Reciting the Apostles’ Creed has been a significant means of grace in my life. The Creed provides a summary of the gospel and the enduring truths of our Christian faith that nourish both my mind and heart in various seasons of life. There is one phrase that has become especially meaningful to me in recent years. In the final section, Christians confess our belief in “the communion of saints.”
In the early church, Christians memorized the Creed in preparation for baptism and recited it, in some form, during the ritual itself. Baptism marked the “forgiveness of sins” (another phrase in the Creed), but it also signified full entry into the church. Passing through the waters of baptism, believers became part of the body of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit. This incorporation into the church was realized through participation in the Lord’s Supper, when the newly baptized would join their fellow believers and partake of the one bread and cup for the first time. Suddenly, they were no longer alone; they now belonged, in the words of the Creed, to the communion of saints.
The communion of saints is the church. It is the community of those who believe in and follow Christ as Lord and allow his Spirit to transform them into his image. When the apostle Paul writes to a particular church in the New Testament, he addresses that church as “the saints” in that specific location (see, for example, Phil. 1:1 in the NRSVUE). On one level, to believe in the communion of saints is to affirm the necessity and goodness of the church. At a deeper level, belief in the communion of saints means adhering to the church and participating personally in its fellowship.
We tend to forget we are part of a historical fellowship that reaches back to the time of the apostles and extends through the early, medieval, and modern periods.
When it comes to church fellowship, we think mostly about those with whom we physically gather in our specific place and time. Yet the church’s fellowship includes those who are in Christ throughout the world and throughout the centuries. We tend to forget we are part of a historical fellowship that reaches back to the time of the apostles and extends through the early, medieval, and modern periods. Included in this fellowship are countless women and men who have faithfully thought about and lived out the Christian faith. These saints provide us with pictures of what it looks like to be faithful. They are exemplars who teach us, through their words and lives, what it means to be like Christ.
Appreciating this aspect of the communion of saints demands we become more historically conscious as contemporary Christians. It requires us to temper our fascination with what is recent and trendy and develop the discipline of looking to past Christians for wisdom and encouragement. It beckons us to read the classics of our great tradition and share stories of faithful discipleship from the past. For example, engaging with a text like Anselm’s Proslogion, or learning about the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity, or reading about the courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer broadens our vision of the church’s rich fellowship.
The communion of saints is a gift, both in its present and historical aspects. When we profess to believe in this communion, we are reminded of our deep connection to our fellow Christians, throughout the world and ages past. We remember we are indeed not alone, for we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1).