Credo: A Sermon Series through The Apostles’ Creed // pt.18—“the communion of saints”

In 1927, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 21 years old. In that year, he completed his doctoral dissertation. The publication of that dissertation in 1930 captivated a number of people, not the least of which was the great theologian Karl Barth who referred to it as “a miracle.” In this book, Bonhoeffer makes an arresting statement. He writes:

There is in fact only one religion in which the idea of community is an integral element of its nature, and that is Christianity.[1]

In other words, according to Bonhoeffer, community is an inescapable reality for the believer. It is part and parcel of being a Christian, and there is no healthy Christianity without it.

What was the name of Bonhoeffer’s book? Sanctorum Communio. Translation: the communion of saints.

I agree with Bonhoeffer. I believe he is correct. Community, the life of the saints of God (i.e., all who are believers) lived out together, is “an integral element” of the nature of Christianity. This truth is firmly grounded in the short but profound statement from 1 Corinthians 12:

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

The “you” there is plural. Paul is speaking to all the believers in Corinth and, by extension, to all believers everywhere. The “body of Christ” is singular. The “members” is plural. And the “are” is emphatic! In other words: you, the saints, the individuals who have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, by definition are in and comprise the singular body of Christ on earth, the sanctorum communio, the communion of saints.

When we say we “believe in the communion of saints” we are pressing this idea forward, and we are right to do so. Let us consider how to honor, value, embrace, and safeguard the communion of saints.

How do we honor, value, embrace, and safeguard the communion of saints?

The ways we do this are many and varied. Let us consider six in particular.

Beware the devil’s hatred for the church.

First, we safeguard the communion of saints by remembering that the devil hates the church and wants to destroy it. In 1 Peter 5, Peter writes:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

The first part of that amazing verse speaks of the disposition that is necessary for the believer: (1) sober-mindedness and (2) watchfulness. The second part speaks of the disposition of the devil: (1) he prowls around and (2) he wants to devour someone. The someone he wants to devour is the body of Christ, the communion of saints.

Do you ever think of this? That your presence here and your participation in worship and your advancement of the kingdom in and through your life is utterly odious and noxious to the devil? Have you considered that by virtue of being present you have put yourself in his crosshairs? Have you considered that when you sing the songs and pray and open the word and listen and then apply the truths of God’s word, the devil is incited to wrath against you even more?

The language is quite clear: like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

Have we become too sophisticated to say this in our modern church-age, that the devil wants to devour you, silence you, destroy you? If we have, we have become more sophisticated than Christ and the apostles…and that is a chilling thought! No, let us hold to the simple truths: the devil hates the communion of saints because He hates Jesus. Learn to watch for his devious ways.

Judge yourself.

We have an enemy without, it is true. We also have an enemy within. It is telling that, in 1 Corinthians 11, we are actually invited to judge a particular member of the church. Does this please you? If so, consider that the member we are invited to judge is the member staring back from the member. You and I should judge our ownselves! Listen:

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

Yes, judge yourself! Look at your own heart! Take stock of your own inventory!

Becoming keenly aware of your own sins will help you not to be too severe with the sins of others. Consider the following story from the history of monasticism, the history of the monks.

Time and again we read of Abbots who refuse to join in a communal reproof of this or that delinquent, like Abbot Moses…who walked into the severe assembly with a basket of sand, letting the sand run out through many holes. “My own sins are running out like this sand,” he said, “and yet I come to judge the sins of another.”[2]

How is your basket of sand? Is the sand running out? Then tend to it before tending to the sins of others. Indeed, there is a time for the church to tend to sin in its midst, but never before each person has tended to his or her own!

Keep Jesus and His gospel preeminent.

We foster the communion of saints by keeping Jesus and His gospel preeminent. Brothers and sisters, do not forget why we are here! This is no mere assembly. This is no mere gathering. This is the church, the communion of saints! How are we “saints”? We are saints because we have been rendered thus by the shed blood of Jesus Christ! For this reason, the cross of Jesus and the gospel of our Lord simply must be preeminent.

In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul writes:

1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

How can Paul say that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”? Did Paul not speak of many other issues in his letters other than the cross? Do we not find instructions on worship and prayer and deacons and elders and ethics and lawsuits and marriage and countless other issues? Well, we do! Then how can he say this?

He can say that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” first, because none of the issues rose to the level of importance that the saving work of Jesus on the cross alone occupies and, secondly, because he unpacked all of these other issues in the very shadow of the cross. In other words, all of these other issues were approached by Paul in a cruciform manner, with the cross in view, so that truly each issue Paul addresses in the life of the church bears the markings of the cross. The cross was never absent from Paul’s instructions and deliberations. It was pervasive. It was preeminent. It was the key.

So too must the cross be preeminent for us!

The communion of saints is a community of the cross! We are a cross-bearing, cross-saved people! We approach each other in the shadow of the cross. We determine that our lives will honor the cross. And we are willing to pay the price of the cross for our Lord and for each other. Or so this should be the case.

