October 11, 2008

The Communion of the Saints

NOTE: This sermon is part of a series on the Apostles' Creed. For more information on the Creed see the article Apostles' Creed on Wikipedia.

I Believe in the Communion of Saints

By David S. Dittmer


As many of you know, if not all, that we are going through a study of the Apostles’ Creed. This creed is a brief statement of some of the core beliefs of the Christian faith that has been around since the very earliest days of the church.  It is a summary that is much loved and has been taught over and over.  In fact, one of my heroes, Martin Luther once wrote:
Though I am an old Doctor of Divinity, to this day I have not got beyond the children's learning—the Ten Commandments, the Belief (by which he meant this very creed), and the Lord's Prayer; and these I understand not so well as I should, though I study them daily, praying with my son John and my daughter Magdalen.[1]
There is much in this creed of value, and we could all benefit from the careful study of the truths that it contains.  So, for the benefit of all those present, let us recite The Creed together and begin tonight's message on the Communion of Saints:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
    the Creator of heaven and earth,
    and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
    born of the Virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
    and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
    whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and life everlasting.
Last week we covered the line in the Apostles’ Creed which says “I believe… in the holy catholic church.” What we learned was that the truth that that line teaches us is that all true believers in Christ from all times and places are united in one universal church. This church is made up of those people that are under the Lordship of Christ and who have had the penalty of their sins paid for by Christ’s atoning death on the cross. This church has been set apart from the world by God and for His purposes.
When I began studying the statement that we are going to be covering tonight, I realized that in many ways it is just a restatement of the previous clause. So we are going to talk about some of the same stuff that we did last week, but we are going to take it a little bit further than what we did. Not only are we going to be talking about the unity of all believers in Christ, but we are going to be talking about what the out-workings of that in the Christians life: namely that we should be employing our gifts for the up-building of the body, which necessitates a regular meeting for discipleship and worship.

Who or What is a Saint?

So, what is a “saint,” since this line of the Creed is talking about the communion of saints? When I was growing up, I thought saints were these super holy-men (or women) who were constantly doing miracles and such. I thought that these were not ordinary men and women, but people who had been especially gifted by God. After I became a Christian and actually started to read my Bible, I realized that this was not the case, especially reading Paul’s letters that we have in the New Testament.
With the exception of the letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, all of Paul’s letters are sent to a church in a particular town or district. A good number of these letters are addressed in the following manner: “to the saints who are in Ephesus,[2]” or “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi,[3]” or “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.[4]” Now let’s think about this for a minute. If these letters are intended for the entire church, and if these letters are also addressed to the saints at those churches, this must mean that all the believers at those churches are saints.
A prime example of this is in the greeting in the first letter to the Corinthians, which says “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…[5]” There is an important parallel in this verse. This parallel is between “the church of God in Corinth” and “those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” When a parallel occurs, what is happening is that the author is saying the same thing, just in a different manner. In this case, saying “to the church of God at Corinth” and “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus,” is just two different ways of saying the same thing. So, what is the implication? It is that the people of the church at Corinth are a group of people that have been sanctified in Jesus.
Again, you might ask, why does it matter that they were sanctified? What does that have to do with them being saints? Good question. In the original language, Greek, these two words – saint and sanctified - essentially come from different forms of the same word. This word means “holy.” The verb, “to sanctify” means “to make holy;” while the adjective, “saint” means “a holy person.” So, the people at Corinth have been made holy in Christ Jesus, so they are holy people, they are saints.
The next short phrase in verse two clarifies things even further. It says “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (ESV).” However, I like the way the New American Standard Bible renders this phrase:[6] “saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This re-affirms the sainthood of all the believers in the church of Corinth, but adds an extra component that is helpful to us. Not only are these believers at Corinth saints, but so too is every person who “[call] on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That is helpful to us because we can say, now, that these churches that are written to in the New Testament are not special cases. We can say that every person that calls on the name of Jesus, everywhere, in every time, are holy people. They are saints.

What Does Communion[7] Mean?

