The Baptist theologian and historian Timothy George was said to open his church history course with the statement: “My task in this class is to convince you that there was someone between your grandmother and Jesus and that it matters.”
Today is All Saints Day – a day worth giving attention to. Regardless of denomination, our affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed unites us with Christians globally and historically who have confessed the same words “I believe in…the communion of saints.” This statement has many implications worth pondering. Here’s a quick few:
Firstly, we must value the insights and gains of those who’ve gone before us. We do well to understand the theological and spiritual battles that faced the early church, as well as the recoveries made during the Protestant Reformation. By so doing, we’re equipped to stand on the shoulders of our predecessors so we can better engage the battles that face us now. Saints from the past help remind us that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” This perspective grounds us in the faith of our fathers and promotes the humility to know that we’re not the first people to read our Bibles. In this way, tradition is our friend. G.K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Does this mean that we unthinkingly side with tradition at the expense of Scripture? By no means! The Bible is our supreme and final authority. Yet this doesn’t have to close our ears to the communion of saints. A distinction is helpful here. Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are.”
Secondly, the saintly generations who’ve gone before us provide examples for what faithfulness can look like today. Hebrews 13:7 tells us not only to remember the words that leaders have spoken but to “carefully observe the outcome of their lives” and “imitate their faith.” After recounting the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11, the writer urges us “Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us…let us run with endurance the race that lies before us” (Heb.12:1). Our eyes are fixed on Jesus, but the communion of saints is cheering us on. Knowing that they’ve run the race before us, makes their cheers powerful in their effect! We should know Athanasius’ theology of Christ’s incarnation; we should also know his bold commitment to hold onto that belief when the emperor and many others were against him. We should glean from the writings of Calvin, but also consider his perseverance through much sickness, death, and heartache. We should grab ahold of Elisabeth Eliot’s wisdom and teaching, but take note of her example of loving her persecutors and continuing to trust God in the face of deep personal loss. Taking note of the saints of old also reminds us that they were no less sinners than we are today. These are men and women who had their own blind spots. They should not be revered or romanticized as angelic figures. Instead, they were people like us, who can help us be humble and honest about our own unique blind spots today.
Thirdly, and lastly, the communion of saints should lift our eyes to the saints around us today in the communion of the local church. All Christians are “saints” (Rom.1:7; 1 Cor.1:2). All throughout the New Testament, we’re reminded that all who’ve put their trust in Jesus are set apart as God’s holy people. We should honor and receive one another as such. To be a member of a gospel-preaching local church is to be joined to a family of saints. In this family, we are given spiritual fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers. This is the context, we are meant to grow up in our faith. This is the context, we are meant to help others grow up in their faith. Not only that, but the church is where the communion of saints is made visible. At the communion table, we who are many become one (1 Cor. 10:16-17). At the Lord’s Table, we see one another with our physical eyes, only then to be enabled to see one another with our spiritual eyes – as dearly loved children of God.
There certainly was someone between your grandmother and Jesus. And because of Jesus, there will be many more after her too. With humble appreciation, let’s say emphatically, “I believe in the communion of saints.”