X. the Communion of Saints
"The Saints on earth, and those above,
But one communion make;
Joined to their Lord in bonds of love,
All of His grace partake."
The history of the extension of the Church of Christ from one land to another, and of the successive victories won by the Cross over heathen races from age to age, gives by itself a very imperfect idea of the meaning of the words "The Holy Catholic Church." Because, with the outward extension of the Church, its influence upon the inner man needs always to be considered. For when our Lord described the extension of "The Kingdom of Heaven," He not only likened it to the spread of a tree branching out on every side, but He also declared that it would work as leaven, secretly, by changing the hearts of men.
This truth may be said to be kept prominently before Christians by the term "Holy" being applied to the "Catholic Church." The Church of Christ is of necessity and essentially "Holy." We see that this must be so, when we understand what Holy Scripture says of it; that it is builded entirely by the Holy Ghost (Eph. ii. 20-22); that its members are "called with an holy calling" (2 Tim. i. 9), "called to be saints" (1 Cor. i. 2), that is, holy persons; and that a day will come when the Lord Jesus, who "loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word," will "present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, but holy and without blemish" (Eph. v. 25-27).
But yet we know that at present the Church of Christ is very far from being perfect. And the mingling together of holy and unholy in the Church is exactly in accordance with the prediction of our Lord Himself. For while He spoke of the power of His grace to change and sanctify the hearts of the subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven," He also expressly foretold that there would be tares in His field among the wheat (S. Matt. xiii. 24-30), which would remain as long as the world lasts; and that the Gospel net would enclose bad fish as well as good, and both would be retained in it until the Angels make the separation at the end (S. Matt. xiii. 47-50). The truth of His teaching has been confirmed by the subsequent history of the Church in all ages. Holy and unholy are together; and though we are forbidden to attempt to separate them, we know that there is, as it were, a gulf between them, which though not impassable is very great. The words of S. Paul to the Jews, "They are not all Israel, which are of Israel" (Rom. ix. 6), apply to God's people still. And as he went on to quote from the prophet Isaiah, "Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved" (Rom. ix. 27), so, we know by experience, that it is still the "remnant" only, which really live up to "the high calling of God in Christ Jesus," and "press toward the mark for the prize" (Phil. iii. 14). "Many are called, but few chosen" (S. Matt. xxii. 14).
Consequently, since there are unholy as well as holy members of "The Holy Catholic Church," the question arises, What is the portion of those who are, what they are called to be, "Saints"? And how shall we express it? Shall we accept the theory of some who say that there are two Churches; an outward and visible Church which is a mixed company of good and bad; and an inner and invisible Church which is known to God alone, and which consists of the good only? A moment's consideration of what has been pointed out in previous chapters to be the teaching of Holy Scripture, about "The Kingdom of Heaven," will show that the idea is untenable; because it is "The Kingdom of Heaven" which is distinctly described as imperfect in its present state here on earth; and we cannot conceive the idea of two universal Kingdoms of Messiah. What then is the teaching of Holy Scripture respecting the position of the "Saints," who really are, what they are called to be, holy?
It is expressed in the words of the Creed, "I believe in the Communion of Saints."
They who live as Christians, that is, as belonging to Christ, enjoy "The Communion of Saints." All subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven" may enjoy this position of the Saints, if they will. If they are unnatural children of their Heavenly Father, if they are disloyal subjects of their King, if they resist, instead of being led by, the Holy Spirit, they are hindering God's good-will concerning them, and making of none effect the sufferings of their Saviour. But if they look up to and love their Father, if they set themselves to serve their King, if they strive to follow the guidance of the Spirit, they are in the way of salvation, and have "The Communion of Saints."
But what is "The Communion of Saints"?
No little confusion has been brought into the consideration of these words by the very prevalent idea that the Saints are, necessarily, departed Saints who have finished their course in God's faith and fear. But this is not the usual Bible sense of the word. For instance, in the Psalms it is commonly used for the name of those who believe in and worship God. "Sing to the Lord, O you Saints" (Ps. xxx. 4). "O love the Lord, all you His Saints" (Ps. xxxi. 23). "The Lord forsaketh not His Saints" (Ps. xxxvii. 28). And in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles it is continually used in the same sense, for the Lord's people in general. "Peter came down to the Saints which dwelt at Lydda" (Acts ix. 32). And at Joppa, "He called the Saints and widows" to him (Acts ix. 41). And S. Paul speaks of his work as a persecutor in these words, "Many of the Saints did I shut up in prison" (Acts xxvi. 10). And in most of his Epistles he addresses those to whom he is writing as "called to be Saints" (Rom. i. 7; 1 Cor. i. 2).
