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The communion of saints

Faith in Jesus as our Savior links us together in a group known as the communion of saints.

After graduating from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, some classmates and I climbed Mount Sinai. The climate meant that we had to be dropped off at the base of the mountain in the middle of the night. If we climbed during the day, we would risk turning into crispy pieces of bacon.

As we made the over two-hour climb in the dark, many of the Bible story images I had in my head from my grade school days were shattered. As we huffed and puffed our way up to the summit, we ran into little tents with locals selling blankets and candy. I joked, “No wonder Moses stayed here so long.”

We smiled and headed on to the top. There I witnessed the most breathtaking sunrise I have ever seen, but this beauty was not as memorable as the religious experience in the first beams of sunlight.

And we weren’t alone. Folks of all nationalities were singing and shouting praises. It felt like I was literally living the dream of Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” Yet I also wondered if everyone else was living that same dream or a different one.

Fast-forward a decade to my classroom of teens at Lakeside Lutheran High School, Lake Mills, Wis. My students and their parents were a mix of lifelong WELS or Evangelical Lutheran Synod members and unchurched people who wanted a good private school for their children. In that setting, I witnessed plenty of lifelong Lutherans who faltered in their faith as well as some young hearts who had no clue about Jesus or had never experienced his love and grace. Would all those students share the same dream or a different one?

The holy Christian church

To answer this, let’s take a look at the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe . . . in the holy Christian Church.”

Sometimes we refer to the invisible church or the communion of saints. Who are those “saints”? They are not people we pray to or worship. A saint in the true sense is a person who knows his or her sins are washed away by Jesus. Are you a saint? Yes! Jesus made that possible. All who trust in Jesus for forgiveness are saints. And all who believe that are united by faith in Christ into one body. Faith links us together in a communion of saints who trusts only in Christ.

The visible churches

We also sometimes refer to the visible churches we see here on Earth, some of which don’t teach the truth. It’s important to recognize when churches stray from biblical truth so we can avoid false doctrine. But can we become so hung up on what is wrong with this or that church body that we don’t know the truth when we see it?

A renowned counterfeiter who went on to work for the US Treasury was asked how he could tell if a bill was fake. His response was insightful. He said he didn’t study the fake bills, but he examined the real bills over and over, so he could immediately pick out the errors. Acts 17 reminds us to be Bereans: to study the Scriptures and, when we’re done, study them some more. Instead of studying the counterfeit items, we need to study the truths of Scripture over and over so we can apply the truth when we see the counterfeit. This has been my go-to approach for the denominational issues I confront.

Now the million-dollar question: Will there be people from other visible churches in heaven? How about some of those singing during the sunrise at Mount Sinai or the students in my classroom? The simple but loaded answer is, “Yes, if they believe that Jesus is the only way, truth, and life” (John 14:6).

All who trust in Jesus for forgiveness are saints. And all who believe that are united by faith in Christ into one body.

Let me share two stories from my days at the seminary to further my point.

Our professor started class by holding up a jar of clear liquid. He said that the jar contained poison and asked if anyone cared to take a drink. Of course, all of us students shouted a resounding no. He went on to say, “What if I gave you only a small teaspoon in your cereal every day? Would you still take it? It won’t kill you at first, but it will eventually.” His point, simply, is that changing, adding, or subtracting from Scripture is poison. In the world today some churches openly promote the poison in their fellowship; others do it more subtly. I have yet to pass a church sign that says, “All are welcome! We teach only false doctrine.” So again I encourage you to know the truths of Scripture and fill up on those good nutrients of the truth so you can recognize the errors.

I also remember what Dr. John Brug told us. He reminded us that we are to speak the truth in love. Truth and love are both needed. Like wings on an airplane, we can only get so far on one wing. We can be very loving and turn the other way from false teaching, but that will end in a crash landing. Conversely, we can be all truth and no love. We can hammer folks with their mistakes and destroy a relationship in a ball of flames so we’re unable to share Jesus with them again. But if we speak truthfully and with the love of Jesus, we can soar to new heights. I have plenty of friends and family who are not WELS. This truth-in-love approach has not made me shun them but encouraged good biblical dialogue.

A lesson from COVID

Three years ago, our church recorded and shared only its sermons online. Then the pandemic hit. One positive result was that our church upped its technology game. Now the entire church service is recorded and shared. Many more are able to hear the gospel, including some non-Lutheran families overseas in a non-Christian foreign country. These families found the truth of God’s Word important. Stories like this at our church and maybe yours take me back to that sunrise on Mount Sinai and John’s vision in Revelation.

As you share the truth of God’s love in Christ, trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest! He will bring others to believe and join his church, the communion of saints.

Author: Clark Schultz
Volume 109, Number 05
Issue: May 2022

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