I Believe in the Communion of Saints
This is the night we remember all year long every time we celebrate Holy Communion. This is "the night on which He was betrayed." This is the night our Lord instituted the Sacrament of His Body and His Blood for us Christians to eat and drink which we confess in the Creed saying, "I believe in the Communion of saints."
You probably don't think much about what you're saying. Tonight I want you to. I want you to move from thinking the phrase "communion of saints" is just another way of saying "the holy Christian Church." And move from the static word "communion" to the lively word 'community.' 'Community' of saints not 'communion' is the translation we prefer in the Large Catechism.
'Community." That's a word that rings in our modern ears. 'Community,' so they say, is what is being built right now between Lamar and Guadalupe. 'Community' is what radio station 102.3 says they have. 'Community," more accurately, many small 'communities' is the foundation of modern attempts to grow the church. Why? For the same reason they're trying to build one down the street and have one in a radio station. People long to belong to a community. Those who think they can grow the church say if you don't make people feel a part of a community they won't stay around.
What sort of 'community' do we confess to believe in? It's commonly translated "saints," but it can be translated as both "saints" and "sacred things." The earliest liturgies in the East used words in distributing Communion that reflect this understanding. Orthodox churches still use them. After consecrating the elements the pastor turns with the Body and Blood of Christ in his hands and announces to the congregation. "The holy things for the holy ones," i.e. "the sacred things for the saints." There can be no community of holy people without a community of holy things. There can be no sharing among saints without a sharing of sacred things.
With me so far? The presence of holy things is a prerequisite for having a community of saints. And there is no sharing of holy things without the presence of the Holy One. In the Eastern liturgies after the pastor says, "The holy things for the holy ones," the congregation replies not, "We are holy; here we come." But, "One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ." Only Jesus is holy. He has made the communicants holy in Baptism and Absolution and is present now to gather them into the community of His holy Body and Blood.
All attempts to establish community by common feelings, by common causes, by common interests are superficial. Feelings, causes, interests are not strong enough, not real enough to withstand the strong ebb and flow of the tides of daily life. Feelings, causes, and interests change constantly. What today you feel strongly about tomorrow you might not feel anything about. The cause you advocate now probably won't be your cause in the future. What interests you at 25 seldom does at 50. To make a community you need something bigger, stronger, realer than what you find in people.
For example, for 3 years my homeowner's association had tried to make a community out of our diverse neighborhood. They tried appealing to our common feelings for a good neighborhood, our common cause to have a park, our common interest in keeping property values up. Nothing; no community. Then a big storm came through taking off roofs, downing trees, and bowling over fences. The reality of a powerful storm did for that evening what men could never do. We were a community.
The presence of Christ in Communion is real and powerful. Right here, right now, the very same Body that hung on the cross to pay for our sins and the very same Blood that was shed there for the remission of our sins comes to our church, on this altar, and into our bodies. The reality of Christ's Body and Blood being present brings angels and all the company of heaven here even as they surround Him in heaven. This tremendous reality sends demons away shrieking even as they did at the presence of Christ in the New Testament.
The reality of the holy Lord Jesus coming to sinful man in space and time is what led men to build grand churches like this. To be sure whether in a home, hospital, or hovel, Christ comes in Communion. But whenever men who believed Christ was really present were able to build grand cathedrals with magnificent vaulted ceilings, they did. They didn't do it to have a nice space for men to come, but to have a fitting space for God to come. The presence of Christ was so real to them in their time and space that they built appropriate spaces for Christ to come in time.
But the fact that our God comes to our altar to feed us with His Body and Blood bringing with Him angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven is just part of a real, powerful miracle. Jesus real, physical presence here makes not just a community of people, but a community of holy people. That's weird. A movie star coming to people doesn't make a community of stars. A super athlete coming to people can't make a community of sports celebrities. A famous singer coming to a group of people doesn't make them a community of singers, does it? That's because neither a movie star, sport's star, or famous singer is powerful enough to do that. But Jesus is.
His flesh is life giving. He can breath on someone and give them the Holy Spirit. He can forgive sinners of sins they can't forgive themselves of or others won't. Jesus can do this in His flesh and blood because He bore the sins of all sinners in His flesh and blood. He bore our sins and our death at the same time as He fulfilled all that was required of us in life. All the do's and don'ts of the commandments, all that is required for us to go to heaven Jesus did in, with and under the same Body and Blood that will be on our altar. When you eat His Body and drink His Blood all that Jesus did with His body comes to your Body, all that Jesus forgave, covered, washed away with His Blood flows through your blood.
So what is distributed in Holy Communion is nothing less than holiness. "Holy, holy, holy, holy," Jesus says as He makes His way down the Communion rail giving you His Body and Blood. And you should say, "Amen." St. Ambrose explains the profound seriousness of this "amen" saying it means, "This is true; I believe it." Yes, dear friend, believe that sinners come forward and are gathered into a community of holy people because they are gathered by and into the holy Body of Christ.
How strange. A convert to Buddhism isn't gathered into the body of Buddha. A convert to Mormonism isn't gathered into the body of Joseph Smith. A convert to Islam isn't gathered into the body of Mohammed. If they were, they'd be gathered into a dead body. A convert to Christianity, however, is gathered into the Body of Christ because it's a real living Body. Christ is not a past presence in the Church but a living, breathing, real one. And contrary to the error of the Reformed church Christ is not a mere spiritual presence either. He's a real, physical touchable one. When the Bread of Communion touches your lips or hands, the Body of Christ that Mary touched, the Romans crucified, and Peter saw risen touches you. When the Wine of Communion touches your lips and tongue, the Blood of Christ that dripped from His hands and feet touches you.
Your faith doesn't make Christ present here. His powerful Words of Institution do. Faith confesses the presence of the Holy One that forms and gathers the holy people. Hear how Theodore of Mopsuestia who lived in the 400s detailed how faith confesses the presence of Christ: "You then reverence...the Body you have received with your hands... With great and true love impress it on your eyes and kiss it and then offer your prayers to it as to our Lord Christ, who is near you." This probably shocks you. But should it? How many people pray at the Communion altar? I would guess most do. To whom are they praying? To Jesus. Where is Jesus as they pray? On the altar, in their hand, on their lips giving them His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine.
It is the realness of the presence of Christ that creates a community of holy people. We are driven to confess the real, physical presence of Christ against all the other Protestants who deny it and deride it. We bow as we come into His presence at the altar. If able, we kneel because it is proper to kneel in the presence of the King of all kings. Some Lutheran pastors genuflect before the Body and Blood and then hold them in uplifted arms so the entire congregation can reverence their present Lord as well.
This sort of thing makes some of you uncomfortable. Remember these sort of actions are not necessary to have a valid celebration of Communion or to receive it rightly. They are merely ways to confess with your body what you believe in your heart: that Christ is as physically present now as He was in the upper room. Such actions as bowing, kneeling, and adoring confess the presence of the One who makes us into a community of saints.
But it's not our actions that are important. It's Christ's. He's the actor, we're acted on in Communion. He forms the community of saints. And here is the answer to the question of how are we to spread this community we have? We do what the first Church did; we celebrate Communion. They founded no mission society; organized no city mission; wrote no books on 'church growth;' started no programs to reach people. What they did is celebrate the Sacrament, and "the Lord added to them those who were being saved." This Sacrament where Christ is with us is our treasure of holiness and our power to spread the community of holy people. Holy Communion is our treasure and power because the Holy One is present in it. The presence the Holy One Jesus is what saves ours souls, drives our lives and forms us into a community. That's why we say we celebrate Holy Communion! Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Maundy Thursday (3-14-05); Third Article Creed