The Communion of Saints John A. Huffman, Jr
Know What You Believe – A series based on The Apostles’ Creed – Part 10
1 Corinthians 1:2-3
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was July of 1960. Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States. John F. Kennedy would be elected to succeed him four months later. It was the height of the Cold War. Atheistic, Marxist, dialectical materialism held approximately a third of the world in its control and was competing for the hearts and minds and spirits of the rest of the world.
That summer I was a 20-year-old college student and for two months traveled all around the world, writing a daily newspaper column.
I started in San Francisco and went by way of Hawaii, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Phillippines, Thailand, India, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, back to Iran, up to Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, on to Russia, Holland, Germany, ending up in England before sailing back to the United States on the old Queen Elizabeth.
What amazed me then is what continues to amaze me now. Wherever I went, I met brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. I had fellowship with them. I discovered early in life what it was to not only believe in the communion of saints but to experience it in every one of those countries.
I went expecting to meet believers in some of those countries. However, I was unprepared for what I experienced in Moscow, in the heyday of Nikita Kruschev. It was on a Tuesday evening when I visited the First Baptist Church of Moscow, jam-packed with brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, who were paying the real price for their faith and who welcomed me as one of them.
There was one country I wanted to visit but couldn’t. It was Mainland China. I stood on a hillside in the New Territories in Hong Kong, looking out at the mainland of China. I knew that eleven years before, the revolution had crushed the church of Jesus Christ of which, after decades of missionary efforts, there were only three-quarters of a million in number. I wondered whether there were any believers left. And would, in my lifetime, the whole world succumb to the godless oppression of Communism? Again, I stood at the same place and looked over into China in 1963, and again in 1967 in the middle of the “Cultural Revolution.” Their future was hopeless, and mine was threatened.
Then came the overtures of Richard Nixon in 1972. Word began to leak out that the church had survived. Anne and I had planned to visit there and Polynesia in 1989, but the Tiananmen Square massacre called a halt to that possibility and we wondered if the Communist government would become even more sophisticated in their intercepting of our smuggling of Bibles to the underground believers and crush the house churches once again.
Then, in 1995, I obtained my visa to visit China, to spend part of my sabbatical teaching at Nanchung Seminary and at Beijing Seminary. I also would go to Nanjing Seminary to meet with Chinese Christian leaders. What I observed in those three cities was the miraculous reality of the communion of saints.
Nanchung is an industrial city. At that time, and maybe even now, few westerners visited it. I was the only Caucasian on the plane from Shanghai. Their international leadership team, of which I was a part, was headed by Werner Burklin, whom we support. Each day we would meet with the young seminarians in the sanctuary of an old church, for decades closed but now open. Through an interpreter, we would give our lectures to several dozen bright, enthusiastic, young seminarians, excited about training for Gospel ministry. I observed a strange phenomena. In the back of the sanctuary were gathered men and women in their seventies and eighties, who listened to everything going on, faces aglow with excitement. These were the ones who had suffered through decades of cruel oppression and remained faithful to the Lord. They were so excited at this contact with an international team who had come to teach a new generation of church leadership. These elderly people just hovered around us, gazing into our faces, affirming us with love. This was the communion of saints in action.
We moved on to Beijing. The experience was similar as we taught at that seminary in the capital where the people had been much more exposed to westerners. On a Sunday we attended church just a couple of blocks from Tiananmen Square. We arrived at nine o’clock for the service which was to begin at nine-thirty. By the time we arrived, some 1200 people were crammed into the main sanctuary, with another several hundred seated outside in overflow areas, with closed-circuit television. Several months before, Billy Graham had visited the same church and had been invited to give words of welcome. They asked me to do the same and specifically suggested that I take twenty minutes for those “words of welcome” from the Bible. It was only then that I realized that non-Chinese were not allowed to preach in Chinese churches, but they could give “words of welcome” from the Bible. So the service began at nine-thirty. We sang hymns, some very familiar and some I had never heard before. Every word was in Chinese except brief remarks from Werner Burklin. My twenty-minute “words of welcome,” were a brief summary of the Easter sermon I had given here at St. Andrew’s several weeks before. My interpreter was Reverend Peng.
