Sermon: The Communion of the Saints

It is good to be back. Thank you to those of you who prayed for us on our trips. Both Wittenberg and Canada were beautiful. But it is good to be back with our people. We pick up again in the middle of our series on the Apostles’ Creed. We have been exploring together this fall the core teachings of the Christian faith. We are now in the realm of things which fall under the work of the Holy Spirit. Though the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always at work in all the works of God in the world, the forming of saints is particularly the work of the Holy Spirit. We confess to believe in the communion of saints, but what is a saint? What does it mean to believe in the communion of saints? To answer these questions, I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to the first letter of Peter, chapter 2, beginning in verse 1. The letters of Peter are toward the end of the Bible, before the three letters of John, but after Hebrews and James. 1 Peter 2, verses 1-10. Before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says,

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,

a chosen and precious cornerstone,

and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

“the stone the builders reject has become the cornerstone”

and

“the stone that causes people to stumble,

and the rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God (You may be seated)

What does it mean to be a saint?

A couple years after Mother Teresa’s death, her private diaries were published. Mother Teresa served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and was considered an incredibly saintly woman throughout her life. In fact, she officially became a Catholic Saint last September. But when her diaries were released, against her wishes, many people were troubled. They revealed a woman who doubted, who struggled with a sense of God’s absence, and wondered about her own life and the work she was doing. They revealed a very human woman of faith. To many, this didn’t seem very saint-like.

Often when we think of saints, we think of some sort of ‘super Christian’ who would never doubt, never struggle, or never do all the stupid sins the rest of us do. Biblically-speaking, a saint is not a super-Christian, a saint is simply a Christian. ‘Saint’ is the word we use to translated hagios, which means ‘holy one.’ A saint is ‘holy’ – chosen and called by God, set apart for work in his kingdom. In a word, all Christians are saints.

Most of us probably don’t feel very saintly much of the time, but if God has rescued you from sin, you are a saint. If God has gotten a hold of your life, then you are chosen and called into a wonderful life of serving God’s kingdom. Holiness is not on the entrance exam into sainthood, it is what happens when God makes us saints. Don’t believe me yet, ask Israel.

After living for generations in slavery in Egypt, the people cried out to the Lord and with his mighty hand he delivered them. God worked powerfully to release them from oppression, sending ten plagues to break the power of Pharaoh and to lead his people out of bondage into freedom. Forty days after God set them free, he led them to the foot of Mount Sinai. Listen to what happens:

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.

God rescued them apart from anything they had done. Elsewhere, God says that he didn’t chose them because they were the most powerful or most beautiful, but because he loved them. And because he loved them, God chose and called them. God delivers them and then he call them his treasured possession (say ‘treasured possession’). They are the most precious thing in the world to him. They are the thing that, if the house was on fire and everyone was out, they are the one thing you would run back inside to grab. They are God’s treasured possession. They are also a kingdom of priests (say ‘kingdom of priests’). The people, all of them, were to live in a way that the world knew what God was like by watching them. They were to proclaim God’s word and to live God’s word – a kingdom of priests. And they were a holy nation (say ‘holy nation’). Though they lived among the rest of the nation, they were not to be like the other nations. They were set apart for God’s work, set apart by how they lived, how they loved, and who they served. While they were not called to withdraw from the world, they were called to live God’s ways in a lost and broken world.

Three aspects of Israel’s calling, say them after me: treasured possession, kingdom of priests, holy nation. They were chosen by God – not because of their virtue or holiness, but because of God’s love and mercy. They were called to live God’s way in a broken world and to live and speak in a way that the world knew the God who had saved them. In a word, God rescued Israel and then made them saints. They were chosen and called for God’s kingdom mission in the world.

That was Exodus 19, and the rest of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch, only do three main things. First, Israel is told to build a tabernacle (later a temple) – a place where God would be worship and where people would be healed and reconciled to God. Second, to establish a priesthood – the Levites – who would proclaim God’s word and bring people into the presence of God. Lastly, to set out the ways of grateful living. God gives them instructions on how to live in a way that is fitting for their calling and the redemption God has won for them.

Three aspects of Israel’s calling as saints, say them after me: treasured possession, kingdom of priests, holy nation. Three ways God sets up so that Israel will live into that mission, say them after me: temple, priesthood, and grateful living.

This is what it meant to be a saint in the Old Testament – to be chosen and called by God, set apart for his work in the world. Here is our question: Does God change the way he makes saints? Does he change his calling for his people?