Now, since we are talking about the communion of saints, what does communion mean? Interestingly enough, this was the part that I had the toughest time with when preparing this message. I was thinking about it and what it meant, and the only time that I can think that I have ever really used this word is as a synonym for the Lord’s Supper. While that is a possible meaning, I didn’t and still don’t think that is truly what is meant.
As always, when looking at this simple phrase, I looked at the original language behind it and the biblical texts from which the concept was drawn. The word that is translated here can also be translated as “association,” “fellowship,” or “close relationship.” Okay, but what does that mean? Its most basic meaning is to share or have things in common. However, there is a sense of intimacy to it, so that this word is also used to describe the relationship between a husband and wife. So, with that in mind, let’s move on and look at some of the passages where this word is used.
The first of these passages that I would like us to look at is Acts 2:42-47.
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
In the book of Acts, this passage follows right after Pentecost, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and it gives us a really good picture of what the early church was like. It starts in verse 42 with a simple list of what the early believers devoted themselves to, and then the rest of the passage builds upon that.
So in verse 42 there are four things that the early believers devoted themselves too, they are: 1) the Apostles’ teachings, 2) the fellowship, 3) the breaking of bread, and 4) prayers. The main one of these that I want to focus on is fellowship, because, in the original language, it is the same word that is translated as communion in “the communion of saints”.
If we think back to the meaning of communion, or fellowship that I gave just a minute ago, and apply it here, what does it mean? “They devoted themselves to… the sharing…” The sharing of what? We have to look to the rest of the passage to find that out.
Starting in verse 44 it says that believers “were together and had all things in common.” In other words, they spent time together; they shared their belongings amongst each other. Just from this, this group of people would have looked more like a close knit family than a religious group.
In verse 45 it says that this group of believers were “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all as they had a need.” This reinforces the idea of this group looking more like a family. This group of people cared for each other so much, that if someone was hurting financially, they would sell their own possessions to meet that need. Now, that’s what I would call love. How many of us would respond in the same manner? I’m not sure I would, much to my shame. I am generally too concerned about what I don’t have that I think I need to worry about what others truly do need.
In verse 46 it says that they “day by day, [attended] the temple together and [broke] bread in their homes, and received their food with glad and generous hearts.” Once again, this reinforces the idea that this group was very much like a healthy family. They wanted to spend time together. They met daily to go to the temple. In other words, they would go to their equivalent of church on a daily basis. They would go and pray together and study the teachings of the Apostles together. There was just a lot of togetherness. How many of us find it hard to make it to church services once or twice a week? We should be like these early believers, where they were coming together on a daily basis to study God’s Word and to encourage each other to grow deeper in their faith. We have a hard enough time doing that within our own families, let alone doing it with the other members of our church.
That wasn’t the only thing either. They would daily “[break] bread together.” They would eat together, have meals together. In our busy world there are a lot of people that can’t even manage to do this with their families, let alone with members of their church. This tells me a couple of things. For one, people just need to slow down. We have so much on our plate most of the time we can’t even think straight. For you guys it’s homework and sports, maybe theater or some other extra-curricular activity. For adults it is working and making enough money to do things or buy things. I think there are a lot of adults that need to learn to be satisfied with just enough money. Secondly, this tells me that people need to learn to prioritize. After God and seeking His glory, spending time with your family and your church family should be the two most important things in your life. That is why the writer of Hebrews says that we should not neglect meeting together, as some do, in Hebrews 10:25. So yes, that does mean putting church over softball, or football, or (even though it’s not that season yet) basketball.
So, going back to the question that I asked a little bit ago, what was this sharing that the early believers devoted themselves to? It was sharing their lives with one another, growing in faith with one another, and (though it wasn’t mentioned in this passage) spreading the Gospel together. That is the real essence of what the “communion of saints” means.

What is the Basis for the Communion of Saints?

