Whenever we say the creed—whether it’s the Nicene Creed of the Eucharist or the Apostles’ Creed of Baptism—we say that “we believe in … the communion of saints.” So these words cross our lips frequently. But, of all the articles of the creed, I suspect that the one about the communion of saints is probably the least noticed and least understood by the majority of Christians. So let’s unpack it a little bit.
First, who are “the saints”? Let’s start with who they’re not. The saints are not people who were perfect in the way they lived their lives. They were not sinless people—at least not in this life, although we do give them that title “Saint” before their names because we believe—or suspect, at least—that they have now attained a state of sinlessness—in other words, perfect union with Christ—and are able to endure the presence of God without being turned to dust. Nor were the saints, when they walked this earth, weirdos, religious freaks, “goody two-shoes” types who were “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good,” the sort of people nobody can directly find fault with but everybody loves to hate anyway.
So, again, who are the saints? The saints are real, flesh and blood, Christian persons. The saints are people who ate and drank and slept and sinned and had dreams and ambitions. The saints are Christians who knew grief and disappointments, who loved and laughed and suffered and died—all pretty ordinary stuff! But there is, of course, a sense in which the saints were not ordinary at all, and that’s why we give them special recognition. They were uncommonly, heroically, devoted to Christ, and their devotion showed in the way they lived their lives, even if it was just in the manner of their dying, bearing witness to the gospel with their own blood, as martyrs.
I don’t know whether it’s just that I’ve recently entered the seventh decade of my life and feel like I have a long perspective on societal evolution, or whether our society has indeed changed, but it seems to me that we’re a lot more cynical than we used to be. We don’t have heroes anymore. Since Watergate, back in my early adulthood, we don’t have political heroes. And since steroids, a more recent memory, we don’t have sports heroes. Heroism is just in short supply all around. Yet, if we try hard enough, we can think of teachers whose impact on our lives we can still feel years and decades later. As we age, it often becomes easier to see the positive impact that our parents had on who we are today. Or we may be aware of friends and neighbors and colleagues and business associates who have set an example and provide a pattern for us to admire and emulate. So, we may have to dig a little more deeply than earlier generations did, but we do have our heroes.
Well, the saints are the heroes and heroines of our Christian family. They are the ones whose names should come up as we sit around the campfire, or the kitchen table, or the parish hall coffee hour. The saints are the ones whose stories we should tell our children and grandchildren in order to inspire them to live lives of faith and devotion. The saints give us an example of how to live effectively as Christians in this world. They provide a pattern for us to emulate: in the way they loved, in the way they prayed, in the way they obeyed the call of Christ, in the way they served the world and the church and the church’s Lord, and, quite often, in the way they died.
The saints inspire us. They keep us company in the valley of our spiritual journeys, because they’ve been in valleys themselves. If we study their lives, we know something about those valleys, and can recognize them as being very similar to our own. By seeing that the saints were given God’s mercy and grace to see them through their time in the valley, our faith is increased that we also will receive mercy and grace to help in time of need, and we have the strength and confidence to persevere.
The saints encourage us in our journey toward joining them. Our destiny is to be with them, enjoying a vision of God’s glory that is unclouded by sin or suffering or fear. They see God face to face, which is the ultimate fulfillment of human existence. As Anglicans, with one foot in the Catholic world and one foot—or a couple of toes, perhaps, at Redeemer!—in the Protestant world, we are usually reserved about using the word “pray” with respect to our relationship to the saints. We’re instinctively a little queasy about praying to anybody but God. Our reluctance, however, is probably less theological than it is linguistic. Three hundred years ago, one might meet a stranger on the street and say, “I pray thee, dost thou have the time?” So, if we understand the word “pray” in the sense of simply asking for something, something as casual as asking a stranger for the time of day, we should be able to wrap our minds around asking the saints, the communion of God’s holy ones enjoying his unfiltered presence—asking the saints to hold us in their own prayers to the same God whom we worship and adore on earth. We “pray” to the saints and they pray for us and we all pray to God together, because, as our collect tells us today, we have been knit together in one communion and fellowship.
The saints also call us into the “full measure and stature” of the identity in Christ that we were given in the sacrament of baptism. The covenant that God establishes with us in baptism, sealed in water and oil and articulated in the vows we make, and which we ratify when we’re confirmed, is a pretty radical statement. God promises to wash away our sins, adopt us as his children, graft us into the body of his Son, give us new life in this world and raise us to eternal life in the next. In acknowledging those gifts, we promise to love and serve him faithfully, to serve him in everyone we meet, to put the values of justice and righteousness before our own selfish interests. There are many points along the journey when we are tempted to weasel out of those vows, to hope God wasn’t really listening when we made them, or didn’t notice that our fingers were crossed. The saints are there to tell us, “Bad idea. Don’t wander off the road. Keep your eye on the prize. Trust us, it’s worth the effort!”
So…do you have your heroes in the communion of saints? If you do, ask them to pray for us as we’re gathered here today in worship. If not, then go get some! There are plenty to go around. All holy men and women of God, pray for us. Amen.