I Believe in the Communion of Saints
August 7, 2022
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
The movie Amistad aired a day or two ago.
It tells the story of a rebellion by a group of Africans on the Spanish ship La Amistad in 1839. The Africans, of the Mende people, had been illegally taken into slavery near Sierra Leone by Portuguese. They were taken to Cuba where they were sold to the Spaniards commanding La Amistad.
As the ship sailed to another port, some of the Mende people escaped their shackles and killed most of the crew. They tried to force surviving crew members to sail them back to Africa, but they were tricked. Eventually the ship was seized by the forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Trials followed. The issue pivoted on whether the Mende were free people being enslaved or not. To trade in human beings was illegal at the time. Enslavement was allowed. People born enslaved remained enslaved. People already enslaved could be sold to others for further enslavement. But the small step of banning the trade of free people had been taken. Were the Mende people on La Amistad free when they had been taken? A court decided they were, and the people should be released.
The U.S. government, fearful of starting a civil war, appealed. The court again ruled in favor of the Mende.
The U.S. government, fearful of starting a civil war, appealed again. To the Supreme Court.
At this point, former President John Quincy Adams became involved. He was serving in the House of Representatives at the time. The abolitionists and lawyers representing the Mende people had approached him earlier and he had declined. Now, he said yes.
I do not know if it happened this way in real life, but there is a scene in the movie where President Adams is speaking to Cinque, the leader of the rebellion. It happens shortly before the final arguments with the Supreme Court. Cinque is nervous. Adams seeks to reassure him. “You are not alone,” Adams says. He refers to himself and the other attorneys and the abolitionists supporting the Mende people.
Cinque draws himself up to his full height. Speaking through a translator, he says, “I know. My ancestors will be with me. I have summoned them.”
I had seen Amistad before. A couple times. But somehow I had missed this Communion of Saints moment.
I believe in the Communion of Saints.
In the wooden pews of the Neville Island Presbyterian Church, l breathed in the aroma of pipe tobacco that permanently permeated my father’s clothes and joined my family and the congregation in affirming, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.”
I did not understand what that meant. I could have been no more that eight or nine years old. With no understanding, I affirmed the words. I believed.
Understanding has grown somewhat over the years. Belief has deepened profoundly.
Here is the basics of what I understand.
In the Reformed tradition, we do not believe that saints are holy people. People somehow better than the rest of us. People to set apart and place on pedestals.
Saints are everyone of us. Ordinary people. Believers who seek to follow Jesus as well as we are able. Believers of every time and every place.
Look around you at the people gathered here this morning – whether in person or on Zoom. You are seeing Saints.
When you have a chance, look in a mirror. You are seeing a Saint.
When you think of family, friends, acquaintances in other places, you are thinking of Saints.
When we celebrated Bill’s life yesterday, we celebrated a Saint.
When we call to mind those who have gone before us into death, our ancestors to use Cinque’s term, we call to mind Saints.
The Communion of Saints surrounds us at all times. We may not always be aware of it, but we live and move and have our being within the Communion of Saints.
From time to time, the reality of the Communion of Saints breaks into my head and heart and spirit with overwhelming power and grace. Usually when I least expect it, the understanding that in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we are bound together in God’s love flows over me.
When we share a meal together. When friends and strangers help us with our daily lives. When we know that no matter how far apart Whitestone and Louisville may be, we are tied to one another in the love of Jesus Christ.
At times such as these, the Communion of Saints, some living and some in God’s nearer presence, began to swirl around me.
It happened yesterday as we celebrated Bill’s life. I don’t know about you, but as I gave God thanks for Bill, so many people whose lives had touched Bill’s were present. Maybe, like Mary, they had gone before Bill in death. Maybe like Malinee and Lisa, they had other responsibilities. But they were all with us in the Communion of Saints.
Three things that I believe we should do because we are part of the Communion of Saints.
Give thanks to one another when we can.
The Rev. Dr. Gayraud Wilmore was a giant in the world of theological education in the Presbyterian Church. I never met him. But I read his books. And many of the people I quote on a regular basis in my sermons studied with him.
This year’s General Assembly gave Dr. Wilmore with an award for Excellence in Theological Education. Wonderful things were said. Important milestones celebrated. It was a touching moment.
Except that Dr. Wilmore has been dead for two years.
On the one hand, it is never to late to say or do the right thing. On the other hand, there is blessing in letting people know what they mean to us when they can hear our words. I thank each of you and all of you for being part of my Communion of Saints. I am grateful to God for you.
As my friend and mentor, the Rev. Dr. Otis Turner says, “The Communion of Saints consists of people everyone knows, people known to only a few of us, and people whose names we have never heard but are written in God’s book of life.” In almost every area of the church’s life and ministry, we are part of a long line of witnesses linking us to the past and moving into a future we can only imagine, knowing our imagination will fall short of what God has in store.
Remain open to what God is doing.
The Communion of Saints reminds us that God’s people are an evolving people. Learning. Growing. Being changed by the Holy Spirit. Again and again, drawn out of ourselves to something more faithful … more just … more peaceful … more loving. Drawn by a God who did new things and who is not finished with us yet. We are part of an evolving people. It is who the followers of Jesus have been. It is what the followers of Jesus have done. It is who Jesus calls us to be. It is how the Holy Spirit gifts us to be. We recall the past. We make our way in the present. We look forward to what God is doing in us and in our community.
I believe in the Communion of Saints.
For all the saints and what they teach us. Thanks be to God.