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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:What does it to mean to believe and experience the communion of saints?
Text:LD 21 QA 55 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Communion of Saints
 
Preached:2014
Added:2015-12-17
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2014 Book of Praise

Hymn 4

Psalm 133

Psalm 16:1

Hymn 1

Hymn 65

Scripture reading:  Psalm 46, Romans 12

Also read:  Belgic Confession article 28

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 21, QA 55

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

There once was this very smart con-man.  Somehow he got the idea in his head to trick a group of Christians.  He came to the town where they lived and pretended to be one of them.  In fact, he was so good at pretending to be a Christian that this group decided that he must become their pastor (things were a little disorganized among these Christians).  He gave the impression to them that he really knew the Bible and he could speak quite well.  He didn’t believe a word of it, but that didn’t matter.  It didn’t matter to him because as their new pastor, he was being supported by them and quite generously.  The charade was going quite well for the con-man until the local government decided to crack down on the church.  The impostor pastor was arrested and thrown in prison.  Not because he was an impostor, but because the government thought he was a genuine Christian pastor.  Being in prison in this time and place was not like being in prison here in Canada.  You were on your own.  You didn’t get fed unless someone brought you food.  The Christians rallied around their “pastor” and did exactly that.  They smothered him with love and attention.  He was soon released and then he disappeared, moving on to his next con.

This is a true story and it took place soon after the time of the apostles.  The con-man’s name was Peregrinus and we know his story because it was recorded by a pagan writer Lucian of Samosata.  What impressed Lucian of Samosata in this story was the way the Christians took care of each other.  Even though he wasn’t a Christian, Lucian couldn’t help but notice their love for one another.  He wrote that, according to their religion, when they believe in Christ, they become one another’s brothers and sisters.  They become family.  Peregrinus and his biographer Lucian of Samosata were witnessing the communion of saints in action.  It was an impressive sight, even for these pagans.  They’d never seen anything like it. 

Like the weather, we talk about the communion of saints all the time.  But what exactly is the communion of saints?  How do we define it?  Twice in QA 55 we find the word “members.”  We are members of Christ and then we also find that there are “other members.”  That’s what we call organic language, or to put it another way:  body language.  With the word “member,” we’re calling up the image of a body.  And in Scripture we find the expression “body of Christ” and it’s used in connection with the church.  The church is the body of Christ and so the believers within the church are members or parts of that body.                                                                                     

1 Corinthians 12 is one of the most important passages about that.  In verse 27, Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”  We need to note who Paul is writing to here:  it’s the church at Corinth.  He says to that particular local church:  you are the body of Christ.  That expression can have a broader usage, but in most places in the New Testament, “the body of Christ” is referring to the local church. 

And it is primarily this body of Christ in the local church where we experience the communion of saints.  “Communion” refers to a relationship.  “The saints” are simply God’s people.  Those people are united to Christ by faith – as members of his body, they share in who he is, they have a relationship with him.  They are also united to one another as members of Christ’s body.  So, if we’re to define the communion of saints, we could say that it is that union with Christ and with other believers that is to be found within the church.  This afternoon we’ll learn what it means to believe and to experience the communion of saints in this local church.  We’ll see that it involves both blessings and duties.

In the Catechism, we confess that “believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with him and share in all his treasures and gifts.”  Those “treasures and gifts” fall into two general categories.  In the first, we find what we can call the general benefits of Christ.     

Those are the benefits that are given to each and every believer.  We find them sprinkled generously throughout the whole Bible.  This is the good news of the gospel.  For instance, we read in 1 Cor. 1:30, “And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who has become to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”  Or 2 Cor. 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Beautiful glad tidings!  And we find those not only in the New Testament, but also already in the Old.

Take that passage we read from Psalm 46.  In verse 4, we read “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.”  In the context of the Old Testament, this is clearly a reference to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem contained the temple, which was God’s dwelling place.  It was often referred to as “the city of God,” as well. 

But that leaves us with a question because anyone who’s ever looked at a map knows that there is no river flowing through Jerusalem.  It’s one of those rare cities that’s not located near any substantial body of water.  So, why does this Psalm speak of a river? 

It is true that there was and is no river of water flowing through Jerusalem.  However, in the days that this Psalm was written there was a river of blood.  When the sacrifices were offered in the temple, there was a lot of blood.  Sources outside of the Bible tell us of how a plumbing system was installed in the temple to deal with this.  Spring water was diverted into the temple.  The floor was sloped and the water came in at the top and would wash away the blood at the bottom into a drainage system.  Once outside the temple this blood would come out in the open air and there was literally a creek of blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem.     

This is the river whose streams make glad the city of God.  Why?  Because the blood brought the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.  It didn’t do that by itself, but because of who it pointed forward to, because it pointed to Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  In this way, “the river whose streams make glad the city of God” speaks of the general benefits of Christ.  Those general benefits made God’s people glad in the Old Testament – how much more shouldn’t we be glad today, knowing the reality of what Christ has done! 

