I believe in the communion of saints

By Bill Carroll

The English word “communion” comes from the Latin word communio, which is often used to translate the Greek word koinonia. English translations of the New Testament also use the word “fellowship” to describe this important reality. In other contexts, the best translation might be “sharing” or “participation.”

Koinonia has to do with what is shared in common. It has roots in shared property, as in a marriage, intimate friendship, or religious community. It also refers to shared life and activity. It connotes the free sharing of gifts, as opposed to barter, the market, and other forms of quid pro quo. The New Testament speaks of the way in which the koinonia of the Church is grounded in the koinonia of the blessed Trinity (see 1John 1:1-4). Because the three persons share equally in the properties that make God divine, God is communion. Indeed, God just is the three persons and the loving relationships among them. Christians also speak of holy communion. In this sacrament, God’s good gifts are freely and abundantly shared in the body and the blood of Jesus. These gifts both reconstitute and strengthen the Church, which God brings to birth in holy baptism.

This is a fundamentally egalitarian vision. It contradicts the rugged individualism and isolation of American culture, even as it calls to mind values of interdependence and community that characterize our nation at its best. But koinonia involves a far more radical vision of community than any society has ever achieved. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read the following:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (en autois hapanta koina). With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Such a vision of shared property led one nineteenth century Anglican, Stewart Headlam, to comment that “These who partake of the Holy Communion therefore are necessarily pledged to be Holy Communists.” That’s not a direction many of us are willing to go (and the Church as a whole has seldom done so), but it accurately reflects New Testament teaching. Religious communities often appeal to this “primitive communism” of the early Church as they seek to live out the implications of the Gospel. Alluding to the same passage from Acts, the great Church Father, John Chrysostom, once lamented in a sermon that “It is not for lack of miracles that the church is stagnant; it is because we have forsaken the angelic life of Pentecost, and fallen back on private property. If we lived as they did, with all things common, we should soon convert the whole world without any need of miracles at all.”

The communion of saints, sanctorum communio, is a phrase found in the Apostles’ Creed, an ancient baptismal confession of faith. The phrase is ambiguous. Grammatically speaking, the word sanctorum could be either masculine or neuter. It might refer to holy people; it might also refer to holy things. With regard to holy things, we are a people constituted by the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism. We share in the gifts of common prayer around a common table. We share our material resources with one another and with those in need. We also share in a common mission and ministry. With regard to holy people, we are members of a worldwide community made up of “every family, language, people, and nation.” Christian community breaks down barriers of class, race, and gender. It transcends even the distinction between the living and the dead. Whenever we gather in Jesus’ Name, especially when we break the bread and share the cup, all the Holy Ones are present. Prophets, apostles, and martyrs, as well as holy men and women of every generation, are here with us as we gather for the Supper of the Lamb. For Jesus is the “first fruits of those that sleep,” and in him we are all alive. We are bound to each other in the communion of saints. We share in God’s good gifts, in the graces God has given to our brothers and sisters, as the Holy Spirit moves among us and makes us holy, forming us into the image of Christ.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

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