Churches get sidetracked when the cross is no longer preeminent. The cross must be our north star! Christ crucified must be our message!

Be peacemakers.

We steward the communion of saints when we become peacemakers.

In Matthew 5, near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Paul applied this truth to the church in Romans 14 by writing:

19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

The language here is positive and powerful: “blessed,” “pursue,” “makes for peace,” “mutual upbuilding.” This should be characteristic of the communion of saints, the church!

Peace should be our passion. When achieved, it will bring great joy! Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, shared of one occasion when he saw this happen in a most dramatic way.

At the recent consecration of the fourth bishop of the Karamoja diocese, the preacher was the bishop of a neighboring diocese whose people have historically been at odds with the Karimajong (principally because of cattle rustling). At the end of his sermon, the preacher appealed for peace between the two tribes and began singing a song of peace. One by one, members of the congregation began singing. By the end of the song, the attending bishops, members of Parliament, and Karimajong warriors were all in the aisles dancing.

The vision of Christ breaking down the dividing walls of hostility between these historic rivals was so compelling that joy literally broke out in our midst. At that point in the service, I dare say, we were hardly restrained or moderate in our enthusiasm for the hope of peace given to us in Jesus Christ.

Church, we will either dance in peace or die in strife. Which will it be? Can we “pursue what makes for peace”? This suggests effort. This suggests discipline. This suggests deliberate intentionality. Pursue peace! Strive for it! Fight for it!

Value each other.

Part of valuing the communion of saints is valuing each other. In Philippians 2, Paul says something that cuts right across our modern penchant for self-obsession. He writes:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

Can you imagine? “Count others more significant than yourselves”? In the communion of saints, we take up our cross, we die to self, we are humbled before the crucified and risen Christ, and then we are freed to “count others more significant than ourselves.”

What would your life look like if you could truly do this? If you saw each person in here—their lives, their interests, their gifts, their salvation, their sanctification—as more important than your own? And, in turn, if they were simultaneously doing the same? What would this look like? It would look truly like a communion of saints!

In the beginning of verse 3, we are told what we must jettison in order to see this come to be: (1) selfish ambition and (2) conceit.

How do you view other people?

How do you view yourself?

I recently saw the movie “Spotlight,” about the priest sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church in Boston (and beyond). One of the most notorious priests involved in that demonic nightmare was John Geoghan, who committed crimes against over 150 children. A fellow inmate killed Geoghan in prison after hearing (he says) Geoghan boasting about his crimes. The prisoner who killed Geoghan says that he told Geoghan that he had destroyed the lives of over 150 children. According to him, Georghan replied, “I’m worth 300 of them.”[3]

My goodness. How horrific. I cannot stop thinking about that statement: “I’m worth 300 of [those kids].”

This is truly the demonic opposite of what Paul was saying when he said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

When we overvalue ourselves we can truly be carried to some monstrous extremes. When we devalue one another we allow ourselves to be cruel and vicious. But when Christ is Lord of our lives and we humbled under the knowledge of our own need for Him, then we are free to see one another as valuable, as fellow pilgrims, as blood-bought brothers and sisters.

Keep gathering.

Finally, church, we honor, value, embrace, and safeguard the communion of saints, when we simply keep gathering. How do we gather? In the name of Jesus and in the bonds of love. We gather again and again to worship and build one another up in Christ. Listen to what the writer of Hebrews said in Hebrews 10:

23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

My goodness! What a word! I love the verbs:

  • Hold fast the confession.
  • Stir up one another to love and good works.
  • Do not neglect to meet.
  • Encourage one another.

The communion of saints is a communion. We commune together. We are a community.

Do not stop gathering! Do not stop meeting! Have you been wronged? Then go to the one who has wronged you. Have you wronged another? Then go to the one you have wronged. Are you hurting? Then call for the communion of saints to pray!

The world needs to see the church truly being the communion of saints! The world just may begin to listen again if it sees us being the communion of saints! Church, our witness hinges upon us becoming a community of cross-shaped love. Are we?

Fred Craddock once wrote movingly of his father’s disdain for and skepticism of the church. I would like for you to hear what he wrote.

My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home.  Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, “I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right?  Isn’t that the name of it?  Another name, another pledge.” That’s what he’d always said.

Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, “There’s one now, sic him, get him, get him,” and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, “The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.”  I guess I heard it a thousand times.”

One time he didn’t say it. He was in the Veterans hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, “It’s too late.” They put in a metal tube, and x-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.”

He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”

I said, “What is your story, Daddy?”

And he wrote, “I was wrong.”[4]

The communion of saints.

May the world look closely at us and say, “We were wrong.”

May Jesus look closely at us and say, “Well done. Well done. My good and faithful servants.”


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol.1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p.131.

[2] Thomas Merton, The Way of the Desert (New York, NY:  New Directions), p.19.


[4] Craddock, Fred B. Craddock Stories. Edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward. (Nashville, TN: Chalice Press, 2001), p.14.

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