All One Body We: “The Communion of Saints”
June 6, 2004
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).
In 1979 John Bass interviewed Ronald Reagan as he was preparing to run for president against Jimmy Carter. This is part of that interview.
John Bass: Governor Reagan, do you feel there is a need for spiritual renewal in America?
Ronald Reagan: Yes. The time has come to turn to God and reassert our trust in Him for the healing of America. We need to join forces to reclaim the great principles embodied in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in Holy Scripture. As a Christian I commit myself to do my share in this joint venture. Our country is in need of and ready for spiritual renewal that is based on spiritual reconciliation—first man with God, then man with man.
John Bass: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
Ronald Reagan: Yes, I do. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
John Bass: What does this Bible verse mean to you personally?
Ronald Reagan: It means that, having accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior, I have God’s promise of eternal life in Heaven, as well as the abundant life here on earth that He promises to each of us in John 10:10.
John Bass: Do you think the Bible is of divine origin?
Ronald Reagan: I never had any doubt about it. How can you write off the Old Testament prophecies that hundreds of years before the birth of Christ predicted every single facet of His life, His death, and that He was the Messiah? (source: Ronald Reagan: A Man of Faith, quotes taken from Internet website)
And so it happened that yesterday, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Ronald Reagan died at the age of 93, with his family at his side. Though harshly attacked by his critics, the American people loved him. He grew up in Dixon, Illinois, and he never forgot his humble beginnings. At the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 1991, he reflected on those early days. Speaking of his mother, he recalled, “I remember a small woman with auburn hair and unquenchable optimism. Her name was Nelly Reagan and she believed with all her heart that there was no such thing as accidents in this life. Everything was part of God’s plan.” And he talked about the town where he grew up: “Our neighbors were never ashamed to kneel in prayer to their Maker nor were they ever embarrassed to feel a lump in their throat when Old Glory passed by. No one in Dixon, Illinois ever burned a flag and no one in Dixon would have tolerated it.”
When he informed the nation in 1994 that he had Alzheimer’s Disease, he closed his statement with these words: “When the Lord calls me home, whenever that day may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” Speaking from Paris last night, President Bush ended his remarks about President Reagan this way: “He always told us that for America, the best was yet to come. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that this is true for him, too. His work is done, and now a shining city awaits him.”
He was a Christian and a statesman and he was one of the greatest presidents of the 20th Century. He embodied all that was good about America. He restored our national confidence and helped us feel good about our nation once again. I do not doubt that he is in heaven today. I say that not because of his politics, and not because of his accomplishments, but because of his faith in Jesus Christ. He may have been the most powerful man in the world, but yesterday he came to the end of his long battle with Alzheimer’s, not as a powerful man, but as a sinner saved by grace.
The Church Transcends Time
The Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in the communion of saints.” Because these words come near the end of the creed, we may tend to overlook them, but we shouldn’t because they teach us something important about the Christian church. For the last two weeks, I’ve emphasized that the church is not a building or a denomination; the church is the people. We also learned that the church is both local and universal. We meet today as a local church, a particular congregation that meets at 931 Lake Street in Oak Park, Illinois every Sunday morning. You can find churches more or less like us in every nation of the world. There is also a sense in which “the church” refers to all true believers scattered everywhere in every nation. In studying for this sermon, I was interested to discover that the phrase “the communion of saints” was a late addition to the Apostles’ Creed. It was added several centuries after “the holy catholic church.” It’s worth pondering exactly what this phrase was supposed to add that wasn’t already covered. On Friday Brian Ondracek called me to talk about the order of service and during our conversation he gave me an important key to this phrase. He put it this way:
The Holy Catholic Church teaches us that that the church spans the globe.
The Communion of Saints teaches us that the church transcends time.
So what exactly does the phrase “communion of saints” mean? Let me break it down for you. The word “communion” translates the Greek word koinonia. That’s a very common word in the New Testament that means fellowship or partnership. It means to share together in a close relationship. In secular Greek it was used for a marriage, a business partnership, a community, or a nation bound together by common goals. Preeminently the word applies to friendship. Acts 2:42 uses this word to describe the intimate closeness of the early Christians who lived together, ate their meals together, and shared all things in common.
The word “saint” simply means “holy one.” In the New Testament the word “saint” is a synonym for “Christian” or “believer.” The Apostle Paul used the word “saint” in several of his letters to describe ordinary believers. He wrote to the saints in Rome and to the saints in Corinth and to the saints in Ephesus and to the saints in Philippi. To many of us a “saint” refers to an extraordinary Christian, one who has been canonized by the Church of Rome. But the New Testament never uses the word that way. It always applies to all believers. I preach once a year at Word of Life Conference Center in Hudson, Florida. For the last few years the same man has either picked us up or taken us back to the airport. I can’t remember his name, but I can never forget him, because he always greets me the same way: “Hello, saint!” Not “Hello, Pastor Ray,” but “Hello, saint!” He greets everyone that way. That’s how we know him: He’s the “Hello, saint” man. And he is entirely biblical in his use of the term because we are all saints of God. It is perfectly proper to speak of “Saint Jane” or “Saint Jeff” or “Saint Martha” or “Saint Don” or “Saint Fred.” If you know Jesus, you are a true saint of God.
