Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
" THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS IS CHRIST’S GIFT TO HIS PEOPLE."
Q. What do you understand by the
communion of saints?
A. First, that believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with Him and share in all His treasures and gifts. Second, that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members.
 Rom. 8:32; I Cor. 6:17; 12:4-7, 12, 13; I John 1:3.  Rom. 12:4-8; I Cor. 12:20-27; 13:1-7; Phil. 2:4-8.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11;12:27-13:8
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
By the grace of our God, we could sit together today at the table of the Lord; together we ate one bread, drank from one cup. Therein expression was given to the unity which the Lord has worked in our midst. The Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper catches this aspect of the table’s significance like this:
"By the same Spirit we are also united in true brotherly love as members of one body. For the apostle Paul says, Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. As one bread is baked out of many grains and one wine is pressed out of many grapes, so we all, incorporated in Christ by faith, are together one body. For the sake of Christ, who so exceedingly loved us first, we shall now love one another, and shall show this to one another not just in words but also in deeds."
With these well-known words, the Form says that the unity known as the communion of saints is the work of Jesus Christ, His gift to His people. Exactly because this communion of saints is Christ’s gift is this communion of saints also His mandate to His people.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS IS CHRIST’S GIFT TO HIS PEOPLE.
1. The delightful flavor of this gift.
The Father, we heard last week, chose a people for Himself before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). These chosen ones the Father in turn gave to the Son (Jn 17:6). The Son died for all whom the Father gave Him, and now in the course of church history causes the gospel to come to the attention of these elect persons. Through His Spirit He works faith in their hearts. Then the Lord does not leave these believers alone; rather, He gathers them from their various homes in the several suburbs of a given town, and brings them together – church. This church gathering work occurs all over the globe, amongst people of any tribe and tongue and race. That was last week’s material.
This church, now: how do the members of this church get on? What sort of chemistry occurs between these members?
The question is important. After the fall into sin, Adam was content to blame Eve, point his finger. Cain, driven by envy and selfishness, killed his brother (Gen 4). The Psalms repeatedly describe the wicked –and that’s all people by nature since the fall into sin- as having a mouth "full of cursing and deceit and oppression" (Ps 10:7). Material like this and so much more leads to the list of Gal 5:
"Now the works of the flesh [that’s fallen man!] are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like…" (vs 19ff).
To be with such a group cannot be rewarding; here is strife, trouble, driven by selfishness. Here is lots of ‘take’ and no ‘give’. The church Christ gathers, though, breathes a different atmosphere. The reason is that the ascended Christ has sent His Holy Spirit to change people’s hearts, make alive that which was spiritually dead. What this change looks like? People who produced the "works of the flesh" now produce "the fruit of the Spirit." That is: people whose conduct and attitudes were characterized by lewdness, envy, outbursts of wrath, etc, now reflect conduct and attitudes characterized –says Gal 5:22f- by "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." This is distinctly a different atmosphere!
We need to get a better handle on what this changed atmosphere tastes like. Belonging to a group of people characterized by love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, etc: what do you think, how does that feel? We recognize: there’s something desirable about such a group! And indeed: the psalmist says precisely that. I think of Ps 16: "As for the saints who are on the earth, ‘They are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight’" (vs 3). The psalmist longs to be with the saints; being with them is delightful. Ps 133 says the same. "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brethren to dwell together in unity" (vs 1). It’s "good", it’s "pleasant".
But why? What makes this communion of saints so good and pleasant, so delightful? Surely, beloved, it’s this: the body of people whom the Spirit has renewed produce spiritual fruit made in heaven. The list includes love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, and so on. Those are precisely the gifts the Lord Jesus Christ Himself displayed when He left the glory of heaven to come to earth. 1 John 4: "in this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (vss 9f). Love: that’s the self-emptying of the Son, love is that He gave Himself to take on His shoulders the eternal wrath of God we deserved. That is love: giving of self for the benefit of another. If that’s the attitude that characterizes this group renewed by the Holy Spirit, this communion of saints, it’s no wonder that belonging to this group is ‘delightful’.
Let’s draw it out a bit further. In 1 Cor 13:4ff the apostle describes what love is like. "Love suffers long," he says, and we recognize that this is the same term Paul had mentioned in Gal 5 as a fruit of the Spirit: longsuffering, patient. Love travels miles with the brother, never mind weaknesses. "Love … is kind," says 1 Cor 13, and that too was a characteristic mentioned in Gal 5. "Love does not envy," 1 Cor 13 continues, and that’s also the same as Gal 5; there envy was mentioned as a work of the flesh. But love doesn’t envy, love doesn’t put oneself first, and so "love does not parade itself." Love does not put others down either, "does not behave rudely." Nor does love think evil of the brethren, does not distrust the brethren. Even if a brother does not quite say things perfectly, doesn’t do something just right, love refuses to take offense; love trusts the other, love accepts that the other also wants to serve the Lord, love accepts that the other (like the self) also has but a small beginning of the obedience God requires, and so love doesn’t want to see the other’s weaknesses; love instead "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." To be with such a group is delightful indeed!
