Sanctorum Communionem - The Communion of Saints
The month of November begins with the festival we call "All Saints Day." The Apostles' Creed refers to the saints with the phrase sanctorum communionem, usually translated as "the communion of saints." What does this word "saint" mean? "Saint" simply means someone who is holy. Those in heaven we know to be holy simply by their presence there, but what about those on earth? Who on earth is holy enough to be considered part of the communion of saints?
To answer that question we need to ask "What makes someone holy?" Is it some lifelong dedication to a way of life or pious personal devotion? No, it is Christ who makes us holy. In his commentary on First Peter, Martin Luther explains that we must accept that we are holy by the blood of the Christ.
For it would be the greatest slander and blasphemy of the name of Christ if we refused to honor Christ's blood for washing away our sin or refused to believe that this blood makes us holy. Hence you must believe and confess that you are holy, but by this blood and not by virtue of your own piety(Luther's Works 30:7).
We also find the following passage from Luther's 1531 Galatians commentary in which he reflects on his view of saints:
When I was a monk, I often had a heartfelt wish to see the life and conduct of at least one saintly man. But meanwhile I was imagining the sort of saint who lived in the desert and abstained from food and drink, subsisting on nothing but roots and cold water.... But now that the light of truth is shining, we see with utter clarity that Christ and the apostles designate as saints, not those who lead a celibate life, are abstemious, or who perform other works that give the appearance of brilliance or grandeur, but those who, being called by the Gospel and baptized, believe that they have been sanctified and cleansed by the blood of Christ. Thus whenever Paul writes to Christians, he calls them saints, sons and heirs of Godd, etc. (Luther's Works 27:81-82)
As you look about the congregation you belong to, do you see a "holy" Christian church or do you see a congregation riddled with all sorts of sin and all types of sinners? If you live on this earth you see the latter. We look around in our congregations and see people who gossip, lie, steal, who are unfaithful, misuse the name of God, etc. Does taht mean you belong to the wrong congregation and should think about changing churches for one that is really holy? If there ever were such a holy congregation free from such sins, it would be polluted by your presence and then cease to be holy. Luther states:
Therefore we correctly confess in the Apostles' Creed that we believe in a holy church. For it is invisible, dwelling in the Spirit... therefore its holiness cannot be seen. God conceals and covers it with weaknesses, sins, errors, and various offenses and forms of the cross, in such a way that it is not evident to the senses anywhere. Those who are ignorant of this are immediately offended when they see the weaknesses and sins of those who are baptized, have the Word, and believe; and they conclude that such people do not belong to the church(Luther's Works 27:84-85).
How then do we know if we are in a congregation which is part of the "holy Christian church, the communion of saints" if we cannot see it but can only believe it? The Augsburg Confession Article VII clearly answers this question:"The Church is the congregation of saints (Psalm 149:1) in which the Gospel is purely taught and preached and the Sacraments are correctly administered." If you seek the "communion of saints" here on earth, go to the place where the Gospel and Sacraments are rightly taught and administered. You may not be able to see it but you may be certain it is there.
Yours in Christ,
(this article is based on a similar article by my college and seminary classmate, and long-time friend, the Rev. Roger Gallup of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, River Grove, Illinois).