The city of God, the dwelling place of the Most High, is his church.  The church today is where God’s mighty river of benefits flows.  That’s why we say with the Belgic Confession in article 28 that there is no salvation outside of the church.  This is where we normally share in all the treasures and gifts of Christ, beginning with the general benefits that all believers share equally.  Let’s never forget or take it for granted that when we believe in Christ, we are united to him.  And because we’re united to him, we receive every single promise that is given in connection with him.  That’s why the Catechism speaks of “treasures.”  When you receive a “treasure” that means you’re rich!  And the gospel has made us so rich, far richer than we can grasp or imagine with Christ our Saviour.    

And as if the general benefits were not enough, we’re also recipients of special benefits or gifts.  These gifts are special abilities to express, celebrate, display and so communicate Christ in a way that builds up the faith of your fellow believers and so enlarges the church.  There are several New Testament passages which speak directly about these special gifts, sometimes what we call spiritual gifts (because they come to us through the Holy Spirit).   Romans 12 is just one such passage. 

When we come to Romans 12, the very first thing we need to do is remember the context.  The structure of Romans is the same as that of the Heidelberg Catechism:  guilt, grace, gratitude or you could also say, sin, salvation, service.  The authors of the Catechism deliberately followed the pattern of Paul in Romans and elsewhere.  Chapter 12 of Romans begins the section about thankfulness.  We know this from the first verse.  Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  God’s mercy is what the apostle has been writing about for the last few chapters.  Praise is what the apostle had for this God of mercy at the end of chapter 11.  And praise naturally leads to thanksgiving through an appropriate lifestyle.  This is the offering of living sacrifices.  We often think that Christ did away with sacrifices.  He did.  Except for one.  The thank offering is still in place.  The thank offering is ourselves; our whole entire life is to be a thank offering for the mercies of God in Christ.         

In the context of that thank offering, the apostle Paul writes about the gifts found within the body of Christ.  He says that there are different sorts of gifts.  One of them is prophesying.  There is a sense in which prophecy no longer functions in the church today.  Since we have a completed Bible and since that Bible is sufficient for all that God wants us to know, we no longer need men and women to give messages from God.  However, there is a sense in which prophecy remains as a gift in the church.  In the Bible, prophecy is more than just telling the future or passing on a message received directly from God.  The first characteristic of prophecy is that it involves communicating truth about God.  In that sense, all of us are called to be prophets.  As Christians we are prophets who, in the words of the Catechism, confess his Name. 

Another gift that Paul mentions is serving (verse 7), helping others in various ways, especially practical and hands-on ways.  Some in the church have more of a knack for that than others.  Then there’s teaching.  Some of us enjoy teaching and are good at it.  That’s also a spiritual gift.  So, is exhorting or encouraging (verse 8).  There are people in the church who know just the right words to say at the right time.  Those of us on the receiving end know what a gift that is and we can be thankful for those who have that gift – we can thank God because it comes from the Spirit of God.

Then we have contributing to the needs of others.  There are those who have a gift for seeing needs around them and them not only seeing them, but also having the means at hand to help out.   Leadership is another spiritual gift from Christ.  There are believers who naturally fall into positions of leadership.  People know that they can be trusted to steer things in the right way and get things done.  Finally, Paul mentions the showing of mercy.  This spiritual gift involves compassion and being able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and know what they’re going through and respond in an appropriate way. 

Now as we go through that list, perhaps our thoughts are going all over the place.  Not surprisingly, some of us are reflecting on our own personal inventory of gifts.  Which of those gifts do I have?  Others of us are maybe thinking about others in the church, thinking that we can sure be thankful that so and so has that gift.  Both thoughts are natural.  We need to remember that all of us are different.  And with our differences in personality and temperament come different gifts from the Holy Spirit.  But the important thing to remember is that all believers have gifts, even if they’re not the ones mentioned in Romans 12.  Romans 12 doesn’t give a comprehensive list.  But the Spirit gives gifts to each and every believer – we know that from passages like Ephesians 4:7.  It shouldn’t take a lot of effort to know what his gifts to you are.  But if you do have a problem figuring it out, first pray that God will show you.  Try out different areas of service and see where your gifts might lie.  And you can also ask somebody who knows you well.  They should be able to help you identify your spiritual gifts.

And when we know what our gifts are, we have the duty to use them.  The Catechism says it and so does the Belgic Confession.  That’s very clear from Romans 12 as well.  Paul says that if you have a gift for serving, then use it!  If you have a gift for teaching, then teach!  And so on. Moreover, this too is part and parcel of a Christian life of thankfulness.  We could also think of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25.  You remember the story of the man of who went on a journey and entrusted money to his servants.  He did so with the expectation that they would use that money.  There were three servants.  Two of them did use the money – they put it to work and gained more.  But one didn’t and when the master came back, he was angry at that one lazy servant.  That servant was thrown out into the darkness.  Now that parable speaks about money, but it’s equally applicable to everything the Lord entrusts to us, including our spiritual gifts.  We have the duty and calling to use and develop what God gives to us. 

