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Credo XIV

“(I believe in)…the communion of saints,”

My first Communion terrified me. At age fourteen I “confirmed” my baptism vows, meaning I relieved my parents and baptism sponsors of their responsibility for my eternal soul. Now heaven or hell was completely in my hands. The next step was Holy Communion.

A line of us sat in the first row of the cathedral-like church, the boys in suits and ties, the girls in modest dresses, reciting the liturgy that forgave our sins. It was now time to march forward to the rail and receive Communion. But what if we thought something impure before we got the bread and wine? What if we had doubts? What would happen to our eternal souls if we still went through with Communion? We whispered among ourselves and wondered. We thought about escaping, but the exit routes seemed to be blocked by stern-looking ushers. And even if we made it out of the church, we would still have to face our parents. Nope. It was a done deal. We had to march up and take our medicine–like all sacraments, for better or worse. Needless to say, we all survived.

Since then Communion has been less terrifying and more meaningful. It’s a radical thing to take into your self the body and blood of Jesus. Maybe the bread and wine “transubstantiates,” maybe the bread and wine are “symbolic,” or maybe we don’t have words for a reality that we can’t understand completely.

Jesus wants to be part of me. No…that’s not exactly right. Jesus insists on being part of me. He demanded something unheard of back in His time on Earth. He said, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Shocking. Discipleship ranks thinned considerably. Only twelve guys hung around, and one of them would betray him.

Ease up, I want to say, It’s only bread and wine. But that’s not what Jesus said, even when He offered bread and wine. He said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” And a moment later, He gave them a cup of wine and said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant…”

No other religion has anything like it. It is not in the Jewish tradition. In some ways it is repulsive, suggestive of cannibalism, a nearly universal taboo. Only Jesus insists on being literally part of His followers, body and soul.

That’s a great story, but it’s still not the whole story of the communion of saints.

I brush by this phrase when I recite the Apostles’ Creed in church, thinking vaguely of our monthly Holy Communion ritual and saints. I get a foggy vision of St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Patrick sharing a loaf and a cup. But that vision gets the original intent of the authors wrong.

At the time the Apostles’ Creed was written, the church used the term Eucharist for the sacrament Protestants started calling Holy Communion a thousand years later. And when those authors of the Creed did their work, the church hadn’t canonized many saints. The authors meant something totally different.Communion with a small “c” is sharing intimately and generously. Saints with the small “s” are believers like you and me.

Jesus gives us a foretaste of “the communion of saints” at the Last Supper. We remember His words during our Eucharist rituals, giving his body as the bread and his blood as the wine, as recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But in Luke’s gospel, Jesus gives us His feelings: “You’ve no idea how much I’ve looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the Kingdom of God.”

We worship a God who is eager to share a meal with us. He promises that we’ll do it again. He promises a communion of saints now and in the world to come. 

I remember our first Thanksgiving in Jacksonville with our four-year-old and six-year-old sons. We were living in a sparsely furnished three-bedroom apartment, driving two old cars, one of which had no air conditioning, twenty-five thousand dollars of debt hung over our heads, and I was working sixty to eighty hours per week. Friends had invited us to dinner, but the boys came down with chicken pox on Wednesday; we would not have been welcome guests. Our family would be alone, a long way from anywhere we had ever called home.

My last patient on Wednesday afternoon gave me a smoked turkey–an odd, unexpected, but timely gift. The next day, the four of us prayed, opened some cans, and sliced our donated turkey. I have never been so grateful that we were together, we had enough, and we had hope. This was a communion of saints. 

I remember our last prayer partner dinner in Jacksonville. For five years, three men had met with me weekly and prayed for our church, our community, our lost friends, our families. Our wives also met weekly and prayed. Then circumstances changed and they all moved, but one night we gathered together and celebrated birthdays and prayed together and remembered together and hoped together. This was a communion of saints.

There have been other times that a meal turned into a communion of saints–the last night out on a canoe trip I guided on the Llano River for a group of teens from the Lutheran church in Odessa, Texas; a dinner at the unlikely Claude’s, a fine French restaurant in Davao City, Philippines, at the end of an evangelism crusade; another at a restaurant in San Jose, Costa Rica, after a medical mission. Last Friday, nine fellow church members gathered at our home and ate shared food and watched a movie about Jesus and prayed together for the things on our hearts. These are communions of saints.

The formula is: people who know Jesus gathering together and sharing in gratitude and hope, and receiving joy. If you’ve experienced this, good. If not, you should. You need three things: know Jesus, be in a Christian community, and be a saint.

Other religions have saints. The Hindu tradition, Buddha, and Islam each lay out a course of action that can lead to a holy life if one is willing to work hard and follow that path. Those who are disciplined and fortunate become holy men, saints.

I’m not that kind of saint; I’m not that good.

Jesus likes saints, too, but He makes it easy. That is where the communion thing comes in. When He insists that I eat His body and drink His blood, He is insisting that I allow Him into me body and soul, and trust Him to lead me on a path toward perfection. I don’t have to be anywhere near holy to take Him up on this offer. It’s open to the worst of sinners. He offered it to Judas after Judas had already taken the betrayal money. The difference between Jesus’ plan and other plans for sainthood is that my own discipline and hard work count for nothing with Jesus. The only thing that counts is my surrender.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

It’s that easy. Open the door. Let Jesus in. He will fill you up and you won’t be alone. We’ll eat together and laugh together and hope together. That’s the promise. That’s the communion of saints.

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