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.

The Bigger Picture (Revelation 7:9-17)

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The Block is a ‘reality’ TV show where contestants move in to and renovate a building over three months. Each week they refurbish one area of the building. People who watch the show get glimpses of what the contestants are doing during the week. Then, on Sunday evening, the results of their hard work and sleepless nights are revealed for all to see.

This is what it means to reveal something: to show or to make known what has been hidden.

We can think of the Revelation of John in a similar way. This book of the Bible is often debated and misunderstood. Essentially, it gives us a glimpse of God’s finished work of salvation through Jesus. That’s what the Greek word apocalypse means: to reveal something that has been hidden. Like the contestants on The Block, there are times when we can catch glimpses of God’s work in the world, but it’s hard to know how it all ties together and what the finished result will look like. We can think of the vision God gave John recorded in Revelation as God’s great reveal. In passages such as Revelation 7:9-17, God pulls back the curtain, removes the veil, or raises the cloche to show us the end result of Jesus’ redemptive work for us in his life, death and resurrection.

Biblical scholars tend to interpret Revelation in two main ways. Some read it as God revealing to us what will happen in the future. A lot of effort can be spent trying to decipher the clues in Revelation as people try to work out when the events in John’s vision will happen in an attempt to predict when Jesus will return and the world as we know it will end. So far none of these predictions have been accurate, so I wonder whether people who try to work out a Revelation timeline for the end of the world have missed the point. If we read Revelation as God revealing the future, maybe what he’s trying to show us is what our eternal future will be, and then to understand our lives now from that perspective.

As John looks at the ‘vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb’ (v9a NLT) he sees people who are clothed in the purity and holiness of Jesus, signified by the white robes, who are waving the palm branches of victory. Most biblical scholars agree that Revelation was written to Christians suffering persecution to encourage and strengthen them in their faith. We can also read it from the point of view of people who are struggling through life, battling challenges of various kinds, who can sometimes feel overwhelmed by what we’re trying to cope with. The message is still the same. If we read Revelation as God showing us the future, we will not be overcome by the trials and tribulations we experience in this world. No matter what we might be facing or struggling with, our eternal destination is to be with this crowd of people that no one can number, praising God for his saving love in Jesus which gives us victory.

The second way biblical scholars interpret Revelation is that God is revealing to us what is happening right now. We can easily focus in our lives on what’s happening to us here and now and lose sight of the bigger picture of God’s saving love. In Revelation, God gives us this bigger-picture perspective on how God is at work around us in ways we can’t always see.

If we read Revelation from this point of view, we can see God’s holy people from every time and place uniting with us in worship. This is the ‘huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith’ (NLT) we read about in Hebrews 12:1 who are cheering us on as we continue our earthly journey towards our heavenly home. They are God’s holy people who have completed their lives on earth and now worship before God’s throne in heaven. We are still connected with them because we are worshiping the same God, the same Lamb John describes is the one who gives us his body and blood to us in the Lord’s Supper, and the same Spirit of God who breathes life eternal into both them and us.

One reason some Christians call the Lord’s Supper Holy Communion is that the gift of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of this meal brings us into communion with both our Holy God and his holy people. The Holy Spirit transcends time and space to unite us with God along with our sisters and brothers in the faith who have passed on before us through faith in Jesus. In John’s vision, God reveals to us that we are part of a much greater reality than our small group which gathers in worship on Sunday mornings. God is showing us that we participate with the whole people of God of every time and place in our worship, and we join with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven in singing God’s praises.

This is why Revelation 7:9-17 is such a good reading for the Festival of All Saints. Not only is God showing us that are included with his holy people who are clothed in the purity and holiness of Jesus and who carry the palm branches of victory, but also that we are united with all those who have gone before us in the faith. That includes all of our loved ones who have died in faith and are now among that vast crowd before the heavenly throne. They may have gone ahead of us to glory, but because the Holy Spirit unites us all in the life of Jesus, then we are united as God’s holy people and we are one in worship.

One of the reasons I watch The Block is because I’m curious to see how all the work the contestants put in comes together in the reveal. I love the book of Revelation because it shows us how God’s work of salvation in Jesus and the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit come together to unite God’s holy people of every time and place into one worshiping community. As we celebrated the Festival of All Saints, we catch a glimpse of our identity as God’s holy, victorious people, as well as the bigger picture of the communion of saints from every time and place who are united in worshiping our saving God.