Jesus Christ came into this world and conquered sin, death, and the devil through his life of obedience, death on the cross, resurrection from the grave, and ascension into heaven. Jesus defeated a foe far greater than Pharaoh and did it, not only for the people of Israel, but for all who languish in sin and suffering – all of us. After this greatest work of deliverance, what does God’s word say? Listen again to the word of 1 Peter, from the New Testament:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood (say ‘kingdom of priests’), a holy nation (say ‘holy nation’), God’s special possession (say ‘treasured possession’) that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Tell me, does God change his calling? Are the people of God still those chosen because of the Father’s love instead of their own holiness? Are they still so loved by God that he would chase after them into a burning building? Are the people of God still called to show the world what God is like? Are they still called to proclaim the praise of God, his mighty works in the world and in our lives? Are the people of God still called to live God’s way in a lost and broken world so that the Spirit may use our loves so that others will be drawn to Christ?

Tell me, does God change his calling for his people? No. Saints are still today and always have been those people chosen by God out of love and called to live for him in a way that his name is glorified, his kingdom is advanced, and the gospel proclaimed. In a world, God still makes Christians – saints – for the same purpose he always has.

We began this morning by confessing to believe in the “communion of saints.” We learned that in both the Old and New Testaments, God creates saints out of love and sends them into the world to glorify his name and live for him. But what about this ‘communion of saints’? In the Old Testament, after God’s calling of Israel, we noticed three things: temple, priesthood, and grateful living. These continue into the New Testament, but how God chooses to continue them reveals what it means to be the communion of saints.

Listen to this from 1 Peter 2: As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house (say ‘temple’), to be a holy priesthood (say ‘priesthood’), offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (say ‘grateful living’). Brothers and sisters, it is all still there – temple, priesthood, and grateful living. God’s method of calling and growing saints does not change – with one key difference.

In the Old Testament, the tabernacle and temple of God was built with human hands. It was a physical building. God instructed them how to do it, but it was the people who constructed the bronze sea, the altar, the tent, the table, and the lampstand. Upon this physical space fashion by the people, God’s presence came to rest and, it was said, God’s glory and presence dwelled in the tabernacle and temple. These were physical spaces where God chose to dwell and do his work in and among the people.

Yet in the new covenant, God’s temple is not made of brick and mortar, but of people. you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. Jesus is the foundation and cornerstone of the church, and God is building his church on that firm foundation. This is what we mean by the communion of saints – the people of God being build together into the house of God, where his presence dwells and his work is done.

Imagine it like this (bring up lego pieces): each Christian is a living stone, a brick, God has placed in order to build his house. Every brick is chosen and precious. Every brick fits into this big glorious house God is building. Some bricks are very visible, while others are never seen. Yet each is important. Each matters for what God is building.

I borrowed this legos from Kelton Eiklenborg – thank you, Kelton. I know it was a sacrifice to let me use these. So let’s imagine this brick is Kelton’s brick in God’s church. Peter tells us that we don’t build ourselves, but that we are being built into a spiritual house, which tells us that we do not know yet whether Kelton’s brick will be visible and prominent or less visible and hidden. But we know that his brick, his life, his calling, is important in God’s house. But Kelton is also not the only brick in the building. God has been making saints and building them into his house long before Kelton came on the scene, and he will do it long after Kelton is gone. I see Annie Oelmann and Jeff Bakker’s bricks here, John Calvin’s brick here, John and Marlys’ bricks here, Luther and Augustine’s bricks there, Etta and Rhonda’s bricks over there, Thomas, Peter, and Mary’s bricks there.

As you come to him, the living stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built together into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

What we do not see are bricks off by themselves. A lego brick by itself is not very exciting, they are meant to be put together and built into something. In the same way, a Christian is meant to be built up together with other Christians. We are part of the communion of saints, the people of God, the temple of God.

Built up together by God himself, this communion of saints, this royal priesthood, this holy nation, is the place where God’s glory choose to dwell. Now, it is not in the physical place of the temple, but in the gathered body of Christ, the church, that God by his Spirit dwells within his people. Instead of the glory of God descending on the temple, it descends upon the church.

What does it mean to be a saint? It is to be chosen and called by God for the work of his kingdom. It is, like Israel, being chosen by a loving God apart from anything we have done. It is being called to live for God – to rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave the pure spiritual milk of the word, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation. Being a saint is being called to live and speak in a way that God is glorified and the gospel proclaimed through us. Being a saint is being joined into the communion of saints, the body of Christ, the very temple of the Holy Spirit, where God chooses to dwell and where he works to grow us all up in Christ.

What does it mean to be a saint? Perhaps our minds should drift less to the Mother Teresas of this world, but to the ordinary brothers and sisters right next to us that God is building into his house. Perhaps then, we will be more ready to live out our calling as God’s saints for the sake of his kingdom.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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