Now that we have talked about what the communion of the saints means, where does it come from. What is the origin or basis of the communion or fellowship amongst believers? For that we need to turn to 1 John 1:1-4, which says:
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-- 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
The key portion of this passage, at least for our subject, is verse 3, which says “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us…” In what I just read to you there is one statement, “that we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you,” followed by the purpose statement “so you too may have fellowship with us…”
To begin answering the question of “what is the basis of the communion of the saints,” let’s begin by looking at that first statement: “that we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” From this, the question begs to be asked, “What is it, that this writer has “seen and heard,” that he feels that he has to proclaim it to this other group of people?”
To begin with, you have to realize who is writing this. It is the Apostle John, one of the first guys to follow after Jesus from the very beginning of His three year ministry. He is also the same guys that wrote what we call “The Gospel According to John” or simply the book of John.
Next you need to look at what comes before this, in this introduction to this first letter of John. He writes “that which was from the beginning.” What beginning is this? It is the beginning, the beginning of everything. So, John is talking about something that has existed from the beginning of time. Next he says that this was something that they had heard, seen, and touched. John identifies this something at the end of the first verse, it is the Word of Life or, if you like, it is Jesus.
In verse two, John affirms for us that Jesus was not only the life, but also the eternal life. I think what is meant by that is that Christ, Himself, was eternal, but that He was and is the source of eternal life. This life was with the Father, but was made manifest to us. Jesus, who had eternally existed with the Father, took on flesh and made His dwelling among us, as John writes in the fourteenth verse of the first chapter of his Gospel.
Now we can move on to verse three, where it says “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” So, it is Jesus and all that He said and did that John is proclaiming to these people. Just as I mentioned earlier, there is a purpose statement that follows this. John is proclaiming this “so that you too may have fellowship with us.” If you hear these truths about Christ and accept them, then you can have fellowship with us. That seems to be the message that John is trying to get across here. Not only that, through the acceptance of these truths you have fellowship with God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Do you hear what that is saying? Our fellowship with the Father, the Son, and with each other is based on certain teachings. There are a couple of implications that come from this. The first is that if you deny these truths, you are outside of the fellowship of God and should be outside of the fellowship of believers. Unfortunately, it is common, I think, that, in an effort not to offend anyone, we allow anyone into our fellowship. If our fellowship is truly based on the teaching and acceptance of certain truths, then, before we allow people into our fellowship (in a meaningful way, such as through membership) we should test them to see if they truly do know these truths and are living out the implications of them in their lives to the best of their ability. The most important of these truths is the atoning death of Christ on the cross, by which we can have fellowship with God, by His grace, and through God given faith in that work.
Secondly, if it is true, that our fellowship is based on the teaching and acceptance of certain truths, what do you think the central focus of our meetings should be? The focus of our meetings should be the studying and teaching of God’s Word, from which we get these truths. The focus of our fellowship is not food, singing, or playing games. The central focus of our meetings should be the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, by which we grow deeper in our faith and our commitment to Christ. Everything else is just extra, and can be done away with.


Now, in conclusion, what is “the communion of saints?” It is the free and joyful gathering of all those that God has set apart by calling and saving them. It is the gathering of them all to live life together, to study God’s Word together, to grow in faith together, and spread the Gospel together.
I have one final question for you. Are you truly a member of this fellowship? Can you rightly call yourself a saint? If so, praise be to God, you are my brother or sister in Christ. If not, I beg you to turn to Jesus, who is God made flesh and who came to earth to die and pay the penalty for our sins, which is death. As the creed that we are studying says, He was raised on the third day, ascended into heaven, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. He is still alive today, and He is the only one that has the power to forgive your sins. Pray to Him. Confess your sins to Him and ask Him to forgive you.

[1] The Table Talk Or Familiar Discourse of Martin Luther, by Martin Luther and William Hazlitt
[2] Eph. 1:1 (ESV)
[3] Phil. 1:1 (ESV)
[4] Col. 1:2 (ESV)
[5] 1 Cor. 1:2
[6] The NASB stays more true to a nominal translation of klētois (calling). The ESV renders it as though it were an aorist verb (rendered in simple past tense as called), which it is not.
[7] Communion is translated from the Greek koinōnia.

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