The flavor of this love, the delight of this togetherness, comes out in Acts 2. I’d like us to have a look at this passage. The chapter tells us of the events of Pentecost, how the Holy Spirit was poured out and thereafter Peter had his Pentecost sermon. Then we read in vss 41-47 the following words….
Here, congregation, we taste something of the love, the giving, the self-emptying that characterizes the communion of saints, the body of those renewed by the Holy Spirit. I mention love, giving, self-emptying, and our thoughts go immediately to the words of vss 44f, how these new converts "had all things in common" and even "sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need." But that, brothers and sisters, is not the first evidence of love, of sharing, of self-emptying that the Holy Spirit records for us in this passage. The first evidence is the material of vs 42: "and they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers." What kept them busy was the apostles’ doctrine, something to which they held doggedly in all the challenges of life. Then the point is not that they went to church on Sunday and maybe a Bible study course during the week and so learned their doctrine – while for the rest this doctrine did not mean much; the point is rather that they spoke about it together. They exercised a fellowship together, and their time together was characterized by speaking of the gospel. "They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship:" that is, they encouraged each other with the riches of the gospel, shared their knowledge and insights with each other in the nuts and bolts of daily living. That concept is pointed up further when we’re told that they broke bread together. The term makes us think straightaway of Lord’s Supper as we know it. But that’s not correct. When the apostle in 1 Cor 11 speaks about the Lord’s supper, it’s evident that Lord’s supper was somehow part of a communal meal, a general eating together. And what do you talk about when you eat together? We know it from experience; when you sit together around a table to eat you talk about all sorts of bits and pieces that make up this earthly life. These early Christians did too, and in so doing they kept bringing in the doctrine of the apostles, kept pointing each other to the Lord and His triumph on Calvary. So they could also pray together. After talking about the Lord’s works in the grind of daily life, they remembered each other before the throne of God’s grace, lay each other’s concerns and struggles before God.
We understand: here is a love, here is a sharing, here is a self-emptying that is much richer than simply sharing your lawn mower – valuable as that may be in its time. This, brothers and sisters, gives us the flavor of what communion of saints really is, what the renewing work of the Lord through His Spirit really is amongst His people. Giving, sharing of self, speaking of the Lord and His works in your life, in your circumstances, and so encouraging others, and praying together too: here the one draws the others attention to God, and so in turn one reflects the love of God, the peace of God, the patience of God, the kindness of God, etc – communion of saints. And to be involved in such an atmosphere is a privilege, a blessing so very rich! This is obviously not the work of man, but the work of the ascended Christ through His Spirit!
Now: what do you think, beloved? This communion of saints, this sharing, this love, this self-emptying: does God work it in the midst of this congregation? We’ve just sat together at the Lord’s table and so gave expression to a unity we said exists among us. What do you think: was it real, or was it show?
People differ. Some are inclined to see the dark side of things, and so to draw attention to the imperfections of things. Others want to see the bright side of things, and so accent the positives. But here’s a dilemma, congregation, we should not fall into. The fact of the matter is that the fruits of the Spirit are present in our midst. Look in your home, if you will, those saints nearest to you. Do you see in your home hatred and strife, lewdness and rage? Or do you see in your home love and joy and peace and patience with one another and kindness and the other fruits of the Spirit? So too in the congregation: do you see hatred and strife, outbursts of wrath and envy? Or do you see love for the brethren, and so patience with one another and kindness to one another and peace with one another? I recognize straightaway: we are not perfect. Plenty of faults remain. But what characterizes the congregation? We believe a communion of saints, believe that the ascended Lord works a change in His people so that they produce the fruits of the Spirit – and therefore live together in the love of the Spirit and the peace of the Spirit and the patience of the Spirit. We believe the Spirit works, therefore may look for evidence of His work. So what do you think: is this evidence apparent in the congregation?
Then it can’t be denied, brothers and sisters : the fruits of the Spirit are present! There is love for one another, there is joy in the Lord together, and peace with each other, and longsuffering and kindness! So: the Lord lets us see evidence, manifestations of the Spirit’s work in our midst, in our homes, in our selves! And that is surely something to be so thankful for, to be so excited about!
Now I come to our second point:
2. The stimulating mandate in this gift.
That mandate is simply this: we are to be what Christ through His Spirit has made us to be. Christ’s gift of communion of saints gives us the responsibility to be communion of saints, in all its delightful flavor. That responsibility is stressed repeatedly in the pages of Scripture precisely because brokenness remains; none of us have reached the goal of perfection. So while we thank the Lord for His gracious work in us –evidence of love and joy and peace and patience with each other and kindness to each other, etc- we recognize that we have but a small beginning of the obedience God requires, and so we make it our business to develop these gifts in our ourselves and in each other.
