The History of the Communion of and for Saints
This is a night steeped in history. This history we remind ourselves of every Sunday as we recite the Words of Institution which say, "the same night He was betrayed." The mystery of Christians eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ began this night almost 2000 years ago. The mystery we confess to believe in the Creed, the Communion of Saints, also dates to this night. Here on earth there is a communion OF saints, that is holy people, and there is a communion of the Body and Blood of Christ FOR holy people. These things are mysteries because how can there be on earth a communion, a unity among so many diverse people? And where on earth can there found holy people, that is saints whom Communion is for?
We say in the Creed that we believe there is a communion, a unity, a community on earth that transcends all differences. Do you realize what a tremendous statement of faith that is? To say there is a unity that is greater than the diversity we see all around us boggles the mind. A unity, a oneness that is greater than the difference between white, black, brown, yellow, and red? A community that includes every ethnic group under the sun? A communion that is beyond the fundamental differences between rich and poor, democrats and republicans, male and female?
Just look at the first disciples. Look at them gathered around the Lord's table for their last Passover and the first Lord's Supper. Do you realize what a diverse group of people they were? What unity could there be between coarse fishermen like Peter, James, John, and Andrew and a relatively refined tax collector like Matthew? And how much unity do you think there was between the tax collecting Matthew who believed in cooperating with the occupying Romans and the Roman opposing Zealot Simon?
Isn't the petty bickering that broke out right before Christ was to make His solemn last will and testament bequeathing His Body and Blood, testimony to how fractured the unity was? Can you believe they argued about who was the greatest among them? Can you believe that rather than stoop so low as to wash the feet of their fellow apostles, they would allow Christ to tie a towel around Himself, get a basin of water, and proceed to wash their dirty, sinful feet? And didn't (Dare I say this?) didn't Jesus only add to the problem? Jesus had a disciple, John, who felt specially loved by Him; he was seated at the second place of honor at the table. Surely, this only fanned the flames of jealously! Surely this must have given some disciples an excuse to feel outside of the community of the apostles and to speak badly about John?
How about us? Can you believe there is a communion, a unity, a community here that transcends all the differences there are among us? There are ethnic differences among us; there are educational differences among us; there are political differences among us; there are age, economic, and martial status differences among us. Can there really be a unity here among so much diversity? Doesn't the petty bickering we have going on among us prove there can't be? So and so said this or that about him or her. This person or that person doesn't do his or her fair share. He or she is tired of always doing things and not getting the credit. On and on I could go. We go home from church and have each other for lunch. Some unity.
But doesn't Jesus only add to the diversity among us? He doesn't give us all the same blessing, does He? To some He gives lots of possessions. To some He gives many talents. To some He gives nice jobs. Much of the diversity that is among us goes right back to the Lord. And how this God-given diversity gives us excuse to snipe at each other making laughable the idea of a communion OF saints.
Still we confess to believe in a communion OF saints here. How can there be unity in all this diversity? Because we share a common Christ. As radically different as we are, we are all gathered around the one Lord Jesus Christ. We don't each have our own Christ. We share the same one. Maybe some images from Scripture will help. There is only one Vine, Christ, although there are many branches to that one Vine. There is only one Shepherd, one fold, one Door to the fold, but there are many sheep. One kernel of wheat fell into the ground on Calvary and died, but that one Kernel produced millions and millions more.
Through faith, we all bow down in worship before one Lord Jesus. We all make our daily prayers to the same Christ. We sing our hymns of praise to the same Christ. We live our lives to the glory of the same Christ. We all trust the same Lord Christ for salvation. None of us believe we will be saved because of our possessions, or our politics, or any other thing that distinguishes us one from another. We all believe that the only thing that saves anyone of us is the suffering and death of the one Jesus Christ.
There is a unity among all the diversity that is here because we share a faith in the same Christ. But there is more to our community than sharing a common Jesus by faith. We also share a common Jesus in reality. Only one Lord Jesus comes down to our altar in the Holy Communion. Only one Lord Jesus comes in His Body and Blood. We who are many, very diverse, very different, each receive the same Lord Jesus in our mouths. When we come away from the altar the one Jesus who is present here goes away in every single body that has received Him. People who share the same genes are said to be part of the same genetic family. Well people who share the same Body and Blood of Christ are certainly 'bodied' and 'blooded' together.
