Article for November edition of The Hillside Messenger
The topic for this article is the communion of the saints, which we particularly remember on All Saints’ Day every year, as the Prayer Book Collect for All Saints’ Day illustrates:
O ALMIGHTY God, who has knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
– Collect for All Saints’ Day, p. 256, The Book of Common Prayer, 1928
The Collect is a useful starting point in considering the doctrine of the communion of the saints, in that in it the Almighty God is credited with uniting all His chosen people “in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body” of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The whole family of God has come into being by God’s will and creative power, and in God’s eyes, there is only one communion and fellowship of the faithful, who make up the mystical body of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
What then are we to make of all the divisions in the visible Church on earth? While these divisions have come into being in the course of history, some of them being based on legitimate differences in doctrine, human sinfulness and the imperfections of human understanding have played their part. Though the multiplicity of divisions in the visible Church can be a source of despondency, the doctrine of the communion of the saints holds great hope for all believers. Why is this so?
Firstly, it is Almighty God who has brought His people to new birth by the Holy Spirit, through the living and enduring Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose Gospel they have heard, believed and received. God is the master builder of his household, the Church, in which he lives through Christ, and indwells every member, causing each one to grow, and the whole Body of Christ to grow into a holy temple (Ephesians 2:19-22). Every Christian has his place in the mystical Body of the Lord Jesus Christ through the redeeming death of Christ, and the creative power of God at work through the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, it is the life of the Holy Spirit continually given to all the saints as they abide, or dwell, in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 15:1-11), by which they are sustained. It is important that each of us abides, or stays, in the Lord by listening to him, receiving his word, and obeying him. If we do not abide in him, we shall be cast out of the True Vine (the Lord Jesus Christ) and destroyed (John 15:6). Such people will lose their place in the communion of the saints. While we pray for one another and for all, that no-one will lose his salvation, and that everyone who is a believer will have eternal life forever in communion with the Lord Jesus, and while we pray that many more will come to salvation and turn to the Lord, we cannot be sure who will still in the end belong to the communion of the saints. Like St. Peter after breakfast with the Lord at the Sea of Galilee, some of us tend to ask the Lord about our fellow-Christians, “What shall this man do?” (John 21:21). Instead, each one must concentrate on following the Lord, and working out his own salvation.
The doctrine of the communion of the saints includes our belief that all believers, including those who have died, are in, or with, the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore in communion with him. For this reason, St. Paul refers to the Christian dead as those who “sleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14), who will rise from the dead first and will meet the Lord Jesus in the air, with all the faithful who remain alive at Christ’s coming (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Because of the prospect of this extremely joyful meeting with the Lord Jesus, believers should not continue in sorrow concerning any loved ones who have died as believers. Instead, we rejoice because we share with them the glorious hope of the resurrection of the dead.
Thirdly, the communion of the saints inspires Christians on earth to run the great race of the Christian life, laying aside every besetting sin, looking to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith,” and armed with determination to persevere to the end (Hebrews 12:1-2). The examples of the saints’ lives inspire us, the prayers of the saints strengthen us in Christ, and the consciousness of our spiritual unity with all the faithful throughout the world, including those who gladly endure greater trials than we do, is a blessing to us.
Finally, All Saints’ Day gives us an opportunity for reflection on our own faith. Are we satisfied with our devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ? Are we following him as we ought? Can anyone say of any us, “I wish I lived a life as devoted to Christ as he does!” A young child in a Christian school who keeps a notebook of her classmates’ prayer requests, and checks off each answered prayer, can teach us to take intercession for others more seriously. A Christian teacher’s patience, love and gentleness with the young students in her first grade class can inspire us to practice these virtues more effectively. An African parishioner walking miles to church, even when it rains, can surely be an example to us of regular and frequent church attendance. In all aspects of our lives we must prove ourselves to be those who love God sincerely. The Collect for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity is a useful prayer for this purpose:
ALMIGHTY and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service; Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(p. 207, Book of Common Prayer, 1928)
People may want to be remembered for many great achievements, but how about being remembered for practicing Christian virtues, and for showing the love of Christ for which many are inwardly yearning?