The pastor of this church was a 32-year-old graduate of Nanjing Seminary. I thought he would be the preacher. He wasn’t. I discovered that the old man who played the organ had been the long-term pastor of that church. He came over to the pulpit and, if you think I preach long, he preached a full 55 minutes, with the congregation hanging on to every word as he expounded a passage from Galatians.
Then, at 11:30, two hours into the service, an announcement was made that we would have communion, and only those who had publicly professed their faith in Christ and had been baptized were allowed to participate in the sacrament. The others were graciously invited to leave, as they made very clear that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, exclusively reserved for those who had repented of sin and put their trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. How moving was that communion service, made up of long-term believers who had suffered greatly, and some brand new to the faith. This was the communion of saints.
Then, a few days later, while visiting at Nanjing Seminary, I went out to Amity Press. Just that week the 13th millionth copy of the Bible in one of the various Chinese dialects had come off the press. I heard the other day that the number is up to 32 million Bibles. This was and is the communion of the saints.
I. “Communion” – Just what is it?
The word in the Greek is koinonia.
The word means partnership, fellowship, relationship. It involves the activity and experience of “coming together” around a common commitment.
It is a word used frequently throughout the New Testament. Paul addresses believers in Corinth, declaring, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship (koinonia) of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
This word, koinonia, is one of the richest words in the Greek language. Long before it became associated with Christian vocabulary, it was used extensively by Greek writers, describing any partnership, any fellowship, any activity, any experience or relationship in which people come together. The essential meaning of this word is togetherness.
It was regularly used to describe the marriage relationship. Aristotle calls marriage a koinonia, a fellowship, a partnership.
It was regularly used to describe a business relationship. In one legal document, a man denies that he has any koinonia with his brother. There was no business partnership. To frame this in a positive context, a business relationship in which two people would pool their resources to work together for common profit and common good would be seen as communion, koinonia, partnership.
It describes a partnership in education. Plato, in his classic Republic, describes an ideal state in which men and women equally share in the common way of life. In the ancient world, women were uneducated and secluded. Plato’s vision is of a state where men and women will share, not only in equal opportunity of education, but in privileges and responsibilities of the body politic.
It describes the social life of the community. Plato goes on to note that, in dealings between citizens, injuries are likely to occur. Society has to develop a community life to handle disagreements, problems, injustices. They are part of normal human interaction.
This is also a political word. The state is a fellowship in which people must learn to work and act together in common unity. They must see a larger interest than that of their own particular clan and village. The state is a fellowship in which certain laws and obligations are accepted in order that life may be fuller and freer.
It is used in the international sense. Koinonia is an alliance of people who have a common goal and common mind and work together in international community that involves alliances that protect an entire geographic area from those who would threaten by trying to expand an empire into that area.
It is also a word which expresses the essence of friendship. Where there is no koinonia, no fellowship, there can be no friendship. Two people have to learn how to share. Each has more by giving to the other.
Can you see all these various usages of the word “communion,” making richer our understanding of it from the biblical perspective? You see this word, with all of its richness, used to describe the church of Jesus Christ, the gathered people who are brought together with a deep sense of fellowship, of partnership, of relationship.
II. “Saints” – Who are they? Who are we?
The Greek word translated “saints,” is hagioi.
This comes from the Greek word for “holy.” It is related to the word “sanctified.”
We observe this with some degree of frequency in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth these words: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints (hagioi), together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2-3).
As we have already seen in this series, the word “saint” throughout history has taken on two types of meaning.
One type of meaning is evidenced by our own immediate recoil at the thought that someone might refer to us as a “saint.” We are familiar with Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke, Saint John. We are aware that there are particular persons throughout history who have been elevated to sainthood by the Pope, some of these canonized ecclesiastically because of the fact that they were martyrs, people who are known for heroic virtue and the performance of specific miracles. At this very moment, Pope John Paul II is moving Mother Teresa through this process of beatification on a fast track to canonization. Who of us here today would be presumptuous enough to put ourselves in her league of godliness, self-sacrifice, and service to the poorest of the poor? I don’t see myself in her league, and I doubt that you do either. And our very church bears the name of Saint Andrew, a man from Galilee who had come to believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and who introduced his brother, Simon Peter, to the Savior (John 1:40-42). Who of us would put ourselves in that league?
