November 5,2023

I have chosen to depart from the lectionary today because I wanted to say something particular to this communion Sunday, as well as a day on which we remember those who have gone before us, and coming just a few days after the three days on the Christian calendar that speak of “saints” (All Saints, or Hallows, Eve – or Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day).

So today I will speak of “communion” and “saints.”  The title of my sermon comes from an ancient creed with which at least some of you are familiar.  It’s from the Apostles’ Creed, drafted many centuries ago, and repeated by believers over the generations as a concise statement of their faith.  The last portion of that ancient creed goes like this: “I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church (meaning the Church in all its forms around the world); the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”  In this creed, “the communion of saints” is right up there with the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins as central expressions of what defined those followers of Christ.

Even though we, as members of the United Church of Christ, don’t rely on such creeds as litmus tests for inclusion in the church, we do still recognize their role in helping us to sort out the great questions of faith.  But for many of us, the language has become an almost insurmountable barrier.  It’s about as hard to comprehend what “the communion of saints” means in 2023, as it is for me to understand “tweeting” on “X.”

I believe in the communion of saints.

The word communion we most often use to refer to the Lord’s Supper, this memorial meal that we partake of here once a month.  And saints – well, we all know what saints are.  They’re folks who were so nearly perfect that they became martyrs and worked miracles and got holidays named after them and have statues and stained glass windows.  Thinking of the communion of saints, we might have a vision of Saint Augustus, Saint Francis, Saint Nicholas, and all the others sitting around a heavenly table sharing the bread and cup.  Truth is, at least in the language of this ancient creed, neither of these words means what we think it does.

Communion refers to something far broader than what we do with bread and grape juice.  It’s the coming together of all of us in the spirit of Love that involves fellowship, struggle, growth, inclusion.  It’s what people have done for generations, for millennia, when they have rubbed elbows and stepped on toes while trying to pursue that which is of the deepest and most profound meaning in life.  To be in communion with one another is to be living together in the household of faith.  Sometimes that’s not easy.

I know of a family for whom living together was mostly a burden.  The mother was anxious, nervous, always worried that things were going to go terribly wrong.  The father was domineering and controlling, always imposing his authority on everyone.  The children learned to compete for their parent’s attention and became combative.  In order to hold things together the whole family took on a facade of closeness and caring, while hostility and fear boiled beneath the surface.  Many would describe that family as dysfunctional, and in many respects it was, but in the end, there was something about just being “family” – being in communion with one another – that pulled them through.  It simply took time.  In time they found ways to compensate for their difficulties with one another, and to give each other the space to be different. The earlier issues of competition and anxiety eventually crumbled in the face of nothing more extraordinary than the calendar.  That’s the power of communion.

Being in a committed relationship – one that transcends the issues and differences of the day – is an incredible force.  It can, given enough time, refashion human beings, institutions, nations, even history itself.  That’s communion.

I believe in the communion of saints.

Saints – now there’s a loaded word.  We all think of saints as being those people who were, at some time in history, something grand, something we’re not.  In truth, the way the word is used in the Bible, it doesn’t mean that at all. Did you ever notice that the word is almost always plural in the Bible?  You rarely hear about “a saint,” but you often hear about “the saints.”  Apparently, sainthood is only something you can do in communion.      “Saint,” in other words, is simply another name for a sinner.  A saint is a person who is a member of a communion.  And the people who make up a communion like a church, are just folks like you and me.  “Saints” drop the ball, they step on each other’s toes, they behave inappropriately, they fail each other.

Many of you know the burden of trying to live under extraordinary expectations.  In our society, school teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, not to mention factory workers, supervisors and administrators, and even spouses and parents, are expected to meet impossible standards.  Any failure can be a terrible mistake, and sometimes even grounds for a law-suit.

This church stands as a refuge – a sanctuary – for all who are bruised and battered by the outrageous demands of a society caught in the myth of perfection and bent on blame and punishment.  It is a place for sinners: for all who fall short of the mark but keep trying, for all whose faith is shaky and spotty but still discernable somewhere deep inside, for all who sometimes forget how to communicate but remain in communion.  In other words, a place for saints.

I believe in the communion of saints.

I suppose the term, communion of saints is outdated.  It’s hard in 2023 to know just what that is.  Maybe it’d be more clear if we called it a fellowship of sinners.  It would mean the same thing.  But there’s something I like about the phrase.  Maybe it’s that the common meanings we have for those words aren’t really so far off.

Communion, after all, has everything to do with this monthly meal, this bread and cup.  It’s here, perhaps more than anywhere else, that we attempt to see and touch the one tie that truly does bind us together: the presence of Christ.  And especially on this communion Sunday – this time that is hallowed by remembering in love those who have blazed the trail before us, perhaps today we discover more than at any other time the power of communion.

And saints?  Well, there is, in fact, something extraordinary that happens to each of us as we partake of this communion.  As part of each other, and part of Christ, we become far more than we are.  That’s what I believe the author of this letter to the Hebrews was trying to get across.  He didn’t seem to have a very firm grasp of scripture, but he made some good points, nonetheless.  He says, “someone has testified somewhere, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?  You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,  subjecting all things under their feet.’” Well, the one who said that somewhere is the Psalmist who authored Psalm 8 (our other scripture reading this morning).  Then, a little later, he ties that reading to what he calls the words of Jesus: “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’” Actually, those words aren’t from Jesus, they’re from Psalm 22.  But the point is a good one anyway.

I think he’s telling the Hebrews (and us) that because we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, part of the divine family, if you will, embraced in the mind of the Eternal, we can claim that bold title of being “a little lower than the angels,” and “crowned with glory and honor.”  Now, I know most of us don’t usually feel like angels, or like we’re wearing crowns of any kind (let alone of glory and honor).  But when we enter into communion with one another, and communion with Christ, the power of our union remakes us.

I knew a man who was on the verge of throwing his life away.  He was an alcoholic, not much involved in the life of the church – his wife was a member.  He showed up drunk at a church function and created an awful scene.  In time, he developed cirrhosis of the liver and barely survived.  But through it all, the church never gave up on him.  That blessed communion of saints just surrounded him with love and understanding.  And he never forgot that.  When he finally got into AA, started recovery, and began to put his life back together, he decided to join the church.  He went on to become chair of the board of deacons.  Through his leadership, energy, and dedication he contributed mightily to that church’s ministry.

I believe in the communion of saints.

Our communion of love transforms us, even with all our warts and blemishes, into more than we are, perhaps even “lights” for the world, “salt” for the earth, “saints” even (without the halos).

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