A LOCAL church applied to be a member of the National Council of Churches of Singapore, and as a result representatives from the church came for an interview. When asked how old their church was, one of the representatives patiently replied, “We have been around since the first century.”
True, their local church belonged to an ancient denomination in the family of Oriental Orthodox churches. Nevertheless the answer should make us think about the question, “What is the Church?” and how we view this Church.
In an age that has confused personal faith with individualistic faith, we need to re-examine what we say we believe. In the Apostles’ Creed, we declare, “I believe … in the communion of saints …” What do we mean by that phrase?
The term “communion of saints” has become a technical doctrinal phrase, the exact meaning of which this is not the place to discuss in detail. Suffice to say, it refers to biblical teaching that the Church is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12), and that this Body, the “communion of saints”, comprises ALL believers across time and space, both living and departed. If we believe in Christ as Saviour and Lord, we are then baptised into this wonderful Body and become its members. We are then a part of God’s holy family that is found in every corner of earth and heaven. What is more important for us here is to see how this should affect our daily lives and faith.
Firstly, our knowledge and worship of God cannot be confined to the limited depth and breadth of our own individual experiences. Take, for instance, worship. When we gather to worship, the depth of our worship experience cannot be limited merely by what we knew of God and how we felt that particular Sunday morning. If you are not feeling good, and don’t feel like it, you can still worship God that day because of the faith, knowledge and experience of others.
When the Scripture is read, you can still say “Amen” to whatever truth that was written long ago by people who had felt the breath of God in their hearts. When you sing hymns, you can still sing along, even though you may not find feelings in your heart that resonate with the hymn, because you can still join in the worship of The communion of saints the people of God, and anchor your own life in that worship. And as you do so, God brings you into His light and glory.
You wake up one morning and find that a spiritual doubt had entered your mind like an unwelcome fly that refuses to be chased out of the chambers of your soul. What can you do? You can think of the communion of saints to which you belong. They stand around you like a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1), encouraging you to run the race faithfully, assuring you of the truths of the faith.
Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, your old Sunday School teacher, your late grand-uncle, and a host of others remind you of the truth and reliability of Scripture, of eternity, of the great old doctrines of the Church, and of the reality of Christian experience. Though you may not feel the strength of faith that morning, you can still stand on the shoulders of saints from every age and shore, and be lifted by the living faith of the dead.
OUR personal faith must be anchored in the collective historical faith of the communion of saints. In this way, we find ourselves, not swimming alone in the sea of life, especially when it is particularly stormy, but in good company, in the company of saints. What they knew and have experienced of God gives depth and stability to our own knowledge and experience of God.
Secondly, we must realise that the communion of saints is significantly larger than our own informal groups and organised churches. Our view of the Church must be as big as the entire Body of Christ, spanning space and time.
Then only can we be saved from smallmindedness and grossly limited visions. We would also be helped when we become disillusioned and frustrated with the organised versions of the Church, to know that we belong to the larger Body of Christ that is being prepared like a bride for Christ the heavenly Groom (Rev. 21:2).
The Reformers struggled with the question of how to deal with the spiritual quality of the church, for the church had both believers and others whose faith was not evident. They were reminded of the Lord’s teaching that the wheat and the weeds will be mixed till the day when the Lord shall come to remove the weeds (Mt. 13:24-30).
One day, the sheep and the goats will be separated (Mt. 25:31-46). But till then, the local, organised and temporal church must think of the larger communion of saints, and be strengthened by drawing on the faith and life of that communion. Our eyes must be lifted higher to recognise that glorious communion in our midst, and experience its life amid our fractured and imperfect lives and present communities.
Finally, the central underlying truth is, we must know that we are part of the communion of saints by becoming identified with and attached to Christ our Lord. He is the Head of the Body (Eph. 4:15). It is through His Spirit that we are baptised into the Body (1 Cor. 12:13). Hence, though we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, we are urged to keep a steady gaze on Jesus, the Shepherd of our souls (Heb 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:25). In other words, we must look even higher – beyond our own selves, our organised churches, even beyond the communion of saints – to gaze at the glorious sight of Jesus our Lord, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
And as we gaze at Him and run our races faithfully, we shall become like Him (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:18). In the background we would hear the silent roar of the clouds of witnesses, urging us on, on bright sunshine days and on dark and painful days, reminding us that the One we are looking at is the One who is the Heir of all things (Heb. 1:2), who will have the final word in each of our lives, and in history.