What Is the Communion of Saints?
November 3, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Jeremiah 29:1-14; Psalm 137
Some cultures do much better with remembering their dead than the one in which I grew up. We rarely talked about death in our household. If we did it was in hushed tones, as if the topic were somehow shameful, or should be kept secret. Talking about death apparently constituted a threat to the living. It was a sensitive topic, a subject not to be broached.
The first death I was aware of in my family was of my grandfather, my mother’s father. I was maybe six years old, and when everyone else in the family went to the church for the memorial service my little sister and I were left in the care of a stranger in my grandfather’s office. We played quietly and wondered where everyone else was, and why we couldn’t be there with them.
I still remember that experience vividly these many decades later. I have talked about this experience other times because it illustrates how uncomfortable we are with death, and the distance we try to put between ourselves and the end of life. I know my parents were simply trying to protect us from what they thought might frighten us, but being left behind had the opposite effect. It made us fear death all the more, since even the adults seemed to be scared, too.
Today when I counsel families preparing for a memorial service I encourage them to bring the children in the family to the service, to speak openly with them about the loss everyone feels, to talk with the children about how they want to remember the loved one who is gone, to share memories, and to tell them that they are now with God – and, yet, still with us.
Some of you may have grown up with an approach to death similar to the one I experienced. It had the result of creating a stark contrast between the living and the dead. There was no sense of continuity, no feeling of companionship with those no longer on this earth. We were here; they were gone forever.
We have tended to keep our distance form death, we have medicalized death, to stave it off as long as we can, as if it should not be happening naturally, as if it were a problem to be solved. We end up with an either-or quality to life and death, not a both-and.
Parker Palmer, who will speak at a Westminster Town Hall Forum on Saturday, November 16, has written a beautiful book reflecting on getting old and the nearness of the end of life on this earth, titled On the Brink of Everything. He says this of our avoidance of death:
“We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter, the pleasures of life without the pangs of death…When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result…a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try to hold it off.” (On the Brink of Everything [Oakland BK Publishers, 2018], p. 167.)
Other cultures do this differently. They naturally reach across the divide between this world and the next, recognizing that spring, summer, fall, and winter are all part of the same, unified cycle of life.
A couple years ago the delightful Disney movie Coco introduced many to the Mexican celebration called Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. Early in the film a 12-year old boy named Miguel lights candles at an ofrenda he has created honoring his deceased relatives.
An ofrenda is a love story we tell of those who have gone before us. The communion table this morning in our sanctuary, with all those pictures of loved ones, is now an ofrenda of sorts. In fact, every time we celebrate communion the table sits before us as an ofrenda, holding the things that help us remember Jesus Christ.
The film follows takes Miguel from his home on a quest to visit those gone from the land of the living. He visits the dazzling, colorful Land of the Dead, where he meets his long-lost family members and others, including the famous guitarist Ernesto de la Cruz. Miguel’s experience on his pilgrimage from this life to the next takes the dread and gloom and fear out of death, diminishing the distance between this life and the life to come. In the film’s imagination we walk with Miguel over a bridge from the land of the living to the land of the dead. And in the beautiful innocence of a child we catch a glimpse of another way of approaching death.
All Saints Day is the church’s version of Día de los Muertos. It’s the church’s response to the gulf between the living and the dead. All Saints has been a significant holy day for Christians for at least 1500 years, part of the annual ritual of the Church. Unfortunately, we Protestants developed a deep distaste for saints and disavowed them in the 16th century. We let go of the liturgical rituals that mark the lives of saints. We viewed saints as part of the problem with the Roman Catholic Church of the time. We were suspicious then, and continue to be wary now, of a theology that would declare some to have attained a kind of special holiness.
When we hear talk of saints in the church we squirm in the pews. Sainthood sounds to Protestant ears like royalty in heaven, and we believe in the priesthood of all believers. The idea of saints skews the playing field and throws off the democracy of God’s grace.
But saints were around long before the Church vaulted them into rarefied status. Members of the first-century church referred to one another as “saints.” The saints in Corinth, the saints in Rome, the saints in Jerusalem. It’s a common term in scripture. The ancient Greek word was hagios, used to indicate something holy, which means that first century believers referred to each other regularly as “holy ones.” I like that. They were living saints – not because of their particularly worthy lives, but simply by virtue of being part of the community of those following Jesus Christ.
The letter to the church in Ephesus, written to a congregation riven by division, especially between Jewish and Gentile Christians, makes it clear: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19)
The early Christian community understood itself as a commonwealth of saints: each member of the church was made holy by their faith. All of us here today, by that definition, are saints – not the type who have passed through a variety of steps on their way to beatification, but, rather, simple, ordinary believers – even the skeptics among us.
Call it the sainthood of all believers, including those who struggle with their faith.
The phrase communion of saints does not appear in the pages of scripture. It began to be used in the mid-4th century and by the end of that century had been written into the Apostles Creed. Christian churches all over the world today still use the historic formulation:
“I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic (with a small “c,” meaning universal) church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
What is the “communion of saints?” If we had written the creed we probably would have used “community of saints” to refer to all those, living and dead, who make up the body of Christ. You and I are part of that Beloved Community, as are the ones whose names we will read in a moment.
If we open ourselves to the possibility – and this is hard for Presbyterians who tend to reside in their brains and not in their imaginative hearts and dreams – the dead are mystically present with us. That may not be easy for many of us, especially given the way we’ve been conditioned to view death, but when we speak of the communion of saints we are acknowledging the power of God’s love to reach across the boundary between the living and the dead.
When we come together to worship, or when we quietly pray, or when we stand to sing a hymn, we are joined by this wonderful community, the communion of saints. We are, with them, fellow citizens, members of the commonwealth of God, the body of Christ that spans this life and the next.
At this table today – if we can open ourselves – we will be joined by them. It’s powerful to imagine friends we loved, members of our families and of this church, and others no longer on this earth, being present when we commune at the table.
And if I keep myself open to the possibility, I might even sense my grandfather, whose funeral I had to miss as a little boy, here with us, communing with us as we feast together on the love of God.
Thanks be to God.