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.

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