Monday, July 30, 2007

Communion of the saints?

Last week, the guy who was leading communion in church said something and I've been mulling it over all week without really getting anywhere.

He said that once he was praying for something personal and he had a strong sense that God said to him something along the lines of "you're not the only person praying for this, others are praying for you about this matter, and you do realise that not all of those praying for you are on earth..."

I'm really not sure what to make of this.

I know that Catholic doctrine asserts that the departed saints watch over us and may intercede on our behalf, but I also thought that this was one of the things that got thrown out by protestants in the reformation.

This thought ties in with my earlier thought on what happens when you die. Are dead people really in a position to view what is going on on earth?

Where does this belief come from anyway? Well, the Catholic encyclopedia is quite handy at this point, it says:
"The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices. The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption. The damned are thus excluded from the communion of saints. The living, even if they do not belong to the body of the true Church, share in it according to the measure of their union with Christ and with the soul of the Church..."
But I am slightly concerned that the first passage cited to support this statement comes from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.

But biblical origins of this doctrine seem to be based largely in Hebrews 12v1, where it talks about us being surrounded by a 'cloud of witnesses'.

Blueletterbible.org tells me that the word translated as 'witness' here is the Greek word 'martus' which is frequently translated as 'witness' in the NT but is also occasionally translated as 'martyr' (Acts 22v20 when referring to Stephen) or 'record' (Philippians 1v8 - 'For God is my record...'). So it is possible that the Hebrews passage speaks of a cloud of departed souls who are watching us, but it is equally possible that it is saying that we are not alone in our struggle - that we follow in the footsteps of those who were witnesses (and, indeed, martyrs); not that they're witnesses of us now, but they were witnesses for God and Christ.

Surely that is the point of the passage in Hebrews? Not that Abraham and the other heroes of faith are sitting up there watching us now, but rather that when they were alive they lived the life of a witness - they did something. I have always interpreted this passage to imply that given that there were witnesses in the past, there are others like them today - we are still surrounded by living witnesses, even if we don't realise it.

But are the dead witnesses of us now? If so, how can we know that?

1 comment:

Marcus G said...

I vary on this.

I mean, I don't go for the full blown Catholic thing. You know my views on Hell, so I am ruling out Purgatory too...

But - I do strongly believe in the Communion Of Saints, in that we are the body of Christ and as such have a strong family tie. We are united in Christ, because to be in Christ is to be one with him, and if we are all one in him, there is an obvious follow on which makes us one with each other. We are all one body because we share in the one bread - as St Paul expresses it.

Now: the Communion of those around us is obvious, and the example of those before us is clear. Your question is - do those before us watch over us?

This is where I vary. Because the simple answer is surely not. Surely they have better things to do - like worship God. If you get to see God clearly, then eternal life is not like watching Sky, where you get bored with one channel and flick through for a while till you get to Ricky - oh my, this is interesting, let's watch this guy for a while - goodness he needs prayer - Oh Jesus, help this bloke - no, I'm bored, let's flick on...

On the other hand, if you get to see God clearly, face to face, no more through a glass darkly, then you get to see his heart. And if his heart is filled with Ricky for a moment, then surely those watching will also be caring for Ricky and praying for Ricky and encouraging Ricky because that is what is on the Father's heart?

Who knows?

I prefer to see it this way.We are part of the same family - God's - and nothing can break that. Not distance, not life, not death. The Communion of Saints is indissoluable. So I am a part of the same church as Augustine and Luther, Peter and Paul, Wesley and Edwards, Ricky and and all my other blog friends - even if we never meet. We are part of each other because we are in Christ. We "belong", as they say in my part of the world. We are not alone.

And there is great comfort from the example, the prayer, the friendship, the fellowship, the family of that. How far do you want to take it?

Up to you.