In the Company of Saints
Ephesians 1:11-23 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory. 15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Most - not all, but most - Sundays in our worship when it comes time to affirm our faith, we do so using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Like every confession in the Presbyterian Church, the Apostles’ Creed came into being during a time when the church was in the midst of an identity crisis. They weren’t sure what they believed about Jesus and it was causing division among them, threatening their unity and affecting their ability to grow in faith.
So, after much debate, they decided to put words to what they believed, as a way of interpreting Scripture, but also as a touchstone for believers to come back to again and again - a confession of faith they knew could be an anchor in troubling times. And here we are today, thousands of years later, repeating these same words in a similar effort to be reminded of who we are, what we believe, and what God is calling us to do in a world that threatens to divide us.
Maybe you’ve noticed the format before, it’s Trinitarian: we believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and then - for our purposes today - listen carefully to the first three lines of that last section:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy
catholic (meaning universal) church, the communion of saints
The Spirit, the church, and the communion of saints. Those three things have everything to do with one another. The Spirit, the church, and the communion of saints - “saints” in the early church meaning not just those who had died but living saints as well, people of resurrection faith seeking to grow as disciples of Christ. This creed reminded the church that if we want to be a part of (the communion of saints) then we are to seek it through the life of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit.
The Church in Ephesus
It’s too bad the members of the church in Ephesus didn’t have the Apostles Creed to turn to in their struggle for unity. They weren’t sure who they were, or what they believed and this was seriously impeding their ability to know how to act as followers of Christ. No one really knows if Paul wrote this letter but we do know that at some point in time he lived in Ephesus and while there had a very frustrating experience trying to help that church understand what it meant to come together as disciples. In fact, it’s said he became so annoyed with their refusal to work together, that he eventually transferred his “home base” to another neighboring town.
But we can see in his words here today that he never gave up on them, in fact, he cares for them deeply and longs for the Ephesians to grow in their understanding of what it means to be members of Christ’s body, the church. And I think he believes that if they can clarify exactly who they are and what they believe they will find unity and energy to do the work that is before them.
And so he offers them the encouragement we hear today - explaining to them that who they are is heirs of a treasure, an inheritance, that can’t be seen with their eyes or deposited into a bank account, but instead they are heirs of an inheritance that is resurrection hope in a weary world. This inheritance can only be seen through the eyes of their heart, and he names three things that will help them to perceive and understand it: the Spirit, which calls them into the church, in the company of Saints.
What the letter to the Ephesians is trying to do here is shift their gaze from their struggles with one another and the outside world, to the hope of Jesus Christ, the head of the church in which they are all members - they, who are living and dealing day in and day out with how to lead and faithful life as well as the saints who have gone before them, whose stories can offer them some much needed perspective.
First Presbyterian Living History Day
One of my very favorite things we do with each confirmation class is what’s come to be known as “FPC Living History Day.” On this day we invite members of our church to come talk to the confirmands about who we are at First Presbyterian Church of Auburn and different ways what we believe has informed our action throughout generations. As one long-time member said, “It’s the day the old folks come talk about the glory days.” But if course it’s so much more than that. In this time together we remember the saints and reflect on how they were guided by the Spirit so that we can, hopefully, do the same.
We tell the story of how First Presbyterian Church began at the site of what is now the University Chapel as a mission to college students - that the initial heartbeat of this congregation was a desire for young adults to understand Jesus Christ as their greatest source of hope as they sought education and discerned who God was calling them to be. That’s a story that continues here today.
And, as we tell the story of the University Chapel, it’s important to note that we don’t leave out the part in which we acknowledge that it was slave labor that fashioned the bricks to built the chapel - because we also believe in truth telling and being transparent with our youth that even this church has been complicit in sin throughout the generations.
We go on to tell them about how the saints before us, however imperfect they may have been, throughout the years have also been guided to speak and act prophetically when it came to inclusion and justice. That as followers of Christ in the midst of Civil Rights and Women’s Rights, First Presbyterian Church of Auburn was one of the first congregations in our community to allow black people to worship in its sanctuary when others wouldn’t and how we ordained the first female elder in the state of Alabama. Because we believe that Christ is Lord of all, the Spirit guided us to blaze new trails of discipleship that reflected that understanding.
We tell them the story of Presbyterian Community Ministry, how in the 1960's pastor Wallace Alston’s eyes were opened to the extreme poverty existing in Lee County and in what would be come his infamous Thanksgiving sermon, he challenged the church to act in faith. They did, by establishing a ministry that would offer home repairs and building, along with interest free loans and grants to those whom we believe Christ would want us to offer compassion and generosity.
Within each of these greater communal stories are the individual stories of the saints who have gone before us. Memories of individuals with servant hearts who gave quietly behind the scenes, as well as outspoken prophetic voices not afraid to speak truth to power. Their stories, their witness, and the power of the Holy Spirit gathering us together as the church, are what keep hope alive on days we struggle to know who we are and what we believe.
These stories remind us of what it means to be in the company of saints. And their strength and wisdom gives us strength and wisdom for today. It calls to mind an old hasidic parable that goes something like this:
One night a rabbi and his students were sitting around a fire. One of the students asked the rabbi the meaning of community, but instead of answering immediately the rabbi sat in silence for a long time - until the fire died down to just a pile of coals. Then the rabbi got up and took a single coal out of the pile and set it down on the stone hearth. Quickly, the single coal’s warmth and glowing died out. The rest of the coals, still together in the pile, continued to burn.
The company of saints we keep with us are those coals. And it is the Spirit that keeps that fire glowing among us. That is what gives us the wisdom to see with what the writer refers to as “the eyes of our heart”. To see with our eyes is to see the physical, tangible things we have been given. To see with the eyes of our heart is to understand our true inheritance: a story that was being told long before we were born and that has a future God is already preparing. The story goes - Christ has died, Christ is risen: Christ will come again.
On this All Saint’s Sunday we are offered the opportunity to revisit our grief, for loved ones lost. But we are also given space to reflect on our gratitude for their lives and the encouragement that their witness offers us today.
Paul looked at the struggling Ephesians, tossed about by the forces of the world, threatening to obscure their identity and divide them as a body. And the best way he knew how to renew them in the life of faith was to remind them that as the church they were the recipients of a beautiful inheritance that is the same one we share in today: the hope of Jesus Christ passed down to us - by the Spirit, within the church, in the great company of saints whose lives are a testament to the power of Christ’s love in a broken world. As we pause and as we pray today, let us close today with Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, and for us: “I pray that God may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation… so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”