It's a miracle that the Lord can make unity from diversity, a communion or community of saints where there seems to be so much disunion among us. But the greater miracle in my eyes is not that there is a communion of saints on earth, but there is a Communion FOR saints, and there are saints who boldly come up and partake of it. There are saints, holy people on earth. Now that's a miracle.
But read your New Testament. To whom are almost all of the epistles written? To the saints at such and such place. And what do we find in the early church? Right before the Communion the pastor would announce: "The holy things for the holy ones." And, "The holy body and blood of Christ for the saints." Then people just like you and me would dare to come forward to commune with holy things!
This blows my mind. Where is the holiness of those who received the New Testament epistles? Read them yourselves. Those who received the letters are rebuked for pride, greed, backbiting, strife, and gossip. And where is the holiness of those who attended the first Communion service in the upper room? Do saints fight about whom is the best? Are saints too proud to wash the feet of others? Do saints deny their Lord? Do saints betray their Lord? Do saints cowardly abandon their Lord?
Never mind the upper room; do you see any holy ones here? Any saints? Are they really here amid so much backbiting, gossiping, and sniping at one another? Are saints really here among us who would rather say nothing at all than anything nice, among us who have each other for our Sunday meals even after we have sat down together at the meal of our Lord's body and blood?
As hard as it is to believe, there really are saints in this communion. We are right to go on believing there are saints here for Communion. I can say this not because I think we are especially holy but because of the holy One in Communion. In the early church, after the pastor said, "The holy things for the holy ones," the congregation responded not with, "We are holy; here we come," but with "One is holy even Jesus Christ." We don't commune based on our holiness but based on that of Jesus Christ. That is the only way anyone has ever communed worthily. That's the only way anyone can be a saint, anyone can be holy.
Christ didn't give His Body and Blood to the first disciples and He doesn't give it now to us because He has found holy people without sins. No, Jesus found in the upper room and finds in this room just what is really here. Sinners. He finds Judases struggling with betraying their Jesus. Peters struggling with not denying their Lord. He finds gossips struggling with their tongues and backbiters fighting with their grudges. And to these very sinners, Christ says, "Take eat this is My Body given into death on the cross for you. Take drink, this is My Blood shed on the cross for the forgiveness of all your sins."
In connection with the Body and Blood of Christ, you are saints; you are holy ones. True, you have no holiness of your own, but you have all the holiness of Jesus Christ being connected to Him. In your Baptism, you were first brought into connection with the Body and Blood of Christ. Your sinful self was buried with Christ in Baptism and a New Man covered in Christ Jesus rose from out of the baptismal waters. In your Baptism, Christ Himself said you were a new creation. He said, "The old has passed away; all things have become new."
I told you that most of the New Testament letters are addressed to the saints at a particular place. 1 Corinthians begins, "To those in Christ Jesus CALLED saints." What Christ calls a thing that is what it is. When Christ takes bread and calls it His Body, you can rest assured that the bread is now His Body. When He takes wine and calls it His blood, you can rest assured that is what it is. When He takes you, a poor miserable sinner from the womb and calls you in Baptism a child, you can rest assured that is what you are. And when in just a few moments, Christ Himself in Holy Absolution will call you a forgiven sinner, that is a "saint," you can rest assured that is what you really are.
No sooner have I said this, then do you say, "But, but, but..." And no matter what you say after those buts, your Jesus already knows. He knows how sinful, how weak, how doubtful, how fearful you are. He knows how conscious you are of some of your gross sins of the past, and Jesus says, "Never mind that. Pay attention to Me, not you. Pay attention to what I say not what you think. Pay attention to My holiness not your sinfulness."
And in Christ, what do we have? A communion of saints, for saints. We have a communion of so many different people because all of us share the same Christ, the same salvation, the very same Body and Blood. And this Communion is one of saints, not because we do not have any sinners here but because Christ calls us saints. We go by what Christ says about ourselves and each other not by what we may think or feel.
I believe in the Communion of Saints. Historically Maundy Thursday was a celebration of this fact. In this service, those excommunicated for being unrepentant, were acknowledged as having repented, and they were welcomed back into the Communion that is of and for saints. They were welcomed as if they had never left because the Christ who alone is able to create communion and to make saints was present at the altar with arms wide open to receive them. He is here for us tonight too. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Maundy Thursday (4-12-01)