To say that we believe in the communion of saints means that we believe there exists an intimate connection between all true believers in Jesus. We can say it this way: Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me, and I belong to them. I draw a simple conclusion from this: Our fellowship ought to be as wide as the whole body of Christ. It has been my joy over the last 15 years to see God expand my own horizons in this area. I have discovered to my delight that God has his people scattered in some very unusual places. And I have learned that there are many different ways to worship God in spirit and in truth. I learned to do a little worship dance at the YWAM base in Belize. I stood with John Sergey and observed a Greek Orthodox liturgy in St. Petersburg, Russia. I clapped and cheered with enthusiastic Haitian believers during an evangelistic campaign. I have preached in an evangelical church on the banks of the Volga River and joined in worship with the King of Kings church, a Messianic, charismatic congregation that meets at the YMCA in Jerusalem. When we visited Greg and Carolyn Kirschner in Jos, Nigeria a few years ago, the church we attended with them had a special offering that Sunday for the building fund. Instead of passing the offering plate the way we do in America, they called people to come forward by groups and put their offerings in a big metal tub in the front of the church. So while we all stood and clapped and sang, the different groups came forward singing and dancing, bringing their offerings with them. When the time came for the church leaders to come forward, I stood up and went with them, dancing as I went forward with my offering. To be honest, my “dancing” wasn’t much more than shuffling my feet—and I wasn’t very good at that, but I did it, and I enjoyed it. God has continually pulled me out of my comfort zone in the last few years to show me that his family is much bigger than I ever imagined.
The Gospel is for Everyone
Romans 1:16 is very helpful in this regard: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (KJV). The last phrase introduces the universal dimension of the gospel. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Although most of the Jews have not become followers of Christ, the gospel still has the power to save them if they will only believe. The “Greeks” were the Gentiles, that is, all non-Jews. No wonder Paul was not ashamed. The gospel has the power to save people without regard to the distinctions that divide us. It has the power to save without regard to:
The gospel of Jesus has the power to build a bridge over the chasm of race, education, age, social status, skin color, family background, language, culture, and all the things that divide the human race. We saw a little glimpse of this in Oak Park two years ago when thousands of us gathered for the 9/11 Remembrance Service in Mills Park. There were Lutherans and Presbyterians and Catholics and Methodists and Baptists and people with no church affiliation in the audience. Pastors from various evangelical churches led the service. Timothy Fung from the Chinese Bible Church led the opening prayer. Rodney Brown from Fellowship Christian Church, Art Jackson from Judson Baptist, Dean Leuking from Grace Lutheran Church, Dave Steinhart from Forest Park Baptist Church, and Dave Frederick from the Vineyard Church all took part. A group of children from the various churches presented the colors. Fadge Pincham sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Dave Worth from the First Presbyterian Church presented the gospel. Kevin Thames played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. We honored representatives of the local fire and police departments. A massive choir and orchestra featuring people from many churches sang, “Lord, Have Mercy.” Thousands of people lit candles as we sang “The Lord’s Prayer.” We ended by singing “America the Beautiful” together. In my 15 years in Oak Park, it was the greatest public demonstration of the unity of the church of Jesus Christ.
The 9/11 service demonstrated the power of the gospel to reach across the barriers of race, language, culture and geography. Sometimes we are tempted to “soften” the gospel in order to broaden our fellowship, but the reverse is closer to the truth. When we are firm on the gospel, we can have joyful fellowship with God’s people from many different backgrounds.
I. We have communion with Christ.
We see this clearly in I John 1:1-4: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” Everything we do is based on this truth. We have fellowship with God through his Son, Jesus Christ. And only in Christ do we have fellowship with one another. If you skip this or minimize this or gloss it over, then we’re nothing more than a social club. What sets us apart from the Rotary Club or the country club is that we have fellowship with God. Remember the definition I quoted last week: We are the “supernatural society of God’s redeemed people.” The church is a fellowship of men and women who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
That’s the whole point of the Lord’s Supper. We call it “communion” because it represents our fellowship with Christ through his broken body and his shed blood. As we receive the elements, we enter into personal communion with our Lord. And we share that communion with other believers in Christ.
II. We have communion with the saints on earth.
Back to I John 1 for a moment. In verse 7 he adds an important dimension to what he has already said: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” I take it that the “one another” refers both to God and to other believers. Walking in the light allows us to have fellowship with God and with other believers. Because God is light, and we are the children of light, when we walk in that light, we are where God is and where his children are. We’re no longer alone in the darkness of sin and rebellion. Once we begin to grasp this, all our relationships will be radically changed. We may be sinners, but we are sinners saved by God’s grace. That changes how we treat our spouse and our children. And that changes the way we relate to our friends and relatives. Once we understand what God has done for us, we realize, “It’s not about me because I’m not the center of the universe. It’s about reaching out to other people in Jesus’ name.”
