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I Believe in the Communion of Saints

All Saints' Day: 1st November, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Rev 7:2-4,9-14; Ps 24; 1 Jn 3:1-3; Mt 5:1-12a

What distinguishes us as Anglo-Catholic Christians? Well, one thing we do here at St Peter's is venerate the saints. At morning Mass during the week we observe the saints days as they are laid out in the Anglican lectionary, changing the liturgical colours and selecting readings and collects to honour a martyr or an apostle or other great saints of the church. In addition, several times a year, we mark the red-letter days of the church with a 6.15pm High Mass, as we celebrate the life and death of our patron saint, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, or St Michael and All Angels, or the New Guinea Martyrs.

This liturgical and theological emphasis sets us apart as Anglo-Catholics, and draws some criticism from other Christians. One conservative evangelical website (gotquestions.org) has this to say:

Question: "Is worship of saints / Mary biblical?"
Answer: The Bible is absolutely clear that we are to worship God alone. The only instances of anyone other than God receiving worship in the Bible are false gods, which are Satan and his demons .... Roman Catholics attempt to "bypass" these clear Scriptural principles by claiming they do not "worship" Mary or saints, but rather that they only "venerate" Mary and the saints. Using a different word does not change the essence of what is being done .... We are to follow their example, yes, but worship, revere, or venerate, no!

Actually, using different words is rather significant; and this debate is nothing new. St Augustine, amidst the 4th centrury Donatist controversy, makes it clear that the Church builds her altars to God alone, although in memory and honour of the saints and martyrs (Augustine, Reply to Faustus XX.21; cf. City of God XXII.10). At the turn of the 5th century Jerome and his pupil Vigilantius fell out over this question of the veneration of saints. The orthodox Catholic position became very clear through these controversies: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven are bound together in mystical union through the Body of Christ.

The origin of today's feast, All Saints Day, comes out of this debate and the orthodox emphasis on honouring the saints who have gone before us. On 13th May in 609 (or 610) Pope Boniface IV made the bold move of consecrating the Pantheon at Rome — long a place of worship to the Roman gods — to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all martyrs, and ordering a special feast day. Then just over a century later Pope Gregory III moved the feast day to 1st November as a way of Christianising the celtic harvest festival of Samhain. It was soon after this that the phrase "communion of saints" was added to the final stanza of the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen."

Far from being un-Biblical or drawing us away from the worship of God, communion with the saints, living and departed, is a foundational Biblical concept. The English word "communion" derives from the Greek "koinonia". The word occurs 19 times in the New Testament, 13 of these in Paul's letters. It refers to Eucharistic communion (1 Cor 10:16), fellowship in prayer (1 Cor 11:22), a benediction in the Holy Spirit (Phil 4:23), the communality of congregational life (Gal 6:6) and the sharing of financial support (Phil 4:10-20). One could argue that koinonia is church. It is what we do.

In the New Testament the saints who share koinonia or communion are mostly living. But with the persecution of the early church, the idea of the saints was extended to the martyrs. We are still in communion with our deceased sisters and brothers, we still experience koinonia with the saints who have been killed for their faith. Something of this can be seen in today's reading from Revelation. In his vision St John experiences communion with: "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white .... These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7: 9,14).

I get a strong sense of the communion of saints when I worship here at St Peter's. The presence of those who have gone before us, the presence of those now taken up into the arms of God is sometimes palpable. Have you experienced this? It is particularly strong for in the Eucharist, the sharing of Holy Communion. This is the symbolic heart of koinonia, the real presence of Christ, our fellowship in prayer, the benediction of the Holy Spirit, the communion of our common life and support for those in need. We are the Body of Christ, living and departed, in and through the breaking of bread and sharing of wine.

That sense of communion often motivates me to keep going; to keep the faith. I want to follow the example of the saints, yes, but it is more than that. In the Eucharist, in Christ, I somehow commune with them. It is one of the mysteries of faith: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen."


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