Even though we acknowledge that there are those persons of particular distinction who are known in some Christian religious traditions to be “saints,” you and I must come to a more profound understanding of sainthood. Saints are not just those who have the word “saint” prefixed to their names. Saints are the persons who are the hagioi, the people of the church of Jesus Christ who have repented of sin and put their trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
The Apostle Paul addresses this in a most earthy way in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. He notes that every sinner who is saved by God’s grace is a saint. That person is in the process of being transformed by the Holy Spirit of God. That process is called “sanctification.” None of us have fully arrived, but we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. We are different as a result of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. He writes:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
What this says, in no uncertain terms, is that when you and I come together in the fellowship of believers, there is no pecking order, no hierarchy. We are all “saints.” Individually, I could address you by your first name, adding the word saint to that name. Collectively, we are seen by God, and should be seen by each other, as saints.
III. “Communion of Saints” – So what does that mean?
We now put the two Greek words together – koinonia hagioi. This literally means the fellowship of saints together.
This has two primary dimensions to it.
First, we have communion with God.
The Apostle John wrestles with this magnificently. In the first of his letters, he keeps a delicate oscillation going that alerts us to the fact that the basis of our fellowship as saints is our individual and mutual relationship with God through Jesus Christ as well as our relationship with each other. He writes: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4).
The “communion of the saints” is based on our fellowship with God. The church becomes just another community organization if the fellowship is not based on Jesus Christ. That’s why we make so clear that we are “endeavoring to be the family of God together in joyful, Christ-centered worship.” This is what makes us unique from any other civic organization of the sort we listed a few minutes ago. They all have some semblance of fellowship. Ours is the fellowship of saints, men and women individually and corporately committed to Jesus Christ as our Savior and our Lord.
Second, we are in communion with each other.
When we think of ourselves as a community of saints being in fellowship with each other, we must see ourselves in two differing dimensions of that fellowship.
Dimension #1: The communion of saints here.
By here I mean as distinct from there. I could say the communion of saints “below” and the communion of saints “above.”
This dimension of the fellowship of saints here is described by the Apostle John in these words: “. . . but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Stuart Briscoe puts it in these words: “If we can begin to look at our relationships with each other on that basis, we will realize that we are nothing more than sinners, but we are nothing less than saved by grace.”
The Apostle John describes this communion of saints as a fellowship of believers who are bound together in love. He writes in 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
A very wealthy man in a community was not known for his generosity to the church. The church was involved in a big financial program, so the fundraising committee decided that they had to pay him a visit. As they met with him, they said that, in view of his considerable resources, they were sure that he would like to make a substantial contribution to this program.
“I see,” he said. “So you have it all figured out, have you? In the course of your investigation have you discovered that I have a widowed mother who has no other means of support than me?” “No,” they responded, they did not know that. “Did you know that I have a sister who was left by a drunken husband with five children and no means to provide for them?” “No,” they said, they did not know that either. “Well, sir, did you know also that I have a brother who was crippled due to an automobile accident and can never work another day to support his wife and family?” Embarrassingly, they responded, “No, we did not know that either.” “Well,” he thundered, “I’ve never given any of them a cent, so why should I give anything to you?”
This is a community bound together by love. Yet some of us, in more subtle ways than that rugged, selfish individual, see ourselves as part of this community for only what we can get out of it. It is important to see ourselves in loving fellowship, partnership, togetherness and relationship!
Kids understand love.
One youngster, Rebecca, age 8, described love in the following terms: “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”
Chrissy, age 6, said: “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your french fries without making them give you any of theirs.”
Bobby, age 5, said: “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
Chris, age 8, described love: “Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Robert Redford.”
Mary Ann, age 4, said: “Love is when your puppy licks your face, even after you left him alone all day.”
And Jessica, Age 8: “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”
Our fellowship with each other must be motivated by both a love of Jesus Christ and a love for each other.
Dimension #2: The communion of saints there.
