The Communion of Saints (Ephesians 1:11-23)

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Since the early centuries of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus have said the words of the Apostles’ Creed together. This confession of faith serves God’s people in a few ways. It outlines the basic content of what we believe as Jesus’ disciples. It makes a declaration to the world of who we are and who we believe God is. The Apostles’ Creed also unites us with people around the world and across time who share our common faith. Confessing the Creed signifies that we belong to a community of faith that transcends time, space and denominational differences. It unites all Christians as one Church.

There is a lot in the Apostles’ Creed that we can reflect on and learn from. As we celebrated the Festival of All Saints on Sunday, there was one part in the Third Article that I thought it would be good to think about more: The Communion of Saints. It can easy to say the words of the Creed without giving much thought to what they mean. When we confess our faith in the Communion of Saints, however, there is a lot of depth in those few words.

Firstly, the Communion of Saints is about our identity. Most people that I talk to think of saints as people who have done a lot of good things in their lives. in a common way of thinking, sainthood is something we can aspire to and achieve by doing a lot of ‘good’ things. However, the New Testament gives us a very different idea of what a saint is. Six letters of St Paul begin by addressing the recipients of those letters as ‘God’s holy people’ or ‘saints’ (see Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2). Paul explains in Ephesians 1:11-23 that sainthood or holiness was God’s gift to his readers when they were united with Christ (v11 NLT) through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit (vv13,14 NLT). Here and in other places of the New Testament we can read that God gives us his holiness as a gift through the Holy Spirit on account of what Jesus has done for us in his life, death and resurrection.

Sainthood, or holiness, becomes the foundation of our identity in Christ. No matter what the world, other people or our own hearts might say to us or about us, we can always come back to God’s promise to us that we are his holy children through faith in Jesus. In those times when our sense of identity takes a beating, or when we have a negative view of ourselves, God’s promise to us is that we are saints, his holy people, because of Jesus’ redemptive love for us which makes us new and clean.

This leads us on to the second important aspect of the Communion of Saints. If God has made each of us saints by giving us the holiness of Jesus through his Spirit, and if he has done the same thing for every other believer, then we are united as one in our faith. This is what Paul means when he writes, ‘the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself’ (Eph 1:23 NLT).

The Christian church, the body of Christ, is the community of God’s holy people which exists across time and space and into eternity. The words communion and community are closely connected, so we can think of the communion of saints as the community of God’s holy people. This community is the place where we can grow as God’s holy people as we encounter the reality of God’s love and grace in relationship with other believers. Following Jesus was never meant to be an individual exercise. Jesus’ command to love one another only makes sense when it is lived out in relationship with others. The communion of saints, then gives us a context to not only love other holy children of God, but to be loved by them so we can live together in the reality of Jesus’ life-changing grace.

This kind of community is vitally important in our time and place. I’ve heard it said a number of times that our digital age has made us more connected than ever before, but at the same time people are lonelier than ever before. People in the developed world are starved for real community where we can extend and encounter grace, love, forgiveness, hope, joy, and so much more through meaningful, Christ-centred relationships. Confessing our faith in the Communion of Saints means that we can find a place where we belong in a community of God’s holy people which transcends our differences and unites us as the living body of the risen Jesus in the world.

This brings me to a third aspect of the Communion of Saints. As the community of God’s holy people, we have a new purpose for our existence. We live in a broken world where people are alone and hurting, relationships are easily fractured, where virtual or fake attempts at community result in people feeling more isolated and lost. As God gifts us with his community of holy people, we have something good to give the people of our world. The Communion of Saints is also God’s gift to the world so that people can find a sense of who they are, where they fit and what they’re here for in relationship with God through their relationship with us.

The Communion of Saints is the community of God’s holy people that he calls into existence to praise and glorify him (Eph 1:14 NLT) by being part of his redemptive mission in the world. We can praise and glorify God by singing songs in worship, but we also praise and glorify God for his saving love in Jesus by living as God’s holy people in the world, bringing his goodness, grace and healing love to the people around us. God gifts his community of holy people in the world with the purpose of living in ways that are made holy through faith and love, and embracing others in the community of God’s holy people so they can find their identity, belonging and purpose through faith in Jesus and in relationship with us.

The next time you confess the Apostles’ Creed, I encourage you to keep some of these things in mind. There is a lot of depth in these few words. They talk about who we are as people who are gifted with Jesus’ holiness through his Spirit, where we belong as the community of God’s holy people, and what we’re here for as we praise and glorify God by embracing others in the community of holy people. The Communion of Saints is God’s gift to us. It is also his challenge to us. As we grow in relationship with him and with his people in this community, we also have the opportunity to gift God’s community of holy people to others.

