By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The phrase, communion of the saints, connotes two things: unity and holiness. A communion is a fellowship and, in the Christian context, implies a table fellowship—the Lord’s Supper. In Greek, saint and holy one are the same word. Unity in holiness is rare these days.
The Garden of Eden was initially a picture of peace and unity. Adam, Eve, and God were all at peace with one another (Gen 2). Satan broke this unity with temptation that led to sin (Gen 3). After leaving Eden, the death of Abel at the hands of his brother, Cain, amplified the family disunity. Disunity was further magnified in the line of Cain which led to Lamech, who introduced polygamy, further murder, and revenge killing. In a nutshell, sin broke our relationship with God, with one another, with our communities, and with nature itself.
To combat this disunity, Adam and Eve had a third son, Seth, who replaced Abel as the righteous son of Adam (Gen 4). Seth was “fathered” in his image of his father, Adam, much like Adam was created in God’s image (Gen 5:1-3). The righteous line of Seth maintained a special relationship with God and became a living witness to the world. Being this living witness was the mission of Abraham (Gen 12:2), the nation of Israel (Isa 2:1-5), and, after Pentecost, the mission of the New Covenant community of Jesus that became the church (Acts 1:8).
Jesus taught unity. He said: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) He encouraged the disciples to minister in pairs (Luke 10:1). Shared ministry was not only a lesson in evangelism; it was a lesson in unity. It is no surprise then to hear how Jesus remarked at the report of the seventy-two disciples: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18)
C.S. Lewis (1973, 10–11) gives a visual image of disunity when he pictures hell as a place where people move further and further apart. At its best, the church is a place where people move closer and closer together. In the tradition of Seth, the church stands being created in the image of God through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The church’s sense of community, post Pentecost, is the metaphorical return to Eden (Acts 2:42-45).
The Apostle Paul painted an image of unity when he likened the church to the body with many parts. He observed: “if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” (1 Cor 12:16) We are all special and yet differ in the spirit gifts that we bring to the church through the Holy Spirit. This is why we celebrate the gifts of others. For our unity is in Christ and Christ’s mission, not in our idiosyncrasies and differences. Still, the need for reconciliation is evidence that our differences are real and ongoing.
Lewis, C. S. 1973. The Great Divorce: A Dream (Orig Pub 1946). New York: HarperOne.