Another frequent cause of misunderstanding is the idea that "the Saints" mean only a few very holy persons, who have attained by the grace of God such a degree of perfection, as is beyond the reach of those who live an active life in the world. But this idea also is found to be contrary to the ordinary Bible use of the word. Those whom S. Paul addresses in his Epistles as "Saints," are reprimanded for almost every kind of sin. The Corinthians, especially, are an instance of the imperfections which may yet be found in God's Saints, and may teach us how tenderly we need to deal with the failings of those who are just emerging from heathenism in our own days. The First Epistle to the Corinthians administers rebukes for schism, fornication, idolatrous tendencies, misuse of spiritual gifts, profanation of the worship of God, and misbelief. And even the Saints at Ephesus, who are addressed as if they had made great advance in the understanding of the mysteries of the faith, are warned to abstain from lying, violent anger, stealing, foul speaking, and unkind behaviour (Eph. iv. 25-32). From which we learn to give a very wide meaning to the word "Saints;" and to understand by it, Christian people who, with many imperfections and frequent falls, are seeking to gain a better knowledge and deeper love of God; and are striving to be led by the Holy Spirit to resist sin and advance in holiness.
And what is "The Communion" which such persons enjoy?
It is Communion with God, so that their "life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. iii. 3). They are declared to be united with God, as a branch is united with its stem; deriving spiritual life — a new and higher life than the natural life which belongs to all — from Him. They are "begotten again" (1 Pet. i. 3), and "born of God" (S. John i. 13); and the seed of this eternal life is not left dormant in them, as it is in the careless and ungodly; for they remain not as "children," but "grow up to Him in all things" (Eph. iv. 14, 15); and letting "the mind that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil. ii. 5) be in them, and "being strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man, Christ dwells in their heart by faith" (Eph. iii. 16, 17); and they are advancing "to the perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Eph. iv. 13).
The closeness of this union or communion with God in Christ is expressed more fully by the figure of the body and its members. The Saints together form the Body of Christ. "For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. xii. 12, 13). Christ is the Head: and the Church is the Body. For God "gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body" (Ephes. i. 22, 23). So intimately connected are the Saints with their Lord that they are the members of Christ — yea, S. Paul does not hesitate to say, "We are members of His Body, of His Flesh, and of His Bones" (Ephes. v. 30). This is a great mystery; but when faith has accepted it, it is seen to be the ground of the Christian's strength. He is strong through grace, because his strength is not his own, but is derived from Christ his Lord, with Whom through the Spirit he is united.
The importance of the two holy Sacraments of Christ is in connection with this truth. Holy Baptism is the means ordained for uniting us with the Body of Christ (1 Cor. xii. 13). Holy Communion is the means of maintaining this union, and of drawing supplies of grace from Him (1 Cor. x. 16, 17), as will be considered more fully presently.
Thus through a right use of the means ordained by Christ Himself the Saints are His own members. "Why persecute you Me?" said the Lord to the persecutor of His people. And they have the good hope to cheer them, that when the great day of judgment comes, while to some who address the Judge, "Lord, Lord," as if they had always served Him, it will be said, "I never knew you, depart from Me" (S. Matt. vii. 22, 23); the Saints, on the other hand, will be recognised as being like Him — as bearing God's image — and will receive the welcome, "Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you" (S. Matt. xxv. 34).
The meaning of "The Communion of Saints" becomes clearer when we know that "Communion" is the same word as that which is more often translated "Fellowship." The Apostle S. John speaks with great clearness about this Communion or Fellowship. Referring to the good tidings delivered by himself and the other Apostles about the person and work of the Saviour, he said, "That which we have seen and heard declare we to you, that you also may have fellowship with us." In other words, he declares that the Gospel was preached that all might enjoy the Communion or Fellowship which the Apostles possessed. And then he goes on to explain with whom they enjoyed this Communion: "And truly our Fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 S. John i. 3). And this assertion of the Communion of the Christian with God agrees with the words of the prayer of our Lord for His people, recorded by the same Apostle; wherein He prayed, "That they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and You in Me, that they may be made perfect in one" (S. John xvii. 22, 23).
