesus heresy that plagues the Western Church. If you google “I love Jesus but I hate the Church” you will see all kinds of videos and research and books. It is a growing theme. But you don’t need a degree in theology to know that is one of the dumbest things that you could possibly say. Since the Church is the Body of Christ, you are really saying. “I love Jesus but I hate His Body.”  Or to use another image from Scripture, “I love you Jesus but I hate your Bride.” The sin filled arrogance that fuels such a perspective is incomprehensible but it is alive and well. 

The Communion of the Saints is a constant reminder that there is no such thing as just me-and-Jesus. “For by one Spirit you have been baptized into one Body”and each of us are a part of that Body. I don’t know if I am an ear of an eye or a toenail. It does not really matter to me. Like Minnie Pearl, I’m just proud to be here. It is humbling to realize the shoulders that we stand upon, the sacrifices of those who came before us, and as Ephesians puts it, the inheritance that we have in the saints. I cannot think of another company with whom I would wish to be joined. 

This leads me to the third question. What are the benefits of the Communion of the Saints? To learn that you will have to come tomorrow as we celebrate the Sunday after All Saints. In the meantime lets give thanks for the faithful departed and as the BCP puts it “rejoice in their fellowship and run with endurance the race that is set before us; and together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.” Amen.