In the Catechism, we confess that we’re duty bound to use our gifts “readily and cheerfully.”  Those words call to mind 2 Corinthians 9:7 and what it says about God loving a cheerful giver.  Now again, those words speak about the giving of money, but as we saw from Romans 12 – that kind of giving is also a spiritual gift.  All the gifts we have from the Spirit are meant to be used and to be used cheerfully!  And what about readily?  Well, here we can think about what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:9, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”  And there too, we can’t rationalize that and say, “Well, Peter was just talking about hospitality.  So, hospitality is not one of my gifts.  One of my gifts is teaching.  Sure, I do that with grumbling, but that’s okay, because the Bible doesn’t say anything against that.”  Sorry, that’s a rationalization and a superficial one at that.  All spiritual gifts are to be used cheerfully and readily, not just the ones where we have a direct command such as with hospitality.

I just mentioned 1 Peter 4:9, if we continue into 4:10, we read these words, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others…”  That speaks to the purpose for which we use our gifts.  There’s a three-fold purpose and 1 Peter 4:10 gives the first two reasons. 

First of all, we’re to use our spiritual gifts within the communion of saints for the benefit of others as individuals.  Here we’re thinking of fellow individual believers.  If we have a gift for encouragement, we think about so-and-so who’s having a rough time right now and we go to them and use our gift for them.  We use it for the benefit of that individual. 

But second of all, we also use our spiritual gifts within the communion of saints for the benefit of others as a whole, as a corporate body.  Here we’re thinking of the church as a body.  If we have a certain spiritual gift, we use it so that the body as a whole will be edified and built up.  I think this is where we struggle the most because our culture with its narcissism and individualism makes it hard for us to think in these terms.  But in this and so many other ways, we’re called to be counter-cultural and to think, not only in terms of individuals, but also in terms of a corporate organism or body.  How can we use our gifts to build up the body and especially this body of Christ where God has placed us?

Mark Dever writes about a friend of his who always kept the church at arm’s length.  He would only ever come to church just in time for the sermon and never even became a member of the church.  Dever pushed him on it and asked him why.  He said, “I know what I’m here to do – evangelize and disciple!  If I linked arms with all those people, they’d just slow me down.”  Dever thought about it for a moment and then responded, “Do you think that if you joined arms with all those people, they might slow you down, but you might help them to speed up, and God might be more concerned about the corporate whole than simply about you?”  That’s a great response.  Too many times people complain about the church, whether about the worship services or Bible studies or whatever and say, “I don’t get anything out of it.”  A change in perspective is needed.  What if you’re called to give something to it?  Doesn’t Scripture call you to use your gifts for the benefit of the body?       

So, that’s the first two aspects of the purpose for which we’re to use our gifts.  The third one has to do with the glory of the head, who is Christ.  This is not disconnected from the first two, in fact all three are linked together in a tight-knit unity.  When we use our gifts and others in the communion of saints see those gifts being used, praise and thanks are given to God the Father and to Christ the giver of the gifts, and the Holy Spirit who brings those gifts to us.  And we want to see that happening, don’t we?  Ephesians 1 says very clearly that as a church we’re about giving more praise and glory to God.  So whether we’re on the receiving or giving end of the use of the spiritual gifts, or whether we’re simply observing the use of the spiritual gifts in the church, all of us are to be making much of God, lifting him up, showing that we value and esteem him and recognize him as the one from whom all blessings flow.  And isn’t that our first and highest calling in life?

The communion of saints is found and experienced here in this local church.  To be sure, it extends beyond the local church.  But it’s here first.  That’s why the Catechism has QA 55 in the same Lord’s Day as QA 54 regarding the church.  The same church where we are living members is the body of Christ where we share in his treasures and gifts and use those gifts for the good of others.  There is a saying that “charity starts at home.”  That’s not only a good saying, it’s also a biblical principle.  First Timothy 5:8 says, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  Sure, we want to help others, but “charity starts at home.”  And that principle applies equally to the local church.  We know that from Galatians 6:10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”  In the use of our spiritual gifts, our calling is first of all to use those gifts here for the benefit of God’s people in this place. 

The communion of saints is a relationship that brings rich blessings.  In Christ, we are gifted with treasures of many sorts.  It also brings responsibilities and duties.  The same Saviour who gives the gifts, also gives his Spirit to help us in the use of those gifts.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus our Saviour,

We praise you for all your gifts and treasures.  We thank for your shed blood which gifts each and every one of us with salvation.  We praise you for being our reconciliation, redemption.  We adore you for being our justification, sanctification, life and salvation.  You are the treasure, the pearl of greatest price.  We also thank you for the special gifts that you lavish on us.  As we look around our congregation, we see so many wonderful things that you have done and are doing.  Your work is evident and for it we praise you.  We also seek your help and the help of your Spirit so that the special gifts you’ve given would be used readily and cheerfully.  Help us when we don’t feel like using our gifts.  Help us when we feel like it’s too much.  Strengthen us to use what you’ve given for the good of each other and for the good of this church as a whole.  And we pray that above all, through the use of our gifts, your Name would be more honoured.  We long to see you praised above all and valued and esteemed.  Oh, help us in this with your Spirit.  Animate us and fill us so that we as church make much of you! 

       

        




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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