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The Congregation - Communion of Saints

Juhani Uljas | 2000 Treasure Hidden in a Field --

God's Congregation

Finland is said to be the promised land of associations, for nowhere else do so many exist. It is no wonder if many people think that a congregation, too, is some kind of society formed by people, members who have common values and who think in the same manner, at least in matters concerning faith. However, this congregation is not such. It has been founded by God as part of His plan of salvation. Paul calls the congregation of God the house of God, the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim. 3:15) and the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22,23).

In the Large Catechism Luther explains, in connection with the Third Article of the Creed, the nature of the congregation. He would change the phrase, “communion of saints,” to the “community” of saints, for the original Greek word meaning, the congregation, “ecclesia,” means an assembly of people. The word, community, would depict more deeply the nature of the congregation. The congregation is the community of those people whom the Holy Spirit has sanctified.

Holy means separated for someone. The members of the congregation of God are not holy of themselves or saints. On their own part, they are participants in original sin and feel the influence of its corruption in themselves. But God has called them and has forgiven their sins through the gospel preached of the Holy Spirit. Thus, He has separated them from the world and put them in unity with Christ, where they can own His holiness. They have the holiness and righteousness of Christ in the fellowship of the congregation. If this fellowship breaks, they are like a vine's dry and dead branches, which do not bear fruit. The work of the Holy Spirit must continue in us for our corrupt nature wants to separate us from Christ and His congregation.

The congregation of God cannot be seen with the eyes. The Pharisees once came to Jesus and asked, “When is the kingdom of God coming?” Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Look here, or look there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20,21) [Translation corresponds with the Finnish Bible]. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). New birth means receiving faith and becoming a child of God. Only faith opens one's understanding to see the congregation of God in the midst of people here in time.

Luther explains the nature of the congregation in his preface to the book of Revelation, “The mind does not comprehend the one holy Christian congregation on earth.” Man cannot see it with the aid of reason, even if he put on “all of the [world's] spectacles,” for the enemy of souls has covered it with faults and heresies.

The congregation of God can be seen only through faith, when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes. Through faith we see as John did, “And I, John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:2,3). [Translation corresponds with the Finnish Bible.]

The Work of the Holy Spirit

Luther teaches in the Large Catechism that the work of God must continue without interruption. Creation has concluded, and the redemption work of Jesus has taken place, but the work of the Holy Spirit will continue until the last day. The Holy Spirit acts through the congregation. Christendom is not yet numerically full, for that reason the Holy Spirit must still dispense forgiveness. According to Luther, we believe on the Holy Ghost, which draws us daily into fellowship with the congregation by God's Word. The Holy Spirit does His sanctifying work in His congregation and through the mediation of His congregation.

As the Creator, God is near all people, just as Paul preached at the Areopagus in Athens, “He is not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:27,28). God calls and awakens a person in many ways, but He justifies a person in only one way. The justifying God can be found only in His congregation, in which the Holy Spirit does His justifying and sanctifying work.

Before His suffering and death, Christ prepared His disciples for the change ahead of them. He said, “For if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.…Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:7,13). The resurrected Christ sent a message to the congregations of Asia Minor, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches!” (Rev. 2:7). We also ask that God would keep our ears open to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in His congregation.

The Communion of Saints

According to Scripture, the communion of saints is realized in the congregation. Paul writes, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Cor. 12:27). The members live and act only together with the body. They do not have life separate from the body. “Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). Jesus' parable about the vine and its branches is familiar and meaningful. The branches can bear fruit only if they remain attached to the trunk (John 15:1-8). A song of Zion depicts the fellowship of the children of God: The mark of recognition, grant we this love preserve! For known by this distinction, the kingdom dwells on earth.

The Spirit's power holds us the love of Christ within - unbroken cord that binds us together, brings us home (SHZ 464:5).

Luther would have gladly changed “communion” to “community,” but he did not dispute that the congregation also is a communion of saints. In the Large Catechism, he describes the congregation and the unity of spirit that rules there in this manner, “I believe that there is on earth a little flock or community of pure saints under one head, Christ. It is called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, mind, and understanding. It possesses a variety of gifts, yet it is united in love without sect or schism. Of this community I also am a part and member, a participant and co-partner in all the blessings it possesses. I was brought to it by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into it through the fact that I have heard and still hear God's Word.”

The communion of saints is communion of spirit and of love, but above all, it is communion with Christ. We live and experience this to be true already here in time in the midst of the battling congregation. This communion does not recognize the boundaries of time, but passes over them. When we read about the people in Scripture, it is easy to identify with them. Their experiences and endeavors and ours have been the same. This becomes especially evident in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which depicts the congregation as God's people on a journey. A portion has already arrived at the destination, but a portion is still on the way. The travelers who have reached glory support us with their examples, so that we would not tire. “Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us set aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race which is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

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