In the previous lesson we discussed what the church is: the community of believers, gathered, defended, and preserved by our Lord Jesus Christ. But what does the church do? The Apostles’ Creed summarises it by saying: the communion of the saints.
The word “saint” here simply refers to the members of Jesus’ church, to all true believers. The word “communion” means “fellowship”; in the original language of the New Testament, the word is koinônia. It has the idea of a common life, of sharing among people that belong together. This word is used often in the New Testament.
A first key example is Acts 2:45, where we read that the early church “devoted themselves to the fellowship.” We see this fellowship in action as we read on in the book of Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common;” “they were of one heart and soul.”
This communion or fellowship is the heart of the activity of Jesus’ church. This practical togetherness of believers is based on the fellowship we have with our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the starting point of the catechism. When asked about the “communion of the saints”, it first mentions that we have fellowship with the Lord Jesus, and receive gifts from him. Only then it continues with the fellowship we have with each other, and the gifts that we share.
Sharing the gifts.
1. The treasures of Jesus Christ
2. The gifts of believers
3. The well-being of the church
1. The treasures of Jesus Christ
What do you understand by the communion of saints? — First, that all believers … have communion with him. We have fellowship with Jesus, a relationship of sharing. It is a very special and deep relationship. Last time, we noted that the Bible calls believers “members of one body,” that is, the church as the body of Jesus. Just as your body parts are very closely connected to you, so Christians are very closely linked to their Lord. The catechism says: as members of Christ [we] have communion with him.
How deep this relationship is, Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 6. In that chapter he talks about the sexual relationship between a man and a woman, which makes them “one flesh”. But then he continues: “He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (6:17) The physical closeness between lovers is an analogy of the spiritual closeness between us and the Lord Jesus: we are united in spirit; as we share in his spirit, we become one with him.
Where does this close fellowship come from? God himself forged the bond. To do so, he uses several tools. One of these is the gospel, the proclamation about Jesus. In 1 John 1, the apostle says: “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” When the gospel is preached and we hear the reports about Jesus’ person and work, it gives us the same intimate relationship that the disciples had who walked with Jesus.
Another tool of the Holy Spirit to connect us to Jesus, is the Holy Supper. Paul teaches that clearly in 1 Corinthians 10: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The word “participation” here is once again koniônia, “communion”, “fellowship”. Our sacramental eating and drinking of Jesus’ body and blood is a powerful picture of our communion, because what you eat and drink becomes part of you.
When people get married, their communion is so deep that what belongs to the one, belongs to the other. We may say the same thing about ourselves and Jesus, and that is an amazing thing! Just as when a poor orphan girl who marries a wealthy husband is suddenly very rich, so we now have much spiritual wealth when we have communion in Jesus, when we believe in him. The catechism says: we share in all his treasures and gifts. This echoes what the Bible teaches in Romans 8, where it calls us “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” that is, people who will inherit all the riches of heaven together with Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God and the crown prince of heaven.
What are these treasures and gifts? Through his obedient work and especially his death on the cross, Jesus earned the greatest treasure of all: salvation for sinners, reconciliation with God, peace, a new and glorious life. When our sins are forgiven, it is because Jesus has obtained forgiveness for us. When we are considered right with God, it is because Jesus’ righteousness is ours. When we grow in the new life of the Spirit, it is because we share in Jesus’ new life, and because we have received his Spirit.
These are all gifts of salvation for anyone who believes. If we are one with Jesus in faith, these things are ours. But the treasure chest of heaven also contains gifts that are not just for us. We also receive gifts that are specifically meant for others. In Romans 12, Paul mentions the ability to prophesy, to serve, to teach, to exhort, to contribute, to lead. These are heavenly gifts that belong to Jesus, and he gives them to many of us, not to hoard them in a selfish way, but to use these gifts for the sake of others.
2. The gifts of believers
Our communion with the Lord also translates in terms of the relationship believers have with one another. The vertical, spiritual communion with Jesus must be matched by a horizontal, practical, down-to-earth communion with Jesus’ other followers, with all of his church.
If the church is the body of Christ, we are not only closely connected to the Head, that is, the Lord Jesus, but we are also connected to each other. Paul writes in Romans 12:5: “Though many, we are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Simply said: I am part of you, you are part of me.
This communion with each other is driven by a variety of gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to us. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 12:4-7: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
So if you are good at something—leadership, wisdom, empathy, teaching, or even art, music, housework—there is a good chance that is what the Holy Spirit is sharing with you from Jesus’ treasure, for the common good. We may not ignore this. We should not keep those gifts for ourselves, or leave them unused. If we have fellowship with Jesus, we have fellowship with all Jesus’ people, with all believers, and just as Jesus shares his gifts with us, so we must share with others. The catechism concludes, therefore, that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts for the benefit and well-being of the other members.
And this duty is not supposed to be a chore, either. Sometimes we behave that way. A minister who cuts corners in sermon preparation, because he rather has fun than using his gift of prophecy. An elder who does his visits grudgingly, because he rather spends time at home. A young woman who talks to an old lady at church, but is antsy because she’d rather have a conversation with her friends in the parking lot. A young man who goes away hunting rather than helping with a building project at church. And so on. If you think it through, there is some rebuke for almost everyone in the catechism when it says: use your gifts readily and cheerfully for the sake of others. Not: what do I have to do? But: is there anything I can do? Not: what do I enjoy best? But: how can I best help others?
