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Sunday Sermons

The Communion of Saints
Hebrews 12:1, 18-29

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,for our “God is a consuming fire.”

~

I love the Olympics. Ever since watching the Magnificent 7 earn the first US gold medal in women’s gymnastics in 1996, I have been hooked. I love the Olympics, and this year’s 2018 Olympic games in Pyeong Chang were nowhere short of extraordinary. Of course all the people we expected to win made the news, all the Shaun Whites and Esther Kims; but what surprised me about these Olympic games were how exciting all the team wins were. Like our first ever gold medal in men’s curling. Or who could forget when the Women’s Hockey team won their first gold medal in 20 years against the Canadians. The two teams have faced each other for the gold medal 4 times in the last 20 years and yet the US has narrowly lost every time, usually in overtime. I was equally moved when a Hungarian speed skating team took home their country’s first ever gold medal. There is nothing like watching a team come together for a common goal and win. In the women’s cross country team sprint, an event I usually could care less about, I cried as I watched the final relay team member cross the finish line exhausted, but proud. I also cried when the female of a figure skating couple from Germany showed up with a new partner to her 5th own personal Olympics in 20 years, and finally left with gold.

These Olympic games were exhilarating. When the race is close and it comes down to the last 50 meters, the last skate, the last sprint to the finish line, the match point, you can’t help but feel like you’re there, sitting on the edge of your seat, cheering on the Team, sometimes shouting at the TV, encouraging them on to be the best that they can be and crossing your fingers that they will go all the way and bring home the gold.

As much hard work and dedication that it takes to win a gold medal we have to admit that none of these people did it on their own. Even in the individuals events, there were so many stories about people who were on the verge of quitting because of an injury if it wasn’t for someone who encouraged them along the way. They had to rely on the wisdom of their coaches, the dedication of their parents, teammates and fans cheering them on. They could not have done it alone. And this is even more evident and more exciting when teams win together, because teams depend on everyone pulling in the same direction, towards the same goal. But they also get to share the exhilaration of winning together as a team. Even when Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, broke the record to win the most Olympic medals ever given, he did so as part of a team relay. And when he swam the last race of his Olympic career, he also did so as part of a team. He was part of a 4X4 relay which depended just as much on his teammates as it did on him.

The same thing happens for us as Christians. We must work as a team and depend upon others and support others. The creed calls this the communion of saints. It’s the bond that we share with all believers in all times and all places. This is something we rely on and need. Every once in a while you may be able to go out and get gold all on your own in life, but spiritually, we are designed to be in community. This is why the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” When those in the community of faith get tired or they want to sit down and quit in the middle of a race, we need to be there to encourage them to press on in faith. We can’t be perfect all the time. When I go on maternity leave in a month or so, other members of the body of Christ will step up and fill in to preach. One day I’ll eventually have to retire and I will have to trust that someone else will be there to step in and preach every Sunday. Being part of the body of Christ is like running a team relay, you have to pass the baton for awhile and let someone else carry it. And because we are human, we will stumble and we will fall and we need help getting back up again and when it’s our turn, we take up the baton and we run.

Meeting together, coming together for worship not only gives glory to God, but it reminds us of who we are and whose we are. We find solace and strength in each other’s presence and in the bond that we share in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is part of what we are doing when we celebrate communion. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper we are not only communing with God, but we are communing with one another. Paul asks, “is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. We, the body of Christ, share one loaf and one cup and we all take from the same source because we all have the same need. The same thing that nourishes us nourishes our brothers and sisters.

But that is not all. During communion we are lifted up into Christ’s presence and share fellowship with believers in all times and places. Many liturgically rich traditions begin communion with the invitation from the minister, “lift up your hearts” to which the congregation responds “we lift them up to the Lord” and in that lifting of your hearts, we believe that the Holy Spirit carries us into Christ’s presence. And it is in God’s presence that we are all-past and present- united with that indelible bond binding us all together by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is why Hebrews encourages us to look to the faith of those who have come before us. The chapter just before our reading today gives countless examples:

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family… By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith Abraham, become a father…. By faith Abraham, offered Isaac as a sacrifice… By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child….By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land…By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets,  who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them….. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

The great forbearers of our faith can teach us much about what it means to live a righteous life before God. Our stories, our experiences have the ability to shape each other as the people of God- to encourage, to challenge, to push back, to walk with, and to carry.

Do you know what Paul’s favorite word is to use when he is addressing believers- when he’s writing his letters to all those churches struggling with disbelief and fractions and immorality of every kind? Do you know how we addresses them? It’s not Dear sinners, or, I am writing to those who can’t get their act together. He doesn’t start his letters, Dear hypocrites. No, he begins his letters by addressing believers as saints. “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.” “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” And if Paul were writing you a letter today he would address it the same way, “to the church in the Heights, all those who have been called by God to be saints.” Dear, saints.

You probably have never thought of yourself as a saint before- we usually think of saints as those people in the Bible, or those memorialized in stained glass, or the individuals the Roman Catholic Church has named saints after their death. But we are in fact saints. This doesn’t mean we don’t sin or we can look down on others outside the church, but you are made holy by association with Jesus. We are at the same time sinful and yet, also justified by the blood of the Lamb.  We are saints and we are called to be God’s holy people and to do God’s holy work. Brothers and Sisters, you are a part of the communion of saints.

When our Seminary group went to Israel, we had the opportunity to visit a Russian Orthodox Church on the Sea of Galilee. It was unlike any church I had ever seen- it was covered in paintings. I have been in many gorgeous Eastern and Roman Catholic churches which housed many relics and mosaics and paintings and stained glass. The paintings were usually old, faded; but these ones were so vibrant and alive. The painter had made them look real and wherever you looked, you stepped into a story from the Bible. Old Testament stories, New Testament stories, stories of martyrs who had died for their faith. The scenes showed places we had been- the site of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee, several healings and the site we had just come from in Caesarea Philippi at Peter’s house with the four friends had enough courage to tear through a roof and lower their paralytic friend down to Jesus so that he might be healed.

The pictures were so real they pulled you in and made you a part of what was going on in the story. And then our professor encouraged us all to look up and we saw Peter and Paul and James, John and the twelve, we saw the writers of the gospels, and we saw angels and martyrs and apostles; and then our professor said “these are the great cloud of witnesses that are cheering you on.” Those paintings begged us to share the story, to tell of the things that we had seen. That is what we do as saints- we encounter the stories of the Bible, we encounter the work of God in our lives and the great cloud of witnesses encourages us to share our experiences, to run the race with faith. Now it’s your turn. You are the ones in Olympic training and competing for the prize. We have been called on to pass the Olympic torch- to teach the faith to a new generation of saints. And that great cloud of witnesses, your brothers and sisters here in this church, all of us, are on the edge of our seats, pulling for you and cheering you on in the race. Can you hear the roar of the crowds?

~Pastor Lindsay