I remember the sermon illustration well.
A tightrope walker strings a tightrope across a gorge. He walks back and forth across the rope to the awe and delight of the audience. He then pushes a wheelbarrow back and forth. After that feat, he asks the astonished crowd, “Do you think I can do this with a person in the wheelbarrow?”
Everybody shouts, “Yes!”
At this point, he asks for volunteers. And the crowd quietly, slowly disperses.
This is an illustration and a parable, of sorts. The idea is that Jesus is the tightrope walker and that trusting Jesus with one’s life is equivalent to wheelbarrow ride across a tightrope. Who is in?
Profession or Practice
It’s an effective illustration, but confusing. It is especially confusing in Chrisitan communities that emphasize public professions of faith, yet rarely mention the sort of practices—often unseen and unglamorous—that build the faith professed.
When the profession of faith is the emphasis and goal, then preaching, and much of the singing, is designed to help people profess faith in Jesus. People are led to say, “Yes, I trust that Jesus died for my sins,” much like the crowd in the illustration tells the daredevil, “Yes, you can safely carry a person in a wheelbarrow across a tightrope.” It’s a similar profession of faith.
But the commitment and trust required for a willing personal surrender into another’s care, however expert, requires faith more mature and developed than mere profession can provide.
Mature trust of this sort requires training and cultivation, a way of life containing practices that provide and sustain confidence in the object of faith. Through patient training and practice, we grow into our willingness to surrender into the wheelbarrow.
Practicing the Communion of Saints
This process is greatly aided if we’ve seen other people do it and we are able to learn from their lives of faith. The people that help us grow this kind of faith are the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12.
Many—in fact, most—of the communion of saints are unknown to us. But some are known. A few have even left written records of their experience of trusting Jesus. Gregory of Nyssa, Jeremy Taylor, and Teresa of Avila are a few of the writers on my bookshelf.
Of course, the most luminous examples of holy, saintly practice are those whose lives are part of the inspired witness of our sacred scriptures. Those who not only lived but also wrote the Holy Bible are among the most humble and exalted in the communion of saints.
Beginning with the clear witness of the scriptures is the most Anglican way I can think of to begin answering the question: “How is the statement ‘We believe in the communion of saints’ understood in the Anglican way of life?”
The Communion of Saints in the Anglican Way
Since the Anglican Way is founded on Scripture, we start there.
There are bedrock passages about the company of the redeemed that we call the communion of saints:
- Ephesians 4:4-6,
- Hebrews 11:1–12:2, and
- Revelation 7.
These passages help clarify that a saint is any woman, man, girl, or boy who trusts Jesus and has been united to him in faith.
Another passage in scripture that guides my reflection on Jesus and the communion of saints is found in Matthew chapter 22.
In a debate with the Sadducees about the resurrection (which the Sadducees wrongly denied), Jesus says,
“have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:31b-32).
To restate the context, this is Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection. Yet his teaching about the resurrection is based upon the living relationship that God has with those who trust him. In this case, he speaks of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These men of faith are alive to God because he is God of the living.
I trust this applies to all the faithful who are biologically dead yet live in God. God saves those who trust in him. He keeps his promises and remains “not God of the dead, but of the living.”
Moreover, the resurrection of the body and the communion of saints are neighboring clauses in the Apostles Creed.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Anglicans claim that the Apostles’ Creed (with the Nicene and Athanasian) “may be proved by the most certain warrants of Holy Scripture,” so we shouldn’t be surprised to find these kinds of connections.
Scripture, Creed, and Practice
The scriptural and creedal elements provide substance, depth, and texture to how the statement “I believe in the communion of saints” is understood in the Anglican way of life.
It is understood
- from the Scriptures,
- in the Apostles’ Creed, and
- in connection with related doctrines.
Finally, and most foundationally, it is understood (4) in the context of practiced praying in community.
The Apostles’ Creed is recited most frequently during Daily Morning and Evening Prayer. It is also the Creed said during the initiatory sacraments of Holy Baptism and Confirmation. The Apostles’ Creed is part of how we start and how we continue, how we profess and practice, the communion of saints.
The other major liturgical appearance of the Apostles’ Creed is in the Burial Office. In this august liturgy, which sounds the depths of our trust in Jesus and proclaims the height of his victory, we believe “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
Ending and Appendix
This is how, at our best, the statement “We believe in the communion of saints” is understood in the Anglican way of life: through
- the Apostles’ Creed,
- common prayer,
- worship, and
- the sacraments.
All of these solidify our profession by practice, thereby training our trust in Jesus. In this way, we are enabled to entrust ourselves to his expert care.
Here endeth the lesson.
I hope this reflection and answer helps. If you’d like to learn more, questions 97 through 101 in To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism cover the doctrine in a brief, clear, and accessible manner.