III. We have communion with the saints in heaven.
Hebrews 12:1 speaks of this when it says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Picture the Olympic Stadium in Athens, Greece, where in just a few weeks athletes from every nation will fill the arena. Imagine that you are high up in the stadium, looking down on the athletes as they compete for Olympic gold. Some are throwing the javelin; others throw the shot put. Over there a man gets ready for the pole vault; a few feet away a group of runners stretch in preparation for the marathon. The stands are crowded with spectators from many nations cheering for their athletes. Hebrews 12:1 pictures the saints on earth in the arena while the saints in the heavenly grandstands cheer them on. Looking around, you see James and John, over there is Paul, and you see Peter and John Mark not far away. As you continue looking, you see your loved ones who died in Christ. “You can do it! Trust in Jesus. Keep believing,” they shout from heaven. When you feel like quitting, you can hear them calling out to you, “Don’t give up now. You’re not that far from the finish line.”
Can the saints in heaven really see us on earth? I don’t know the precise answer to that question, but Hebrews 12:1 at least allows us to think of them as cheering us on. And that image is part of the communion of saints. Death cannot separate us from the saints in heaven. At this point it helps to remember that heaven is not as far away as we might think. When I was a child, I pictured heaven as somewhere beyond the farthest galaxy, a wonderful land so far away that I would need a rocket ship to get there. Hebrews 12:22-24 offers a different picture. These verses tell us something amazing about what the gospel has done for us:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Three times the writer uses the phrase “you have come.” The precise Greek word literally means “to come near.” It’s a compound word consisting of “to come” and “near” or “face-to-face.” It has the idea of coming in the presence of someone or something. Once we were far from God, but now in Christ we have come into God’s very presence. Once we were far away, but now we live in the presence of the angels. And now in Christ we have come into the presence of the spirits of righteous men made perfect—a clear reference to believers in heaven.
Think of what he is saying:
We’re not that far from heaven.
We’re not that far from the angels.
We’re not that far from our loved ones in heaven.
We’re not that far from God.
We’re not that far from Jesus himself.
Heaven is a real place, it’s where Jesus is right now, and it’s not far away from us. Between us and heaven there is a gossamer veil called death. To us that veil seems dark and forbidding, but in Christ that veil has become the portal to eternal reality. Perhaps we should think of all the eternal realities as simply being in a different dimension of reality—not visible to us in this life, but near us and around us all the time—like the angels surrounding the armies of Israel that Elisha showed to his servant in II Kings 6:15-17. The angels were there all the time, but the servant could not see them until his eyes were opened.
Several of our hymns speak of this aspect of our communion with the saints in heaven. The last verse of “The Church’s One Foundation” mentions it quite clearly:
Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee:
The great hymn “For All the Saints” contains a verse that speaks to this truth:
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
What does this mean? Death cannot destroy our fellowship with the saints of God. We are one with them and they are one with us. I do not mean that we can communicate with them. The Bible specifically forbids that. When you see that man on the TV show “Crossing Over” claiming to receive messages from the dead, he is deceiving himself and others. We are not talking about ghosts or visions or dreams or anything like that. We mean that the saints of God are alive in heaven while we are alive on earth. And they are not that far away from us. One day we will be reunited with them. They are gone from our sight but they are not gone from God. And they aren’t really gone from us either. As we praise God this morning on earth, they join us in praising God in heaven. That is the “mystic sweet communion” the hymn writer had in mind.
Theologians sometimes speak of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. We are the church militant because the battle rages around us every day and we are called to fight the good fight and to take up the whole armor of God. But one day we’ll lay our weapons down, our battles will be over, and the victory will be won. In that happy day we’ll join the Church Triumphant in heaven. But whether we are on earth today or in heaven tomorrow, we are still part of the church of Jesus Christ.
There is another verse of “For All the Saints” that brings all the strands of truth together:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
In 1981 when President Reagan was nearly assassinated, his pastor from California came to see him in the hospital in Washington, D.C. Pastor Don Moomaw took the president’s hand and asked him, “How is it with you and the Lord?” “Everything is fine with me and the Lord,” replied Mr. Reagan. “How do you know?” The answer was simple and profound: “I have a Savior.”
That’s the difference that Jesus Christ makes. When you have a Savior, you can face your own death with courage and grace. Do you have a Savior? If you don’t, or if you aren’t sure, I urge you to place your life in the hands of Jesus Christ right now. Run to the cross. Lay hold of Jesus Christ. Trust him as Lord and Savior. Ask him to take away your sins and to give you new life. Come to Christ now and your life will never be the same again. Amen.