“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…”
I learned to write cursive by standing at a school chalk board looking up at a strip of green paper that ran all around the room above the chalk boards on which was printed the letters of the alphabet. Remember? I followed their curves and loops and flairs to write my own letters. Well, similarly in I Peter 2:21 we are told that Jesus Christ left us an example or model for us to follow “in His steps.” The Greek word translated “model” or “example” in this verse is “hupogrammos” which literally means “to write” (“grammos”) “under” (“hupo”). It was a word that referred to a writing-copy that was given to beginning students as an aid in learning to write their letters. It means to trace in outline, to sketch out, to write beneath. It was just like that strip of green paper with the letters on it above the chalk boards around the classroom in elementary school where we learned to write – an example to follow.
We all need examples, not just to write our letters but to live our lives. And so Paul told the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” (I Corinthians 11:1). That’s what we need as Christians. Jesus Himself is our example for life. He is the new Adam, the template for the new humanity. My “aha” moment with this came in Christian College while reading E. Stanley Jones’ study of the Sermon on the Mount – The Christ of the Mount. As he explained, this is not Jesus giving us a set of some abstract moral and spiritual principles by which to live our lives — a set of rules. No, this is Jesus telling us about how He actually lived His own life — an example for us to follow.
But Jesus is the Son of God. Sure, He’s “fully man,” but He is also “fully God.” And so, while perhaps not doctrinally correct, pragmatically I can’t help but think that His “active obedience” to the Father’s commands for how to live the life of a human being is not an exact comparison with me and you and our situation no matter how thoroughly He “partook of our flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14). I can’t help but think that His divinity changed the equation in some way. And so I appreciate what the church has called “subordinate mediators.”
“There is only one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5). But there have been lots and lots of men and women in my life and throughout church history whose lives have been windows through which I have been able to peer and see Christ. This is what a “subordinate mediator” does. If Jesus Christ is the One who ushers us into the presence of God the Father (that’s what a “Mediator” does), then all of those men and women who have had a hand in ushering us to the side of Jesus Christ are our “subordinate mediators.” Like Paul who invited the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ, so there are people in our lives we can imitate in faithfulness and obedience. This is one way to understand what the Creed by its affirmation of “the communion of the saints.”
We are in community with everybody, everywhere and always who has ever confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Some of them are still sitting in the pews right beside us on Sunday mornings – the “church militant” – still alive and kicking. And some of them have passed into God’s nearer presence – the “church triumphant” – the faithful departed. Christ’s church consists of both of these groups. It is one community in two dimensions. Knowing this, Gary Thomas in his book, Seeking the Face of God (Thomas Nelson – 1994) says that he tries to consciously live in the communion of the saints.
I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me… [And] when a contemporary saint does, I will live with that person’s death for weeks… I admire them for what they have done and I thank the God who conquered their rebellion and blessed them with the call to become His children and servants. Wise shoppers clip coupon. Wise Christians clip obituaries. (153-154)
In my office on a shelf where I can always see it I keep an icon of Blessed Damien of Molokai. I’ve just gotten back from a 40th wedding anniversary trip with Mary Lynn to Hawaii. On the flight there I read again a book that I read for the first time when I was a kid of 12 – John Farrow’s Damien the Leper (Image Books). We didn’t go to Molokai on this trip, but just being in Hawaii made me want to reconnect with this important “subordinate mediator” of mine. I was called to ministry when I was 12, and one of the first books that I read after I heard this call was this book. In many respects, Fr. Damien “set the standard” of ministry for me. Like that green strip of paper above the chalk board where I learned to write, the story of his life is what I looked up to for a pattern to follow.
So, who are yours?
Who do you look up to for your patterns of faithfulness to follow?
In the life of our church, the month of November opened with our Service of Remembrance. All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2 afford us with our annual opportunity to remember our faithful departed. And then Thanksgiving Day on the 26th at the end of November brings the month to a close with the spirit of gratitude. And it seems to me that we need to consciously connect these dots by taking a little time this week to consciously live in our own particular configuration of the communion of the saints. My recent trip to Hawaii gave me the opportunity to reclaim and be grateful for the impact that Fr. Damien has had on my being and doing as a minister. I have pinned his picture up on the wall of my heart. And this week I am bringing to heart and mind others, both famous and hidden, who have nurtured my faithfulness as a Christian and a minister. I am consciously looking for their faces in the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) who surround me, and I am giving thanks for their examples. My imitation of their imitation of Christ makes me a better Christian. And for that I am truly grateful. DBS+