We recite a version of the Nicene Creed at my Church every week. For the most part, I prefer this over the Apostle’s Creed for theological reasons, but I remember when I first encountered a “creed” of any kind. I was on a “college tour” with my dad, a road trip down the West Coast the summer before my senior year of high school and we were driving through the salt flats of Utah, on our way home to Denver. My dad popped in a CD by late Christian songwriter Rich Mullins and, though I was not a professing believer, I was gripped by his music and even by lyrics, especially when he sets The Apostle’s Creed to music. I would not officially start becoming Christian until three years later, but one particular line stuck in my mind and has been with me ever since.
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell and on the third day, He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, one holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.
The communion of saints was to me then a comforting thought – I wouldn’t have to be alone anymore! Now, it is also a haunting one. If community is messy – and anyone who’s tried it for five minutes will attest to the fact – is not the communion of saints a daunting and harrowing prospect? After all, this is the community of love that endures forever. As a dear, old professor/friend of mine wryly puts it: “Eternity is how long it will take for us to learn to love one another.”
“Communion of saints,” as a phrase isn’t in Scripture as such. What we do get is “so great a cloud of witnesses” in the 12th Chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. The author of this letter (who remains anonymous) is encouraging believers to stay committed to the race set before them, eyes fixed on Jesus, the “Author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), one who has endured the shame and agony of the cross and now sits enthroned at the right hand of Father God. This is a race, grueling and painful as it is in this world (and we will have trouble in this world as Jesus reminds us in John 16:33), we are not meant to run alone. We are to run it in the communion of saints, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
“Saints” if you’re a Protestant, simply means “believer.” “Witness” can also mean “testify” or “testimony” depending on form of speech. So we are to run this race in a cloud of testimonies or those who have testified to the Crucified, Dead, Buried and Risen Lord. So, we endure this race of faith in community – the believers who have testified before us and those who are witnesses now. The word “testify” in Greek is the same word as “martyr,” so this great cloud is made up of those who have literally laid down their lives for the faith even as it is those who lay down their lives for this community of love. We not only have those flesh-and-blood believers who testify to the risen Christ in faith; we are with those who have been testifying for the past two millennia, including those who saw Jesus and walked with Him on the earth. It is these saints with whom we run, enduring until the end when Christ, the former and founder of this community of faith, will come again.