Monday, September 26, 2011

Hanging Out with the Saints

“The Communion of saints” is a slippery subject. The phrase slides by at the bottom of the Apostle’s Creed, when and if it’s recited. Even though we affirm our convictions about the term, it’s hard to grasp.

Our understanding of a “saint” has several different emphases.

The word, of course, means holy, in the sense of being dedicated or even consecrated to God.

One view is that “saints” are our spiritual ancestors. A look back in the history of God’s people reveals a parade of ordinary folks who have demonstrated in their lives a loyalty to God and the pursuit of justice and peace in extraordinary ways. They are the heroes and heroines of the faith, showing in their words and actions examples of faithful witness to God. Our faith is built on them, and remembering is instructive.

Not only are these saints people of the past, they are still around. The witness of Scripture is that God’s faithful do not vanish in death, but are raised to another reality in the heavenly courts with God. They become the “heavenly hosts” and they are with us on a Sunday morning to join in the singing of praise to the Almighty.

A third emphasis is found in the biblical use of the word “saints” to apply to the people following Jesus. Members of the different churches that started up in the New Testament are referred to as “saints” (see for example Acts 9:13 and 32; Acts 26:10; Philippians 4:2). Those who used the term were well aware it did not mean “perfect”—the first saints were human and had their flaws (see for example Galatians 2:11 ff.)

The word is almost always used in the plural, stressing the communal nature of people loyal to the Lord. In a sense, when the New Testament uses the word “saints”, it’s referring to the church, the Body of Christ (see Ephesians 4:12).

This last emphasis suggests that the term “saints” could rightfully be applied to all of us today, although many would balk at accepting it. We are inclined to steer clear of labels that promote our piety or righteousness, and such modesty is appropriate. Like the first generation followers of Jesus, we’re not perfect either.

In Christian worship, all the saints gather, past and present, dead and alive, to join in common praise of God. We are summoned to the Table by our Lord to celebrate in communion not only with God, but with one another.

Those saints of the past are with us, including our own parents and family members, teachers, mentors, role models, friends who have gone before us—all are with us once again. By the grace of God, when we worship, time changes from calendar time to eternal time, and the church is fully assembled.

Also the saints around the world are with us. God’s people sing their praise globally in every language of the world, and we do well to remember that Pentecost happens every Sunday. The whole Body of Christ worships in full communion.

Our liturgy has modest references to the “communion of saints”, apart from the Apostles’ Creed. For example, in the Prayers of the People we find:
“God of all generations,
we praise you for all your servants
who, having been faithful to you on earth,
now live with you in heaven.
Keep us in fellowship with them,
until we meet with all your children
in the joy of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Also in the Great Thanksgiving at the Table:
“Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with choirs of angels,
with prophets, apostles, and martyrs,
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:
The people may sing or say:
Holy, holy, holy Lord….”

Architecturally, some churches are more obvious about the presence of all the saints at worship.

Many older churches in New England have resisted the temptation of putting stained glass in their windows, and kept the clear glass so worshippers can look out at the church graveyard and remember the saints at worship with them. One church near me has built a new sanctuary with a glass wall so everyone has a really good view of the outside markers and monuments to the saints gone before.

Orthodox churches are “in your face” with icons of the saints, often full figure and life-size. In the new church at a nearby monastery, saints march around the upper walls. Among them are representatives from different traditions as well as the typically Orthodox persons.

As we think in terms of the assembling of the saints from the past with the saints of the present in worshipping Almighty God, perhaps we should remember the yet-to-come saints of the future. Salvation History has come through ages to us and will continue when we have departed the scene. It’s worth pondering what kind of legacy we will leave our children, what remembrance and inspiration coming generations will have from our loyalty to God?

Do you remember your spiritual ancestors in your church? Does your congregation observe any “saints’ days”?

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