Outsiders (Mark 7:24-37)

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One of the games we play on our youth ministry nights is to place some hula-hoops on the floor and play some music. When the music stops, the young people need to stand in one of the hoops. If a person can’t fit in a hoop, or if people fall out of the hoops, then they’re out of the game.

This game illustrates what we often do in our relationships with others. We can set up lines or boundaries that determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ like the hula hoop in the game. Those lines can be a lot of different things, such the way people look, how they dress, what they own, where they live, or even what football team they support. As I was growing up in the church, I saw some hard and fast lines being drawn based on the denomination of the church people attended, their theological perspective or the way they interpreted the Bible. I’ve even known people who have felt excluded from churches because their surname didn’t fit in with the church’s cultural origins.

People in Jesus’ day did exactly the same thing. In the time the New Testament was written, there were very hard and fast rules about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ based on their race and their observance of their religious laws. If people were descended from Abraham with a family history that proved that connection, and if they kept the rules and religious traditions, then they were considered to be in God’s chosen people. If not, then they were seen to be outside of God’s love and blessing.

The stories from Mark 7:24-37 are great examples of how Jesus crossed the lines the religious leaders of his time constructed to extend God’s grace and love to people who were considered ‘outsiders’. The first is a woman from the area of Syrian Phoenicia whose daughter was possessed by a demon. The second was a man from another non-Jewish area who was deaf and had a speech impediment. Both of these were considered outsiders for a whole range of reasons, but Jesus crossed the lines people had put up to give them freedom, healing and wholeness, and to include them in the Kingdom of God.

To what extent do we also construct lines or boundaries that distinguish between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’? Our culture talks about valuing tolerance and inclusivity, but I still hear a lot of talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’ from both the church and wider society. We can set up barriers that separate us from others based on our age, gender, cultural background or opinions about almost any topic. We still tend to construct lines that divide the insiders from the outsiders around issues in the church such as worship, ordination or even moral standards. We might be critical of the religious people of Jesus’ time, and we might like to think that we are inclusive and tolerant, but to one degree or another don’t we all set up boundaries between the insiders and outsiders?

Jesus deliberately crossed geographical, religious, socioeconomic and even moral boundaries in order to bring the life-giving and liberating grace and love of God to those who needed it the most. He met outsiders on their territory so they could find a sense of value and self-worth through their connection with him. When Jesus was crucified, he identified with everyone who has ever felt like or been judged as an outsider. When Jesus was nailed to the cross and left there to die, he became the ultimate outsider as he suffered a form of death reserved for the worst of the worst of Roman society. Jesus didn’t only meet outsiders during his ministry. Jesus became an outsider in order to bring all the outsiders of the world into a new relationship with God and make them insiders in the Kingdom of God.

This is so important for us because, according to the religious view of Jesus’ day, we are outsiders. I don’t know of anyone in our church who is Jewish by birth. None of us keep the religious law that the people of Jesus’ day were expected to keep. We can’t even keep the Ten Commandments the way we should. We like to think that we are good people, but when we construct lines that divide ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’ in any way, we fail to love each other the way Jesus teaches us to. We were all outside of a relationship with God until Jesus met us as the ultimate outsider, gathered us into himself and carried us as members of his body into a new relationship with God as our loving heavenly Father, a new identity as God’s children, and a new place to belong in the Kingdom of God, (see Ephesians 2:11-18).

As people who have been on the out but have now been brought in to a new life through Jesus, we are his loving and grace-giving presence among those whom the world considers outsiders. Jesus calls us to break through the barriers that are constructed to separate the insiders from the outsiders, no matter what those barriers may be.

This week, think about the ways in which you might consider people to be either ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. Is it age, gender, cultural background or morality? Do our views on worship, ordination, interpretation of the Bible or faith generally divide us? If so, then break through whatever barriers might come between those who are considered ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Worship at a different time or place next week. Talk to someone who is one or two generations younger or older than yourself. Make contact with someone who you might not have seen for a while because of their moral or lifestyle choices and ask how they’re doing. In one way or another, recognize the boundaries that we, our church or our society have constructed, and spend some time with a person who exists on the other side of those boundaries.

Because when we break through the boundaries and sit with the outsiders, we just might find Jesus is already there.