A sermon on Colossians 3:1-17 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 17 May 2020
Today we are looking at one of the most difficult lines in the whole Apostles’ Creed. You have to ask yourself, what does it even mean to confess our faith in the communion of saints? I admit that all four of those words are in English. Most of us could probably use them all in a sentence if we had to. But if you asked a regular person what communion is or who are the saints in this particular context, they’d probably get it wrong. And we can’t say we believe in the communion of the saints, if we don’t even know what it is.
Well, before I tell you what it does mean, I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean. Communion here is not Holy Communion. Of course, we can go to church and have Holy Communion and call it Communion, but that’s not what the Creed means here. And the saints are not just the heroes of the faith of the past who now dwell with God in heaven where they wait for the return of Christ for the final judgment and the resurrection. What the Creed means by saints includes those past heroes, but is not limited to them.
So what does it mean? Well communion means “sharing”, it means what we call “fellowship”. And fellowship will need some explaining, but it will do for now. The saints are God’s holy people, sinners who have been sanctified, made holy by the sacrifice of Jesus who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and who are called to be holy. So this is today’s bombshell, you are the saints. It means those who have pledged their faith to Jesus Christ and who belong to him. If you don’t believe me, then remember that the letters of the New Testament were written to the saints who lived in Rome or Corinth or Philippi. Not to dead people who lived in heaven. They were written to the living members of the church. Ordinary, regular folks, just like you, who had their own problems and we know what some of their problems were because Paul wrote about them in his letters.
So the communion of saints that we say we believe in is the fellowship of believers. It is about the love that we share as brothers and sisters in Christ and as members of his holy, universal church.
For example, let’s look at Mark chapter 3. Here we see that the blood relatives of Jesus had lost faith in him. His mother and brothers came to take charge of him, like you’d try to take charge of a toddler having a tantrum or of a dog of its leash, something that can’t be expected or trusted to look after itself. Jesus was told, “Your mother and your brothers are outside.”
And Jesus said, “No. They aren’t. My family is here inside with me.”
He looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’
Jesus calls us his family. Through faith in him we are the children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, and bearers of the Holy Spirit. This is the communion of saints, the fellowship of believers: God is our Father, Jesus is our Saviour, the Holy Spirit is our life, and so we belong to each other and share life’s joys and struggles together. The communion of saints is the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, a bond that is closer than any other relationship by blood, or family, or marriage or any other human institution like work, sporting clubs, service clubs or charities.
This fellowship of believers operates at three different levels. Firstly, at its widest and deepest extent, it unites all Christians from all places and times, whether living or dead. There is only one holy universal church, and every believer belongs to it whether they live in Corowa today, in England a hundred years ago, or in Ethiopia 1900 years ago. Because Jesus defeated death by his resurrection and because the Spirit is the giver of life, then believers who pass away are not lost. They are safe in the everlasting arms of God and they are really and truly waiting for us. The saints in heaven and on earth share the same Lord and the same hope and the same destiny, because not even death can break the tie that binds.
Secondly, the communion of saints unites all Christians living today wherever they live. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot of second cousins I’ve never met. People I’m related to, people I share blood with, but I could walk past them in the street and never know it. In the same way, our fellow Christians around the globe create a large family that we’ve never met.
For example, I’ve been humbled over the last two years that in three out of my daughter Hannah’s four placements the accommodation has been arranged through local churches. Or the times we’ve visited churches on our holidays and been welcomed like long lost friends. Where the kingdom is growing and the gospel is spreading in other parts of the world, that’s good news for all of us. Where Christians are being persecuted for the faith that we practice in peace, that should hurt us all. Because in Christ, we are one, members of the same body.
But thirdly, the most tangible way that the communion of saints is experienced and expressed is in the local congregation. Look at Colossians chapter 3, for example. It’s a passage that reminds us that our hope should affect the way we live. In verse 1 Paul says,
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
We are getting ready to spend an eternity together in heaven so in whatever time that God gives us to live out our lives on earth, is time to start learning the language of heaven which is love. Paul urges us in verses 9 and 10
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
This change of wardrobe, taking off and putting on, describes a change of lifestyle. It means getting rid of an old pattern of behaviour, like we might take off an old coat that is ripped and torn and horribly out of fashion:
sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
You wouldn’t wear jeans to a black tie ball. In the same way that selfishness and self-indulgence is inappropriate for the wedding feast that we’ve been invited to in the new creation. It’s time to get in line with heaven’s dress code. As Paul says,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
It means bearing with each other. It means forgiving each other as the Lord forgave us. Even, as verse 16 puts it, teaching and admonishing each other. In fact, we spent a few weeks last year looking at the one anothers and the each others of the Bible. They are just the Bible’s way of talking about the communion of saints. The fellowship of believers. The tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. Because we belong to each other. We are responsible for each other, just like any other family. It means treating each other the way we’ve been treated. Forgiving as we’ve been forgiven. Loving as we’ve been loved by God. It means following in the example of Jesus, who served us in his death on the cross so that we would serve each other. We are as verse 15 says, members of the one body, so that if you hurt, I hurt, if you rejoice, we all rejoice. It is a unity we express by working together, by serving each other, by praying for each other, by sharing hospitality, by looking out for each other, by learning each other’s names, and by simply wasting time together. It is a unity in Christ that we express by worshipping together.
What we’ve learned during lockdown is that church isn’t something we go to it is something we are part of. So there is no Corowa Presbyterian Church if it never meets together to praise our heavenly Father, to learn from his word, to teach and rebuke and encourage each other in the one thing that we have in common, our faith in Christ. We are the brothers and sisters of Christ The church is a family. So we shouldn’t act like we are strangers.
As we take baby steps to reopening our church building and to restarting physical gatherings, let’s stay connected to each other. Our online services will continue, and while we continue to meet this way our church isn’t closed. Our church will always be open while it’s members open their hearts in Christian love for each other.
In conclusion, we’ve gone a small way towards explaining what it means to believe in the communion of saints. May I encourage you then to practice the communion of saints that you say you believe in.