Every week when we celebrate the Eucharist, we say that we believe “the communion of saints.” I realize that something which is repeated week after week can sometimes slip by us as we recited without much reflection – that happens to me as well, even when leading the congregation in worship. But I would hope at some point you might ask, “what do we mean by the communion of saints?”
By the REV. WILLIAM HALE
To me, being a Christian is both a personal connection to Christ and to the Father, and also a part of belonging to something much larger than myself. The personal commitment to God through Christ is what makes us Christians. It is what our presiding Bishop Michael Curry refers to when he talks about personally being a member of the Jesus Movement. But the Jesus Movement has been going on at least since the time of Jesus’ own ministry and the day of Pentecost. Countless numbers of people – the number of which is known to God alone – are part of this community that exists over time and across the whole space of the earth. They differed in language, customs, political identity, place of origin, and probably as many points of difference as can be comprehended in the whole of human life. They were bound together, however, by their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and their willingness to try to live out the Good News which Jesus proclaimed. We call this body the Church, but that designation would actually include a far number larger number of people that may have ever been recognized by an official affiliation with one or another denomination. It currently includes all of us who acknowledge Christ, even though the Christian Church as a whole is splintered among so many different denominations who practice their belief in so many different ways. To an outsider – indeed, it was to those people whom Christian missionaries sought to convert over the centuries – it must be bewildering to see one Christian or set of Christians setting themselves apart from another group who also claim to be Christian. This is a testimony to the human aspect of our faith and our brokenness, despite our unity in Christ. The divisions within the body of Christ must grieve the Holy Spirit, and it is a constant reminder to the faithful that we still have much work to do within our own household.
Nevertheless, whenever Paul wrote to any of the various congregations he addressed in his letters, he referred to them as “the saints” (hagioi) or holy people of God. That they were not “saints” as we usually use the word to designate those of outstanding holiness is clear when you read how he criticized and even berated the people of Galatia or Corinth in those letters. Despite their failings and shortcomings, however, Paul continued to address them as saints because they had been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and he hoped to guide them to greater understanding of what that meant in their new life. So from the beginning, the “communion of saints” has always included a diverse group of imperfect people united by their belief in Jesus Christ and engaged in a continual struggle, both individually and as groups, to live lives worthy of their baptismal calling.
This community has endured periods of tremendous persecution, physical suffering, death and the threats of death, as well as times of prosperity and decadence. It has been a light to the world in its time, and yet the history of the Church also includes periods where church people themselves have been the persecutors and done unspeakable things ostensibly in the name of Christ. We must acknowledge our history with both its shining moments and its moral failures. Yet across time, the one true constant of this community has been its proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is founded its hope for the present and the future, in this earthly life and in the life to come, upon the gospel which Christ proclaimed. We were not born into the Christian Church as we were into our families, but like being a member of any family, we recognize both the good and bad which belonging and involves. But as John the Evangelist says, we were born into our faith, not “of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13) Thereby we have become “children of God” and heirs of hope through Christ.
In our tradition, the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st reminds us of our connection to the others saints of the Church. We are related not just to the members of our parish, or our diocese, or our Episcopal Church, or even the Anglican communion worldwide, but across those barriers of human denomination to all Christians within the worldwide Church. And more than this, we can look backwards across the centuries to all the faithful people – including those who struggled with their faith – across the centuries, back to Christ himself. Turning our eyes in the other direction, we can look forward for generations and generations to come, “a great multitude which no one can count,” which would include all those who will share our faith and who will also find their life in Christ.
We celebrate All Saints Day, therefore, to gain perspective on ourselves within the company we keep. It reminds us that we are not alone in our faith, but rather part of a huge flock under the one Shepherd whose name we bear as Christians. From such a perspective, we are humbled by our own small part in the undertaking which is the life of the Church; but we can also rejoice in the greatness of God’s grace which has included so many people and which still opens the door to all those who are lost and seek the truth. The abundance of God’s faithfulness and the limitlessness of Christ redeeming love to all peoples everywhere should lift us up when we are mindful of belonging to such an amazing and God-inspired assembly.
May we, taking our place within the communion of the saints of God, learn to bear our own crosses in such a way that God is glorified and Christ made present wherever we are.
The Rev. William Hale is priest-in-charge at St. Luke’s, Allen Park and Christ the King, Taylor.