Preaching Saints: On the Communion of Saints and Being Kept in the Faith

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While the Holy Spirit does work within us, He always comes to us from the outside, through the external Word and Sacraments.

This past Sunday, we Christians celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and reflect on the work of the Holy Spirit summarized in the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed. Every time we as believers confess our faith in the words of that creed, we declare that we believe in the “communion of saints.” This declaration gives public voice to our shared belief that the Holy Spirit has placed us together in His one body, the Church. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther puts it this way:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. [1]

The aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work here that particularly strikes me this Pentecost season is how He keeps me in the one true faith and how this divine activity of “keeping” is connected with His work of gathering all Christians into His Church. It is, in fact, through the work of the Church that the Holy Spirit accomplishes His task of keeping us in the faith. More specifically, it is in the Church through the Word and Sacraments that He does this.

God’s work always comes from the outside to us, and this is true of the Holy Spirit as well. While the Holy Spirit does work within us, He always comes to us from the outside, through the external Word and Sacraments. The Holy Spirit indeed testifies within us to the truth of the Gospel and, as St. Paul teaches in Galatians, produces within us the fruit of good works, whereby we glorify God and serve our neighbor. This should not lead us to think, however, that the Holy Spirit or His doings come from us. Instead, He comes to us, from outside of us, through the Scriptures, preaching, absolution, water, bread, and wine, and even through fellow believers in what Luther called the “mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.”

While the Holy Spirit does work within us, He always comes to us from the outside, through the external Word and Sacraments.

What if, though, those saints are departed from this life? No, I’m not suggesting some kind of necrotic communion such a séance or prayers to the saints in glory. Instead, what if we hear saints (i.e., any Christian, departed or living) speak through their writings? Might we hear such writings as mutual conversation and consolation? Might we even hear them as preaching?

Throughout the past two years, I have heard just such preaching from the saints both through intentionally reading devotional writings and through reading that I did not purposely read for edification. Sometimes, such preaching has come even in the form of short quotes that I have read on the internet or have had passed to me by friends. Many times, when something has spoken to me particularly, I have passed it on to friends and family as well.

Some of these saints have been pastors and theologians of the Church, such as Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Leo the Great, Bo Giertz, and Hermann Sasse. Others have been lay Christian authors, like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, and James Lee Burke. Some have been living authors and preachers, including public theologians of the Church, or even friends who publish articles in periodicals and online. The list continues with those who have just been friends speaking an encouraging word or preaching a particular sermon at just the right time.

The communion of saints, into which all believers are gathered, becomes the channel through which the Holy Spirit accomplishes his keeping work.

Whoever they have been, they all have one thing in common: they proclaim the good news in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This proclamation--that comes in diverse forms and through many persons--is the one and only means through which the Holy Spirit keeps me and all believers in the one true faith. In this way, the communion of saints, into which all believers are gathered, becomes the channel through which the Holy Spirit accomplishes his keeping work.

This work by the Holy Spirit is desperately necessary because there is another one who works in life to undermine the hope of salvation we have in Christ. That one is the Devil, the enemy of God’s kingdom who toils to cause us to sin, to give up on faith in Christ for temporal riches, and ultimately to despair. This work of the enemy of believers is reflected in a daily prayer contained in The Lutheran Book of Prayer:

“In Holy Baptism, O Triune God, You entered into my heart and made it Your temple and dwelling-place. Keep me always mindful of this high distinction. Whenever Satan seeks to seduce me to sin, to neglect Your Word and will, to dishonesty, selfishness, and envy…” [2]

Because of this work of the Devil, in our Christians lives, we need to hear the good news and truth about us again and again and again. There is never a lack of bad news and lies from the world, the Devil, and our old sinful nature. Every time we turn on the TV news, open a website, see an advertisement, and even listen to the gossip that far too often replaces mutual conversation and consolation amongst believers, we open the door to the bad news and lies of Satan. To employ a line from theologian Gerhard Forde, the only solution to this situation is absolution [3], that is to hear again proclaimed and given to us the real good news and the real truth about us in Jesus Christ.

But don’t we get enough of that good news on Sunday? Shouldn’t we do other things with our free time than just read and hear more preaching? Maybe you do get enough, so I’ll only speak for myself, and I’ll do so by closing with one of those short little sermons that I have heard from a saint. When addressing the question of how often Christians should receive Christ’s body and blood the Sacrament of the Altar for the forgiveness of their sins, Luther responds: “If you could see how many knives, darts, and arrows are every moment aimed at you, you would be glad to come to the Sacrament as often as possible.” [4]

Just as one can never have too much of Christ’s forgiveness in his body and blood, for my own self, I know the temptation, distraction, opposition, and despair are always just around the corner. Aside from the Blessed Sacrament, what helps me to at least survive in this life is the encouragement in the faith that I get from brothers and sisters, past and present. Until the future, when Christ Himself returns for us, I take comfort in and commend to you the communion of saints that spans time and space, and her preachers, who become the instruments through which the Holy Spirit keeps us all together in the one true faith.