Hebrews 11:1-8, 13-16, 23-40, 12:1-2
How would you define a Saint? What does it mean, to be a saint? I’ve been reading a little bit about different religious traditions and what they understand by the term “saints.” Some traditions understand the term saint in more formal ways – there’s a process to be officially named a saint. And others have a more fluid understanding of what it means. How about you? How do you define a saint? What is a saint? In most any tradition, the folks I encounter are sure of at least this: A saint is something other than themselves. I can’t say I often hear people identify themselves as a saint. Are you a saint? And yet, regardless of tradition, if, instead, I ask folks to name those who have been saints in their life, those who have died, those who are living, people can usually quickly tell me people they view as saints.
There are many ways to define the word “saint,” but here’s what I’ve found most compelling. A saint is a person who has an exceptional degree of likeness to God. Or, a believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells. I imagine that might well describe the people you’d call saints in your life. People who make you feel like you’ve drawn a little closer to God from being around them, from knowing them, from loving them. People who you interact with and think, “I caught a glimpse of Christ today.” Is this not what it is to be saint?
Today, we reflect in particular on the communion of saints in the body of Christ. When we say the Apostles Creed, we say that we believe, among other things, in “the holy catholic church, [and] the communion of saints. Here, catholic, with a small c means the church universal, literally “according to the whole” – the whole collective Christian church, the body of Christ in the world. And the communion of saints means the spiritual unity of the whole body of Christ, living and dead. It acknowledges that our connection to our loved ones, and our brothers and sisters in Christ doesn’t break with the barrier between life and death. They are still a part of the church, still a part of the body of Christ, just as are we. The communion of saints means that we are bound up together with all who came before us, in our own individual lives, in the life of this congregation and its predecessors, throughout Methodism, throughout church history, throughout our biblical heritage. Their story is our story, still. We’re just part of a later chapter of this one great story God is writing with creation.
In our book study, Bearing Fruit, we were talking this week about congregational creation stories. Apple Valley has a creation story. Not just our beginnings a decade ago, but our creation story includes our predecessor congregations. Why did Navarino and Cedarvale and South Onondaga and Cardiff become churches? What events led to their creation? What vision of ministry did the leaders of those faith communities have? Each generation of faithful disciples tries to live out the promises of God, tries to express, to realize God’s reign, God’s kingdom on earth, in their corner of the universe. That’s what we see in our reading from Hebrews. The author crafts this beautiful litany that is the story of God and God’s people. It’s a story of generation after generation acting in faith that God fulfills the promises made, that we may catch glimpses of God’s promises fulfilled, even as they are still unfolding, still expanding, beyond what any one person, any one generation sees. Even as we bear good fruit for God today, we plant seeds that won’t bear fruit in our own time, but in the generations yet to come, who also will seek to be faithful to God’s promises. It’s our story with God, and it makes us – you and me – part of this communion of saints – as much as we seek to live into God’s promises, as much as we seek to fulfill God’s vision for the world as much as we can, in our time, in God’s way for our lives. When we do this work, when we, by faith, like all the people in our reading from Hebrews, when we live into and live out of God’s promises, we are part of the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses.
A saint, I said, is a person who has an exceptional degree of likeness to God. Or, a believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells. I don’t think this happens by accident, like you might accidentally be someone’s doppelganger. If we are to have a “likeness to God” – if we are to be people in whom Christ dwells, I think we practice. We work at it. That’s what it means to be disciples – students of Jesus, who are trying all the time to be more and more like their teacher. And so I have a task for us, to practice our discipleship this month. Last year I asked you to count your blessings during the month of November. I asked you to think about, every single day, at least 5 ways in which you are blessed, by posting on facebook, or writing it down, or keeping track in some other way. I have them here – your scrap papers, your notes, printouts from online, even a calendar page with blessings filled in on every square of the month. So we know we are blessed.
I also asked us to think, last year, about how we are called to be blessings to others. God is the source of our blessings, but we also have the opportunity to offer blessings to others through our actions, through our love, through building each other up, through our words of affirmation. And that’s what I want us to focus on this year. Every day, I want you to think of a way you can bless someone, a way you can build up the community – not just the community of Apple Valley, but your work or school community, your family, your neighborhood, your global community even. I’m challenging all of us, each day of November, to bless someone else’s life. And I want you to be on particular lookout for people who might not usually get blessed by someone else. People, perhaps, that might not usually get blessed by you. People who are in some way not valued very much by society’s standards. Perhaps you’ll take this month to particularly seek after the sick and homebound, those who are living in nursing homes. Maybe you might focus on ways you can bless people who work in all sorts of customer service jobs – the person working at the convenience store, or at the fast food place. How often are they blessed by someone? Praised for their good work? Prayed for? Maybe you’ll bless some single parents. Some parents who stay home with children. Some local politicians – maybe even the ones you didn’t vote for. Maybe you’ll think of people you know who are struggling with addictions, or who have been in trouble. Maybe you’ll find that you have the power to bless someone who you’re usually fighting with. Even if you know there’s no way they’ll offer a blessing in return. Perhaps especially when you know that. You can choose the best way to do this, to offer your blessings. You can tag someone on facebook and tell the world how blessed you are to know them. You can write them a note, or make a phone call, and just tell them how much you value them, and God values them. You can do a task for them – help them with the dishes, or run an errand for them. Find someone’s boss and tell them what a good job their employee is doing. Tell a parent how great their child is. Every day, for 30 days, I want you focus on how you can be a blessing to someone else. We’re writing our part of the story, our story with God, our story of the communion of saints, of which we are part, and which we are growing into, the more and more we model our lives so that others see in us a likeness with God.
Aside from the communion of saints, the other time we think about communion is of course when we share in the sacrament of bread and cup together. There are a few names for this holy meal. Some call it the Lord’s Supper. We sometimes call it the Eucharist, which means literally the Thanksgiving or more fully, thanksgiving for the good gift of grace. Sometimes it is called simply the Breaking of the Bread. But we most often call it communion, which means, “sharing in common.” This word for communion comes from Paul’s writings, in 1 Corinthians, when he says, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (the sharing together in) the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion (the sharing together in) the body of Christ?” It is in this holy meal that we find that we have communion in so many senses of the words. We commune with God, and with the real presence of Christ as we embody Jesus in the meal and as we are sent forth from the table into the world to serve. We commune with our brothers and sisters in Christ too – across time and space. On World Communion Sunday, we particularly focus on our connection across space, meditating on how we are bound together by the sacrament with Christians all over the world. But on All Saints Sunday, we focus on how we are bound together across time. We come to the table just as our forefathers and foremothers in faith came to the table. Just as the early church did. Just as the disciples came together with Jesus. As we come to the table, we are bound together, sharing in common with them this holy meal, not just by remembering the past, but as we reflect on how we are bound together in the present, and how even our futures are bound together as we work for the fulfillment of God’s reign. And so as we share in this common meal, we are bound together with the very people who we have lifted up today.
We’ve been focusing on being a prayerful congregation. And the whole service of communion is prayer. The special prayer we share in as we ask God to bless our communion is called the Great Thanksgiving. And indeed, our thanksgiving is great, as we reflect on the fullness of God’s grace in our lives, grace that binds us together in the body of Christ, with all the saints of God, past, and present, and yet to come. Thanks be to God for this communion. Amen.