Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
We’re going to start the sermon today with a few trivia questions. Let’s see what you know:
What do you call a group of cows? (A herd of cows.)
What do you call a group of geese? (A gaggle of geese.)
What do you call a group of lions? (A pride of lions.)
So here’s one more for you: What do you call a group of saints?
The phrase “communion of saints” first turned up around the 5th century in a version of our oldest creed, the Apostle’s creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting
Last week we talked about the holiness of the church—not that it is perfect, but that it is dedicated to God, set apart for God’s service. And so the same is true of the saints—not that they are perfect people, but that they are people God has chosen for God’s purpose.
In fact, the word we translate “saints” is simply the noun form of the adjective holy. I believe in the communion of the holies. The holy ones, the holy things. We believe in the Holy Spirit, who infuses a church and a people with her own holiness.
We’re not sure exactly why this phrase was added to the apostles’ creed in the 5th century, given how closely it echoes the phrase before it; but more than one scholar has wondered if it wasn’t a reaction to the increasing stratification of “holiness” within the church. When Paul founded his churches in the first century, he proclaimed that there were no dividing lines between us—that we all had different gifts to contribute to the one body of Christ. Yet as the church matured, certain Christians began to be lifted up as more holy than the rest—preachers, bishops, martyrs, hermits, monastics, miracle-workers. In a twist of fate, many of those people are the folks we think of now when we hear the word saint, but to say I believe in the communion of the saints is actually to remind ourselves that we all have a share in holiness. God’s holiness is not just for them, those perfect, shiny, extraordinary people. God’s holiness is for us, all who have communion in the Lord—or in other words, all who are one in Christ.
Scholar of history Justo Gonzalez writes that there are three meanings embedded in the phrase “the communion of the saints,” which, remember, can literally be translated “the sharing of the holies.”
First, that we share in fellowship with believers in all times and places. You may hold membership in Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church—and I am glad that you do!—but you are bound in faith to God’s holy people all over this world, and not only those living today but everyone who has come before us and everyone who will come after. That is a joy and a challenge both—we cannot cut off other believers, no matter how much easier it might be to draw up the bridges on our own little group, our own little way of doing faith. To say “I believe in the communion of the saints” is to acknowledge that we are all bound up in each other, like it or not.
Second, to believe in the sharing of the holies also indicates something more practical: that we are always ready to share with those who are in need. The Book of Acts suggests that the first Christians, astonishingly, shared everything with each other, even selling all their property to make sure there was enough to go around. In his letters, Paul is constantly asking his churches to send him money to go towards the “needs of the saints.” In a world where wealth and goods and property were tightly controlled along family lines, Christians were astonishing revolutionaries. They were a sharing people. We still are.
And third and finally, to say that we believe in the sharing of the holies can also be read to say we believe in sharing holy things—worship, communion, baptism, love, hope. These holy things are not the special privilege of a few Christians. They belong to us all.
I love this broadening of the phrase. The communion of the saints is the group of people who share—first of food and shelter, what we need to live; next of worship and ritual and faith; and finally of our very selves, until we realize just how interconnected we all are.
The saints of God are not perfect people; just people who are willing to open up their hearts and hands a little, to be part of this web of God’s holiness. Our scripture today is one of my favorites, because it so beautifully describes what it is like to be part of the communion of saints. It’s to go all in on this faith thing. It’s to open ourselves to transformation—even without knowing exactly how we will end up. It’s to recognize that we have gifts that others need. It’s to recognize that others have gifts that we need. It’s to strive to live with a set of values the world may laugh at, just because we know that even when we fail, the trying pleases God.
I have known reams of saints in my day—dozens if not hundreds of men and women who have shown me God’s grace. Not one of them was perfect. Not one of them was holier than another, and certainly not holier than thou. All of them messed up at times; all of them disappointed someone; all of them failed. But instead of cutting themselves off from their communities, instead of withdrawing into little caves of guilt and shame, they got brave, and they reached back out, and worked to mend the ties that bind. They didn’t give up on themselves. They didn’t give up on others. And they didn’t give up on God. No matter what went wrong.
After all, glass is most beautiful when its stained. And God’s light glows most richly through imperfect people, trying and failing and trying again, just like us.
Yesterday we celebrated one of the saints of this church, Elmira Scott. And just as we were finishing up the reception for her service, I got a text that another of our saints had entered into glory, Ruth Schweitzer. Neither of those women were perfect. And yet in just the few years I’ve known them, I’ve seen God’s light glowing through them. And I will miss that glimpse of God, because each person gives us a glimpse of God no one else can. Each person is a stained glass window into God’s love, with their own unique design. I’ll miss seeing God through Elmira and through Ruth.
Yet I believe in the communion of the saints, and what that means is that we are connected by a web of love so strong not even death can break it. And so when we know—we know, deep in our bones—that Elmira and Ruth aren’t lost to us. They’re still here; still here in the echo of the music, still here in the quiet of the prayers, still here at this communion table. Because when we take communion, we’re not just sharing a meal with the people in the pews. We’re sitting at the dinner table one more time with everyone we ever loved, and who ever loved us.
The Reverend Lindsay Mack is a Lutheran pastor. Lutheran churches frequently have a communion rail, and I will admit I have never liked that, because it feels like communion rails are there to keep me away from the table and from Jesus who I am so, so hungry for. But Rev. Mack showed me how the communion rail isn’t a wall to keep us apart, but a connecter to hold us together. This is her story.
“When I was a little girl at Grace Lutheran Church in Springfield, IL, when we celebrated communion at church, I would go up with my family and kneel at the communion rail on these plush red velvet cushions. And I’d wait there for the pastor and communion assistants to hand out bread and blessings and tiny cups of juice. The communion rail at Grace was this curved semicircle in front of the alter table. It was many years later when I learned that these curved communion rails around the front of an altar were thought to be completed by this invisible second semi-circle around the back of the table where All The Saints that had gone before us also communed with us. So in this sense, the communion table, I learned, is this big, wide, crowded table full of saints and sinners and ancestors and decedents, angels and archangels and cherubim and seraphim, and also all of those [who have died that we love and miss so], together with all of us—all crowded together around the table with our with our stories and joys, and struggles and griefs, gathered around God’s table.”
I love that image, of the invisible half circle of the rail, connecting the entire communion of saints, seen and unseen. And when I come to this table, our table, sometimes I picture extra chairs here, chairs just waiting for Dan to take his seat, or Eloise, or my grandma Margaret. Sometimes, when I break the bread, I can feel them surrounding me—whispering and laughing, knitting and whittling, singing and chatting, cheering me on while I am here, and getting ready to welcome me home when at last it is my turn, and they set out the empty chair for me.
In the communion of saints we do something extraordinary. While the whole world takes sides, we are called to join a circle.
I’m going to ask you now to take just a minute to close your eyes, and to picture your saints; your imperfect, holy, trying and failing and trying again saints, here in these chairs, here at this table, here in this holy place. I’ll mark the time.
O blest communion, fellowship divine
we feebly struggle, they in glory shine,
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine
 González, Justo L. The Apostles’ Creed for Today. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. Kindle edition.