In the Apostle’s Creed, we say we believe in “the communion of saints.” What does that mean?
We first have to define communion and saints. Both words have more than one definition, and in both cases the definition in the Creed is not the most familiar one. When we hear the word ‘communion’ we might think first of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but that is not what this is about. The dictionary also defines communion as ‘a religious or spiritual fellowship,’ or, a congregation. It is this fellowship that the Creed speaks of, and the word communion there is very much like another word we use more often in our everyday speech– community. A congregation is like a ‘community of believers.’
But the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t say ‘community of believers;’ it says ‘communion of saints.’ So the next word we need to define is ‘saints.’ When we think of saints, we think of St. John, St. Paul, St. Francis, and all those other important people of the Bible and church history that have been honored by that special title. That is saint with a capitals ‘S.’ But saint with a small ‘s’ means all Christians. It is like when we sing “O Lord I want to be in that number, When the saints go marching in,” meaning when all of God’s people go marching into heaven.
The dictionary defines saint as “an extremely virtuous and holy person,” and if you think that does not fit you, you are probably right. Sinners that we are, the word would not describe any of us. It doesn’t even fit St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, or any of the other great saints of the faith. The name doesn’t fit anyone, except that because of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and God’s forgiveness of all our sins on account of that sacrifice— because of that, we do stand before God as forgiven and righteous and holy, and, as saints. Therefore, because of your faith in Jesus, you ‘will be in that number when the saints go marching in.’
So when a congregation says in the Creed on a Sunday morning that they believe in the ‘communion of saints,’ they are, in one sense, saying they believe in themselves; they believe in the community of believers gathered right then and there. In the Creed that phrase comes shortly after we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, so what we are really saying is that we believe in the ways the Holy Spirit works in and through this community of believers.
The communion of saints is, or course, also much larger than that, including all Christians, all around the world, and even throughout all time. But our primary Christian community is the one we gather with each week. And what we say in that phrase of the Creed is we believe the Holy Spirit works in our hearts not only through the Word and the Sacraments, but also through the influence of and fellowship with other Christians.
Martin Luther listed three ways that God works in us and he called these three ways the Means of Grace. And these three ways that God works are: #1) through his Word, both written and spoken; #2) through the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; and, #3) through that which Luther called “the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren;” fellow Christians conversing with each other and bearing each others burdens. Those are the sorts of things that go on in a congregation in addition to the regular worship service, and, says Luther, in such ‘conversation and consolation’ the Holy Spirit is working. (continued…)
Galatians 6:2 — Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Hebrews 10:24-25 — Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
I John 1:17 — If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
John 13:34-35 — (Jesus said), “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
PRAYER FOR ONE’S CONGREGATION:
Almighty and everlasting God, who governs all things in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear our supplications, and grant unto this parish all things that are needful for its spiritual welfare. Strengthen and increase the faithful; visit and relieve the sick; rouse the careless; restore the fallen and penitent; remove all hindrances to the advancement of your truth; and bring all to be of one heart and mind within the fold of thy Holy Church; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
—Service Book and Hymnal, 1958, Augsburg Publishing House
Louis Armstrong and his band perform When the Saints Go Marching In: