Confession: I’ve always had a bit of a morbid vein in my personality. Not, like, Sylvia Plath morbid—I’ve just always been very aware of the passing of time and the fragility of life. As a Christian my hope is anchored in the sure and certain return of Christ, the final resurrection, and a God who is making all things new. And, while these truths have sustained me in my moments of deepest despair, I often wonder if my evangelical upbringing would have benefited from a more robust appreciation for the Communion of Saints as I wrestled in thinking about time, separation from those departed, and the hope that is ours in Christ. For certain, concerns about if we “pray to” or “with” the saints are worth consideration (I’m not going to try to tackle them in this post). What I do want to suggest is that we would do well to consider a richer understanding of the relationship between the Church triumphant (in heaven) and the Church militant (on earth) in our worship.
From very early on Christians buried their dead near their places of worship. Where others placed their dead outside of cities and avoided such sites, Christians often celebrated the anniversaries of the death of their martyrs with the Lord’s Supper. Oftentimes this celebration was held at the place where the martyr was buried. Soon, many churches included the bones of the martyrs within the church building. Since death was not the final word about our bodily existence, it didn’t need to be something fearful. Moreover, Christians proclaimed that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord, and there was no place where the Lord was more present than in the community gathered for worship. The understanding was that in Christ all—including members of the Church triumphant—are one. This is the belief conveyed in the lyrics of the hymn “For All the Saints:”
O blest communion,
We feebly struggle,
They in glory shine;
All are one in Thee,
For all are Thine. Alleluia, Alleluia!
Before we’re tempted to think this understanding is something foreign to the Wesleyan tradition, consider this hymn written by Charles:
Come let us join our friends above
That have obtained the prize,
And on the eagle-wings of love
To joy celestial rise;
Let all the saints terrestrial sing
With those to glory gone,
For all the servants of our King
In earth and heaven are one.
Charles Wesley makes clear that when the Church gathers for worship we on earth join our song “with those to glory gone” in praise to the Lamb on His throne.
Admittedly, this all seemed rather speculative and esoteric to me until I experienced the loss of beloved family members. While I grew up believing that angels somehow joined with us when we gathered for worship, I never considered that the “cloud of witnesses” might also be singing too. In fact, it’s actually the other way around: the Church on earth is invited to join in the eternal worship when we gather together. This has become for me one of the most marvelous visions of what it means to worship together.
Embracing the full presence of the Church (militant and triumphant) in worship is much more than a coping mechanism. Neither is it some sci-fi fantasy (think Anakin Skywalker’s ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi) played out in our imagination. It is actually a concept that enriches our worship. If, indeed, Christian worship is the place where the Church triumphant and the Church militant meet, where we get a taste of the glorious hope that is ours in Christ, where we join in the song of heaven with all the saints, the martyrs, and the hosts of heaven; how should that perspective shape the way we worship when we gather together?
If it was not for an understanding of the communion of saints past and present, I would have abandoned Christianity a long time ago. My greatest problem was that God never left the church building or the past in any significant way. But through worship that included old things I knew I was connected to something ongoing and much bigger than me. When my local church abruptly tried to make itself relevant–basically jettisoning the old things from worship–I lost my footing. Eventually, I was forced to distance myself from all things church. Because I had an understanding of the ongoing nature of Christianity I had absolutely no problem looking to the past. I delved into Wesley and early Methodism, and then stumbled into the Heidelberg Catechism. Strange thing is by engaging things from the communion of saints of the past, I ended up engaging the communion of saints from the present who gave me teaching appropriate for the present; I was finally folded me into God’s ongoing story. Prior to that I had felt more like a spectator; I knew some things about Christianity but was clueless how that impacted me in the present. (One of my many watershed moments from very modern teaching based on the Heidelberg is that the ascension of Christ is what has the greatest impact on us right here, right now.) The communion of saints past and present proved to be a very powerful and irresistible force that ripped up my perceptions of myself and the modern church. Christianity has to be lived in the current moment, but it should be grounded in the strength of the past. In his book about the Heidelberg, “Body & Soul”, M.Craig Barnes inspired me to write down this understanding of faith which I have seen play out in my own life:
The faith journey: Learning to go against our own natural inclinations and doubts.
Faith is doing what only makes sense in hindsight.
Three things are required for such a journey to succeed
My Faith – A God-given understanding that I, as an individual, am included in his plan of salvation. Salvation is not a group plan. This is the lesson the Moravians taught John Wesley that ultimately led to his experience of assurance at Aldersgate.
Our Faith – Being folded into “the church”: God’s mission to the world; the training ground for forgiveness. Despite being a particularly flawed community, the members strive to watch over each other in love, while continually looking beyond themselves to a greater God.
Our Great Faith – Being folded into the larger, ongoing story of God’s plan of salvation. Not to worry, we are not the first to attempt this incredible journey of “going against our natural inclinations”. There are 2000+ years of those who have gone before us and they have left us guideposts of encouragement: their writings, catechisms, creeds, hymns and liturgy.
It takes all three levels of faith. Chances are great that when you go against your natural inclination and follow Jesus into a situation, you will come out beat up and scarred with “My Faith” stretched to the limits, no longer sure if it is even intact. Only hindsight within the context of an unfathomable God of Mystery! who loves me and who has an ongoing plan of salvation that includes me will make any sense of it. But there also needs to be the realization that I am nowhere close to being the first or only one to embark on what, at the moment, seems like such a ridiculous and costly journey.
Good article. Especially the points about why having cemetery nearby, or burying martyrs in church. Symbolism made real, symbolism that is easily forgotten.
I also appreciated the point that we can join the perpetual worship of the heavenly host when we worship.