“Back to the basics: The holy Christian church, the communion of saints”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
No one knows for sure exactly how or even when it started. As far as anyone can tell, about three thousand years ago, the Aztecs of central Mexico began to honor their dead by leaving food and water and tools on their loved ones’ graves to help them along in their journey from life to death. They called it “Dia de los Muertos.” In English it meant “Day of the Dead.”
As time passed, the idea caught on. Each fall, the people of ancient Europe danced, lit bonfires, and cooked special foods. The people of Spain brought wine and “spirit bread” to honor their loved ones and covered their graves with candles and flowers. And the people of Latin America made candies in the shape of skulls and bread in the shape of bones.
Even today, the tradition lives on. The people of Australia, Fiji and New Zealand celebrate their dead with gifts and flowers. In the Philippines, families burn incense and pray. The people of Guatemala fly kites to help spirits find their way back to earth. And even here in America, cities such as Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles and San Antonio all hold parades as many remember their loved ones with pictures, food and flowers.
So why do they do it? Ancients believed that on the Day of the Dead, the border between the spirit world and the real world dissolved. And during that brief time, lasting only a couple of days, the souls of the dead wake up, they said, to return to the world of the living to feast, drink, dance and play music with their loved ones. And in turn, the living treat the deceased as honored guests, serving their favorite foods.
Whatever the custom, the people, the place or the time, the Day of the Dead is an opportunity for families and friends to celebrate and to remember those who have passed from this world to the next.
The book of Hebrews chapter 12 also calls on us to remember our dead. I’ll begin reading at verse 1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
So far in our time together on the Apostles’ Creed, we’ve looked at the First Article, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” and the Second Article, “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” Now we’re looking at the words of the Third Article, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.”
It’s amazing, if you think about it. For the past 1,800 years, week after week, in every place and time, Christians just like us, from all around the world, have spoken the words of this Apostles’ Creed. From homes, to caves, to ships, to prisons, to churches both large and small, people have gathered to say: “I believe in God the Father. I believe in Jesus Christ. And I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
Now when we say those words, “I believe in the holy Christian Church and the communion of saints,” we often tend to overlook them. But if you think about it, they are some of the most important words of all, for they remind us that “the church” isn’t simply a building, Faith Lutheran Church, on the south end of a little town called Spooner. Instead, we’re part of something big--really big--that spans all space and time.
Luther wrote in the words of his Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and to all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.”
And he wrote in the words of his Large Catechism: “I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without divisions or schisms. And I am a member of the same…brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God…And until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with it…causing it to grow daily and to become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces.”
So what does all this mean--”I believe in the holy Christian church and the communion of saints”?
Simply enough, it means that “the church” isn’t just us. It’s also found in strange and faraway places like Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Latin America and Asia.
And you know what’s amazing about this church? Race doesn’t matter. Education doesn’t matter. And neither do age, income, language, family background or social status. Black or white, rich or poor, from the upper class to the lowest class, we are all part of His church.
Did you know that, among all the world’s religions, and there are many, Christianity is the largest one of all? While a little over a billion people call themselves Hindu, and another billion call themselves atheist, and close to two billion believe in Islam, more than two-and-a-half billion people are Christian, making it the largest religion of all!
And we’re growing! According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, every year more than two-and-a-half million people come to the Christian faith from another faith. Do the math and you’ll see that’s nearly 7,400 every day! If it keeps up, (which we expect that it will!), by the year 2050, there will be more than three billion Christians here and throughout the world.
And where is Christianity growing the fastest? Believe it or not, Africa is number one on the list, closely followed by Asia and Latin America. And while back in 1900, twice as many Christians lived in Europe than in the rest of the world combined, today more Christians live in Africa and Asia than the rest of the world combined!
Like I said, when we confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church,” we remember that we’re part of something really big!
And not only are we part of the holy Christian church, we’re members of a fellowship, a community, what the Creed calls “the communion of saints.”
What does that mean? It means that there’s a connection, beyond space and time, between all true believers in Jesus. It means, as one author put it, “Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me, and I belong to them.”
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints.”
If you know anything about the book of Hebrews, you know that, time after time, the writer points to Jesus as the Messiah, the One who was to come. He wrote in chapter 1: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,” and “The heavens are the work of Your hands.” Chapter 7 says: “He has no need...to offer sacrifices daily...since He did this once for all when He offered up Himself.” And chapter 9 says: “For if the blood of goats and bulls...purify flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ...purify our conscience...to serve the living God.”
Finally in chapter 11, we find the words: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain...by faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death...by faith Noah constructed an ark...by faith Abraham went to live in the land of promise...by faith Sarah received power to conceive...by faith Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God...by faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, and...by faith the walls of Jericho fell down.”
And he writes in verse 33: “They stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight.” And verse 37: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated--of whom the world was not worthy--wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
It’s no wonder then that chapter 12 begins with the words, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
It’s funny if you think about it. It seems like most every sport, most every state, and even most every occupation has a hall of fame. Think, for example, of Cooperstown, New York, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Think of Canton, Ohio, the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And think of Springfield, Massachusetts, the home of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The streets of Hollywood have a Walk of Fame. There’s a National Toy Hall of Fame, a Polka Hall of Fame, and a World Chess Hall of Fame. And if you just don’t want to travel too far, you could always stop in at Hayward and visit the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.
We Christians don’t really have a “Hall of Fame,” but if we did, you can imagine some of the names that we’d find there.
Noah was a saint, even though he planted a vineyard just as soon as he got off that ark, and got drunk. Abraham was a saint, even though he twice passed off his wife as his sister and had a son with a girl who wasn’t even his wife. Sarah laughed at God’s promise, Samson broke his vow, Moses was a murderer and so was the apostle Paul.
Even more, saints are just plain, ordinary folks, people like you and me--certainly not perfect, but certainly trying to be, all a gift of the Holy Spirit.
And as living saints, we’re connected to those who’ve come before us, to those who are with us now, and those who are yet to come--all saints in this beautiful body of Christ.
“I believe in the holy Christian church and the communion of saints.”
Born in December of 1823, William Walsham How was a pastor who first served one church and then another in and around the city of London. Those who knew him, loved him, and called him names like “the children’s bishop” and “the poor man’s bishop.” And while he could have lived a far more affluent lifestyle, he chose instead to live and to work among the poorest of the poor.
And he wrote hymns, sixty in all, like “Jesus, Name of Wondrous Love” and “We Give but Thine Own, Whate’er the Gift May Be.”
But of all the hymns he wrote, one of the best-loved goes like this: “For all the saints who from their labors rest, who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
By Your rich, undeserved grace, dear Father, You have made us and, in spite of our sin, You’ve called us to be Your own. Remind us of the joy in which we share now and the wonder of the life to come, for Jesus’ sake. Amen