Here I draw your attention to 1 Cor 12. The chapter had begun with Paul reminding the Corinthians that they used to be Gentiles (and behaved that way), but the Lord has changed them so that they through the Spirit can confess that "Jesus is Lord" (vss 1-3). Then the apostle moves on to explain that the one Holy Spirit gives "diversities of gifts" (vs 4), and straightaway adds - vs 7- that "the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one" (cf 1 Peter 4:10). That is to say: every saint receives some evidence that he or she has received the Holy Spirit, and the evidence lies in the gifts the Spirit has given. Vs 8: "to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues." Various different gifts present in Corinth, "but one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills" (vs 11). Another list appears in vs 28: "God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues." Elsewhere in Scripture other gifts are mentioned; no list is complete (cf Rom 12). The point is: everybody has gifts, if not this gift than that. But –the apostle insists in 1 Cor 12- the gift that really counts is the gift of love. Important is not gifts of speech or of wisdom or of helping each other, etc – here we’re all born with talents. But there is a gift we’re not born with, and that’s the one we’re to develop most of all, and that’s the gift of love. 1 Cor 12:31: we are to "earnestly desire" this gift, develop it, cultivate it, practice it, perfect it. Here’s our mandate.
And we recognize: if we have love for each other, if we cultivate an attitude of being long suffering with each other, kind with each other, then we shall use all the other gifts we have for the benefit of each other also. We have the gift of wisdom? Then in love for the brother in need we’ll speak words of wisdom from the Scriptures of God, to the brother’s edification. We have the gift of knowledge? Then in love for the sister in need we’ll speak from God to the sister’s edification. It’s what the early church of Acts 2 did; they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, speaking with each other about the things of the Lord in the midst of life’s struggles, praying with each other, and so encouraging each other in the hope of faith. We have the gift of helping? By practicing the gift of love, perfecting love, we’ll use our ability to help, we’ll share our possessions and talents to benefit the other. So the one body builds itself up in love…. And each member increasingly tastes the delightful pleasures of belonging to the body of the changed – the church of Jesus Christ.
In fact, so much so does the ascended Christ want His church to grow in unity and mutual love that He gave specialized gifts to His church specifically to encourage this growth in the communion of saints. I think of Eph 4. "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers." Purpose? "For the equipping of the saints" so that the saints might be able to do "the work of ministry," the work of serving each other. Through that work of brother serving brother and sister serving sister, the body of Christ is edified, is built up "till we all come" –that’s the goal- "till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (11ff). Note it well, congregation: pastors and teachers –we call them elders and ministers- were given precisely because the ascended Christ has first given the gift of communion of saints, and this communion of saints needs to be built up – the gift implies the mandate. There’s the task of the pastors and teachers: encourage the congregation to work with the gifts God has given, so that we may increasingly be the one body Christ has made us to be, one body working harmoniously together. So pastors and teachers have to instruct, and pastors and teachers have to encourage, and they have to admonish too, so that each member of the body in fact produces those fruits of the Spirit abundantly and uses their varied spiritual gifts of each other’s edification. Under their guidance, the communion of saints is to abound in the doctrine, speaking together of the things of the Lord in the circumstances of daily life, praying together, helping each other in all things pertaining to this life and the life to come.
But in the brokenness of life there can be practical impediments to the proper functioning of the communion of saints. In the days of the early church something so simple as a language barrier prevented all the members of Jerusalem’s congregation from sharing properly of the pleasures of the communion of saints. Hence the Holy Spirit gave the church deacons. The deacons’ task was not to take over the congregation’s task of selflessly extending love to each other, using their respective gifts for mutual benefit. The task of the deacons appointed in Acts 6 was instead to do what it took to overcome the practical hindrances preventing the proper functioning of the communion of saints.
So it is today. We tend to see deacons as the persons who distribute money to the needy, and that certainly is the most visible task our deacons have. But it’s not central to their work! As communion of saints is not first of all a matter of sharing possessions or giving money, but –according to Acts 2- is first of all a matter of sharing the faith with each other, each member using his gifts to encourage each other in Christ in the nuts and bolts of real life, so it is for the deacons to see to it that nobody gets forgotten in the encouragements and mutual prayers we all need. That’s why the deacons need to know the needs of the flock, and therefore visit in the homes. And the deacons may do well to tap a given brother or sister on the shoulder to direct their attention to a particular need in somebody’s home. That’s their work: supervise that everybody in the congregation is active in ministering to each other, so that nobody misses out on sharing the love of Christ through the brotherhood.
You get the picture, beloved. The Lord has given us a beautiful gift in the communion of saints, a gift so beautiful that "in their midst my soul will be delighted." No, the communion of saints is not yet perfect; for that we await the great and glorious day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, we acknowledge the gifts God has given, and strive to use these gifts to mutual edification. So the ascended Christ receives the glory, and we are encouraged in His service. Amen.