It’s Not Cancer
The Role of the Communion of the Saints
I recently finished preaching through First Corinthians. Corinth, of all the churches mentioned in the New Testament, was the train wreck of churches. Wading through the church at Corinth was to wade through church disunity, disrespect, immorality, divorce, lawsuits, spiritual arrogance, unruly worship, leading fellow believers to sin against conscience, idolatry, shaming others at the Lord’s Supper, heretical notions about the resurrection, and endless debates, discord, and division.
As I reached the end of the book (the part that most commentators wrongly assume is simply personal reflections tacked on at the end by Paul) I realized that Paul was actually providing part of the remedy for the problems he spent fifteen chapters correcting. Clearly, the first and most important part of the remedy is for the people of the church to be in Christ. He says as much in the introduction, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together…”(1 Cor. 1:2a). However, at the end of the book, there’s an emphasis that the other part of the remedy for that lengthy list of problems is found in the close-knit community known as the church. We overcome disunity with unity, disrespect with respect, arguing and arrogance with welcome and worship. It has to be done corporately, and it has to be done in community.
Yet today, “community” has sadly become little more than a popular evangelical buzzword, much like the modern demand to be “missional.” It sounds good, as long as we can define it any way we want. A much older term, a more accurate term, though, is the Communion of the Saints. It’s a term we not only affirm in the Creed, but also a term that has deep historical roots for the church.
But what does it mean for us? What does it look like? What does it feel like? I think one of the reasons the Communion of the Saints has persevered through time is not just because of its profound theological meaning, but also because it has profound personal affects. One of my convictions after preaching through this letter is that the exercise of community has to be both pastoral and personal. Before we can solve the big problems of reconciliation, we have to show mercy. We’re often wiser to take on the disruption of damaged koinonia by the exercise of kindness, one-on-one and face-to-face.
This was recently brought home to me in a powerful way. Recently, I was privileged to hear the words, “It’s not cancer.” It’s hard to describe how merciful those words sound. I had prepared myself for the worst, for the inevitable facing of the oncologist, for the stoic stubbornness expected, for the endurance run that is cancer. But then came the unexpected good news that simply left me stunned.
After taking stock of my situation, I was struck by how many people were around me. My wife and family have always been there. But this time, I was surrounded by saints. My Associate and Assistant Pastors were waiting for me at the hospital when I showed up. Another caring woman in the church came to sit with my wife during my surgery. An elder brought me a recliner to sleep in at night. Our Community Group signed up to bring meals each night of my recovery.
I had shared my health issues and asked for prayer from many: friends, family, my church, a company of pastors I belong to, my presbytery, various groups and networks within the PCA, and several Facebook groups I’m a part of. And I was prayed for. Oh, how I was prayed for. I was prayed for by the Twin Lakes Fellowship. I was prayed for by the Administrative Committee of the PCA. I was prayed for by an RTS class of my students. I was prayed for by Potomac Presbytery. I was prayed for by Potomac Hills Presbyterian Church (and several others). One of the founding fathers of the PCA called and prayed for me over the phone. And thanks to Facebook (a positive use among its many negatives), I was prayed for by hundreds of other pastors. I was prayed for by friends from every season of my life, including many who profess other faiths and other perspectives.
I sat down and tried to add it all up. Even using conservative ‘guess-timates,’ I came up with approximately 800 people who prayed for me. That’s an amazing number. When I saw that total, I almost broke down in tears. It was terribly humbling. It was wonderfully comforting. And it reminded me how dependent I was on others; how much I needed them. It was truly the Communion of the Saints in action. It was very pastoral, and it was very personal. It’s hard to be disagreeable with people who are praying for you. I’m thinking that the Apostle probably knew that when he wrote to the Corinthians.
It’s often part of our calling to embrace scenarios where we find ourselves over our head and out of our depth. These are scenarios where we know that we cannot hope to make it without God’s help. After 27 years of full-time pastoral ministry, I know that sometimes you hear the words, “It’s broken. It’s cancer. He’s gone. We lost.” The Puritans called these circumstances “hard providences.” It’s often the case in God’s sovereign will that unforeseen difficulties will arise. They will throw us back on the Lord for support. At some point, every one of us will find ourselves trapped, submerged, overwhelmed, and lost in Corinth. And when that happens, it will take the church to gather round, pray for you, pull you up, and bring you to safety. And they’ll do it with food and with tears. And they will do it because Christ has already done it for them. It’s why the Communion of the Saints is still so needed and necessary in these days. I pray that it won’t take a “hard providence” for you to learn that.