Paul makes this point powerfully 1 Corinthians 14, when he compares spiritual gifts (or charismata, as discussed before). In the church of Corinth there were, apparently, many people with the gift of prophecy, able to proclaim God’s word and apply it to the life of his people. There were also people with the gift of tongues, which I believe to be the ability to proclaim the gospel and praise God in foreign languages. The Corinthians were excited to use their gifts, and they were especially impressed by the gift of tongues. If you went to their worship services, you would hear them speak in all kinds of languages, and many would speak at the same time, a cacophony of gifted believers. But Paul tells this church to use their gifts wisely, in moderation, and especially in a way that benefits others. If there are no foreigners around, the gift of speaking in tongues is not needed; and if no one can translate what is said, it is even useless at that time. And what if someone brings a friend to church? Will this person hear the gospel proclaimed in a clear and convicting way, or will he hear a cacophony of things he can’t understand? Paul writes: “In thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor. 14:18-19) Why? Because someone who speaks in tongues “may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.” (14:17)
This example clearly shows that the gifts from the Holy Spirit are meant to be used for the sake of others. They must function in the communion of the saints. This is true for the special charismata; it is true for all spiritual gifts. Remember what gift Paul singles out as “the greatest of them all”? Love. That is, heartfelt, practical care for each other. Because that gift is what builds the community and preserves the unity among believers. The gift of love is uniquely dedicated to the well-being of others.
3. The well-being of the church
The church of Jesus consists of all true believers. But if these believers do not put their faith into practice, by living out the communion of the saints, their faith is weak and the church is sick.
When Paul wrote a letter to the church in Philippi, he was generally quite positive and told them to “rejoice” in their salvation. But reading between the lines, we find a serious admonition as well. It looks like the Philippians were striving hard for personal salvation and holiness, but did not care for each other a whole lot. That fit with the culture of that time, but Paul is not content with that. So he writes in Phil. 2:1ff:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ,
any comfort from love, any participation (koinônia, fellowship!) and sympathy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind,
having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests,
but also to the interests of others.
This is a very practical description of the communion of the saints, and Paul insists that the church grows in this area. Why? Because Jesus himself took this path of selfless communion, when he came to the earth and even died for the sake of others. If the name of “Christian” means anything, it is that we have the mindset of “Christ”, and that is a mindset of selfless, self-sacrificing love.
It is for this reason that the New Testament is full of “one another” passages. “Comfort one another, agree with one another”, “bear with one another in love”, “encourage one another and build one another up”, etc. Jesus’ people must be filled with Jesus’ love, which is always concerned with the well-being of others. That starts with “the household of faith”, a love for all fellow believers, and extends to “doing good to everyone” (Gal. 6:10).
This is essential. Without active love for one another, the church is sick, unfaithful, and eventually dead. The Apostle John says goes so far as to say:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar;
for he who does not love his brother who he has seen
cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Loving each other is the great commandment Jesus gave his disciples. That is why Paul can say: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other. The one who loves another has fulfilled the law, for all commandments are summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Rom. 10:8)
The conclusion is clear: if the church is the community of all true believers, then it must a community of mutual love. Anything less than that is sin. If you claim to be a Christian, but do not put a sincere effort in loving not some, but all fellow church members, all other believers, you must repent and pray that the Lord may strengthen your love.
Living the communion of the saints often begins with little things. Being there when the church gathers. Taking time to greet someone, even if you don’t know him or don’t like him much. A friendly word of encouragement. Asking if you can help out. Inviting someone for a meal. As we get to know each other, our love will grow, and so we live the life of the Spirit.
When we have true fellowship, true communion of the saints—when in Christian love we share God’s gifts readily and cheerfully—then the church functions well. These gifts flow from Christ, through his Spirit, to others around us. That is how the church is supposed to function.
The Bible uses two pictures to celebrate the beauty of this communion of the saints. It is like a well-functioning, healthy body, which “nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments grows with a growth that is from God.” (Col. 2:19) And it is like a beautiful temple, where “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5), as “the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph.2:21).
- What do the first chapters of Act show about the fellowship, or koinônia, of the early church?
- What is the role of the gospel in the communion that we have with the Lord Jesus?
- What is the purpose of the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to believers?
- What conclusion must we draw if we do not share our gifts with others?
- What are some pictures the Bible uses to describe the well-being of the church?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Acts 2:42-47. How did the earliest church bring their fellowship into practice?|
|Tuesday||1 John 1. What is the basis of our fellowship with the Father and the Son? What is the basis of our fellowship with each other?|
|Wednesday||Romans 12:3-13. What does it mean, practically, that we are “members of one another”?|
|Thursday||1 Corinthians 12. Where do the “gifts” in the church come from? What is their purpose?|
|Friday||Philippians 2:1-11. What should be the practical outworking of “participation/fellowship” (koinônia, see v. 1)?|
|Saturday||2 Corinthians 8. How is the fellowship between Christians visible in this chapter?|