Revelation 7:15 & 17. ‘They are before the throne of God and worship him day and night … and the lamb who is at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd.’
Being Present in the Communion of Saints
In the city of San Salvador there is a church called ‘the Church of the Lamb of God’. It’s in the South American country of El Salvador, a place that not long ago suffered a civil war as devastating as the one going on in Syria today.
For some years after the war, the memories of suffering and loss were keen – in fact they still are today. Members of the church of the Lamb had been among those who had been imprisoned and tortured, and they were among those who had “disappeared” – usually taken by the military government, and killed without their family knowing.
This small congregation, numbering less than thirty children and adults, placed photographs of the “disappeared” on the communion table. As they shared in communion they stood around the table, spreading out from both sides, so that the photographs of their missing members were part of the circle. The church alive and dead was being remembered in the love and life of Christ. At Communion the names of the missing, the disappeared, were called out, and the congregation would respond for them “Presente!” – yes, present.
Now the writer of our New Testament book called ‘The Revelation’ tells us about his vision of the martyrs and saints who have died in faithful witness to Christ, the Lamb of God. Through the poetic image of heavenly throne, he wants to say that they are present with God here and now: ‘they are before the throne of God and worship him day and night.’ But this is not just a news report from heaven for our information. The writer is addressing small Christian groups, huddled together in the storms of persecution: ‘Take courage’, he is saying, ‘You do not worship alone! You are gathering in fellowship with a vast multitude of God’s people – lift your eyes to see this wide ocean of love and praise.’
The vision he gives us is the Communion of Saints, the great fellowship of those whom God is making holy. God is present to them; they are present with us. “Presente”.
Our text comes from the lectionary reading for today, and in these Sundays after Easter the makers of the lectionary are taking the theme of resurrection – new life – and seeing it through the eyes of the Seer of Revelation. He is telling us about God’s purpose to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. In that new creation, in that transformation of the whole universe, God will be present with people, dwelling with them, making a home with them.
In this passage the writer wants to tell us that this is true right now. God is present with the saints. And so we are present with them too, sharing in their worship.
Today, then, I want to think with you about what this presence means. And first it means that:
- Saints of the past offer us a pattern for living
Who are the saints, anyway? We need to get this clear before we can say anything else about them. In the New Testament, all the members of the church are called ‘saints’. The Apostle Paul writes his letters to new churches, and he addresses them “to all the saints at Rome.. or Philippi .. or Corinth.” ‘Saints’ just means ‘the holy ones’, and all God’ s people are summoned to be holy.
This doesn’t mean being cut off from the world around, living in some kind of over-precious holy huddle or holy bubble. The world, after all, belongs to God. It does mean having the courage not to be carried away by the passing fads and fashions of our age. Saints are called to focus on what lasts for ever – on solid matters of love and justice. The communion of saints is fellowship with all those whom God is calling to be holy. All those who offer themselves as suffering servants with Christ, those whose image we can find in our Old Testament reading, are the holy ones.
Yet within this vast throng of God’s people there are also those whose lives stand out in a special way: among the saints there are ‘the saints’. There are those whose lives display in a remarkable way the grace and the glory of God; they witness in a striking way to the struggle for what is right: they show us how lives can be transformed.
It’s not because of their own merits that they stand out among the rest of the saints; they are always the first to say that. God in divine freedom has chosen to use them in this way.
Or it may be the circumstances in which they gave their witness that makes them shine in our memory – the context of martyrdom, for example, which is in view in our scripture passage. Their lives would have been just as faithful if it hadn’t been for these events, but we might not not have noticed them.
However it happens, there are saints among the saints – not a first class of Christians while everyone else is second or third class – but those who show what everyone can be.
So there is a host of saints whose names are known only to their friends and family. You know them, and remember them, and are deeply thankful for them. And there are just a few whose names are commemorated in the calendar of the saints.
In the calendar I use, today is sandwiched between two lesser-known saints, separated by 900 years. Yesterday was the commemoration of Isabella Gilmore, the sister of William Morris, brought up in a privileged home. She thought she was being called to serve people as a nurse, but half-way through her training in 1886 she was approached to form the first order of Anglican deaconesses to work among the poor in South London. William Morris said of his sister, “I preach socialism, you practise it’.
On Tuesday we commemorate Alphege, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006. A few years later he was captured by invading Danes, who demanded a large ransom from tenants on the Canterbury farms for his release. Alphege refused to allow these poor people to be burdened with such a price, and the Danes cut him to pieces with an axe in a drunken frenzy.
Two very different saints, Isabella and Alphege, separated by time and culture. Yet there is a family resemblance between them. Saints are those who look out beyond themselves, always turning out from themselves, giving attention to other people because they give attention to God.
The saints call us to the same pattern of life. It is too easy to turn our gaze inwards, looking at ourselves in self-pity, complaining that we haven’t had a good deal, that life has treated us unfairly. We may get consumed with the feeling that we haven’t got what we deserved, that we’ve been missed out when the good gifts were distributed, that we’ve been deserted and forgotten. The saints are those who aren’t sorry for themselves, but sorry for the pains of others: they are those whom we notice, who are remarkable, because they themselves always notice others. These are the saints who encourage us when we remember them.
But the communion of saints means more than this. The word ‘communion’ draws attention to something even deeper and more mysterious; it hints not only of remembering past saints, but of a second reality.
- Saints offer us an ongoing fellowship
That congregation in San Salvador was joined in prayer around the table with the disappeared saints, because they were all joined in Christ. They were united with the one who had prayed with his disciples at the table in the upper room, who prays eternally to the Father, and who still prays with us. It is Christ, ‘St Salvator’, who links us with the saints. Only through him are we joined with them in love and concern for the world. If they are praising God, then they must also be praying for the coming of God’s kingdom among us.
There can be no direct communication with the dead. The saints and we are in Christ, and Christ is in God: it is only because we all dwell in God, and only in this way, that we share together in the gift of prayer. We cannot speculate about post-mortem existence of souls, as if some survival capsule could be extracted from the body to which it belongs. We can only say that God maintains human personalities in being because they dwell in the relations of the triune God.
So we greet the saints as we pray. They are ‘presente’ because they live in God, because – as our text tells us – God is present with them. They and we are praying together with Christ, praying for each other and praying for the needs of the world. They are praying with the Lamb in the midst of the throne.
Or course, we must not think that God will refuse to help the world unless we ask. God always wants to bring health and healing, justice and peace. God suffers because this desire is so often frustrated by human resistance, like a dam blocking a river of life-giving waters. In some mysterious way, the human love we have for others as we pray helps to move the blockages, and allows the divine love to flow in and transform the world.
So together with the saints in light we can pray for others. And those we pray for are also present – presente – with us in God as we pray.
Listen to the witness of an Orthodox priest in Greece, as recorded by Archbishop Anthony Bloom in his book about prayer. Father Silouan ran a workshop giving employment to poor people in the the village around him. But he didn’t just manage – he prayed for the workers, and as an Orthodox he had a strong sense of praying with all the saints. He says this about praying for one of his workers, Nicholas:
‘In the beginning I prayed with tears of compassion for Nicholas, for his young wife, for their little child, but as I was praying the sense of the divine presence began to grow on me …. I was drawn by a sense of the divine presence deeper and deeper until suddenly, at the very heart of his presence, I met the divine love holding Nicholas, his wife and his child, and now it was with the love of God I began to pray for them again.’
We can meet with people in God, in the love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. We meet with the saints of the past, the saints of the present and those in need. All because, as our scripture tells us, they are before the throne of God and God is present with them.