These thoughts of the Communion of the Christian with God — the Father and the Son — would be incomplete, did we not also think of our Communion with the Holy Ghost. For inasmuch as the whole spiritual life of the Christian is due to the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, this Communion with God, which the Christian enjoys, is in reality the work and gift of the Holy Ghost. And this is testified to us by the familiar words of blessing, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the Communion" (or Fellowship) "of the Holy Ghost, be with you all" (2 Cor. xiii. 14).
Furthermore, "The Communion of Saints" describes the fellowship or tie of brotherhood which unites Christians together, one with another. For if all Saints have Communion with God, it follows that all have Communion one with another in Him. If Christians are really striving to be, what they are called to be, holy, they are all one family; united together by the common bond of sonship; "For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Gal. iii. 26). Their adoption into the one family of God is to them a real relationship. And this also is expressed very clearly by S. John: "If we say we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie; but if we walk in the light, we have fellowship one with another" (1 S. John i. 6, 7). And inasmuch as death does not sever the union between the Saint and God, but rather intensifies it (seeing that S. Paul describes the result of death as the "being with Christ," Phil. i. 23), it follows that "The Communion of Saints" is not a fellowship with the living only, but with the departed also. "All are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. iii. 28); whether Jews or Gentiles, whether living or departed.
Having now concluded, from the teaching of Holy Scripture, that "The Communion of Saints" is that fellowship which Christians enjoy, through being made one with God, and with one another; we shall do well to consider more carefully about the means by which they are enabled to keep up this union, and to maintain the sense of its reality from age to age. When our Blessed Lord spoke in the synagogue at Capernaum respecting the Bread of Life, He used these words, "Verily, verily, I say to you, Except you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His Blood, you have no life in you;" and then He added, "He that eats My Flesh, and drinks My Blood, dwells in Me, and I in Him" (S. John vi. 53, 56). His hearers had no idea about what He meant by His Flesh and Blood. But in instituting the Holy Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, He explained the words Himself. For "He took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to His disciples, and said, This is My Body; and He took the cup, saying, This is My Blood" (S. Matt. xxvi. 26-28). And consequently S. Paul, referring to this Holy Sacrament, appealed to the Corinthians to remember the bond of union with God, and with one another, in which they were joining, saying, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the Communion of the Blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the Communion of the Body of Christ? For we being many are one Bread and one Body, for we are all partakers of that one Bread" (1 Cor. x. 16, 17). And, therefore, we conclude that this Holy Sacrament is the bond of union, ordained by our Lord Himself, to maintain outwardly and visibly, as well as inwardly and spiritually, "The Communion of Saints" with God and with one another. And this is clearly expressed by the name "Holy Communion" by which we commonly speak of this Holy Sacrament.
Does any one ask, What is "The Communion of Saints?" The answer is clear. It is the Communion or fellowship which Christians enjoy with God, and therefore with one another, whether in this world or in Paradise. And the Sacrament of the Holy Communion is the ordained means whereby this union is maintained by the Saints on earth.
It is a sad but manifest fact, that it is in the power of men to "frustrate the grace of God" (Gal. ii. 21), and to make His good-will concerning them to be of none effect. So that while all who are called to enter the Kingdom of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ are called to enjoy the blessings which He has gained for us, the multitude make little or no use of His gifts. But all who will, may by His grace be assured of sharing in all the benefits of His Sacrifice. "If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 S. John i. 7).
And as the Saints, by virtue of this Communion with God, have the assurance of "The forgiveness of sins;" so likewise they look joyfully forward in hope of "The Resurrection of the Body" and "The Life Everlasting." For "The dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess. iv. 16, 17).
 Consequently the expression "in Christ" or "in the Lord" is frequently used to denote the fact of a person being a Christian. Thus S. Paul sends greeting to certain, who had been converted before himself, in these words, "Salute Andronicus and Junia who were in Christ before me" (Rom. xvi. 7); and describes the Christians of Palestine, at the time of his visit, as "the Churches of Judæa which were in Christ" (Gal. i. 22). And thus of the Christian departed it is said, "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord" (Rev. xiv. 13).
From The Kingdom of Heaven - What is it? by Edward Burbidge M.A. Published under the direction of the tract committee by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in August 1879. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
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Kingdom of Heaven - E. Burbidge
ON THE BOOK SHELF
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