Hebrews 12:1-2 reads: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith . . . “
Isn’t that graphic language? Can you picture us as the communion of saints here in the arena, some running sprints, some throwing the javelin, others of us doing the long jump, some of us being long-distance runners, circling the track multiple times, with the communion of saints above or in the stands watching us, urging us on. Jesus Christ is making intercession for us. We will be reunited with them. What a beautiful picture that is.
A friend of mine, when asked, “Are your parents still alive?” responds, “Very much alive!” They say, “Oh, really, where do they live? Are they here with you in the United States or back in England where you were born?” His response is, “No! In heaven!”
People ask Anne and me, “How many children do you have?” We don’t subtract one from the three because Suzanne died. We say, “We have three children. Janet lives in Huntington Beach. Carla lives in Seattle. And Suzanne lives in heaven.” It is important for us to live in the awareness of the communion of saints, not only here but there, below and above.
It is in this context that Dietrich Bonhoeffer could write these words:
Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love – it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; He doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain – The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.
Let me, in conclusion, share with you some images of the communion of saints I have observed here on earth.
I remember, at the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, where a group of young couples despaired of the institutional church and decided to start a house church of their own on the mainland to save themselves the 30 to 40 minutes drive to our island church. Anne and I were crushed. These were the vital, young couples of the church. One was going to be the teacher/preacher, and they would meet at his house. They had great fellowship, but soon it became apparent that he wanted to quit his day job and become their pastor. He also needed help with the utilities, and it wasn’t always convenient to meet at his home. One day, they all got together and said, “You know, it’s worth the drive back to Key Biscayne. We miss some of the older people in the church. We never intended to start a brand new church. We can continue meeting as a fellowship group, but as a part of the larger church.” What joy that brought to my heart as I saw the communion of saints at work.
Last week I received an e-mail from a pastor by the name of Todd Richards. He said that one of our staff people, James Hamilton, was advertising to sell a guitar on the Internet. Somehow James identified himself as working on the staff of St. Andrew’s. The pastor’s name came up and Todd e-mailed me to see if I was the same John Huffman who once pastored the church at Pittsburgh. He described coming up to me as a 6- or 7-year-old, tugging at my robe after church and asking if he could take communion. I said, “If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior and really know what it’s about, it is alright with me.” Todd wrote, “I just thought you might want to know that, in some very special way, I think that conversation was very important to me. Here I am, 26 years later, in full-time ministry.” This is the communion of saints.
This week I also received an e-mail from Mark McCormick, rejoicing how God is working is his life and how happy he is in his new position as associate pastor of the First Baptist Church in Fullerton. With it came an invitation to preach at his installation on Sunday evening, February 1. Also participating in that service will be his brother, Kirk McCormick. What a joy it will be to be together with these two long-term colleagues, one serving in Boca Raton, Florida, and the other now in Fullerton. And to see Rachel and little Allyson. This is the communion of saints.
Last weekend, Anne and I were in Seattle with our daughter, Carla, for Thanksgiving. One of our St. Andrew’s family, John Vallely, is going through a stem cell transplant to combat his lymphomic cancer. He is having this done at the University of Washington Medical Center. We visited with him and his wife Karen. John was in isolation, behind a lead barrier to protect us visitors from his radioactivity, so intensive is his radiation. As we shared together, my mind roamed back over our quarter century of friendship – good, bad and average experiences of life together. It overwhelmed me once again that this is the communion of saints. We are friends because of Jesus Christ. And together, as the family of God, we will walk through these challenges together.
When the word came this week of the tragic death of Tim Dierenfield, pulled still alive from his burning cabin by his father, Charles, my predecessor as pastor here at St. Andrew’s, my heart broke. Yet, I’ve watched this week as his late wife Rachel’s friends here at St. Andrew’s have rallied to his side. I’ve watched as Ken and Peg Williams headed right there to Warner Springs to be with Charles. I’ve observed the outpouring of love and concern for this wonderful Dr. Charles Dierenfield, who has in recent years had the triple loss of two sons and a wife. In talking with him on the phone and observing all that is going on, I have seen the communion of saints at work.
I believe in the communion of saints! Do you?