All Saints' Episcopal Church

Invisible Teammates: Finding Encouragement in the Communion of Saints

Cemetery in Chichicastenango, Guatemala
xorge [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Sports teams are larger than we sometimes realize; they include more than the number of players suited up to play, more than the number of players who are physically in the game. The men’s basketball coach at Duke, Coach K, calls the crowd “the sixth man” or the sixth player. The energy from the crowd – called the Cameron crazies – can motivate the players on the court like nothing else. For the Loyola University in Chicago, the men’s basketball team includes a 98-year-old nun. Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt became the team’s chaplain in 1994, but she doesn’t just offer prayers. She herself is a former player and coach, and she provides scouting reports and game advice. One player remembers his first game; after Sister Jean prayed, she turned and said, “You’ve got to box out and watch out for 23.” Sports teams include more people than we sometimes realize.[1]

The word “saints” originally referred to those physically the game. When the New Testament talks about saints, the word refers to the current, living body of believers. The bible does not talk about saints in terms of individuals, but as communities of those who follow the way of Jesus.

To think of ourselves as saints can seem a little disingenuous. Let’s face it – we know what we are like. We are not perfect people. We fib and say we have plans for the weekend when we don’t, just to get out of going to a party. We receive an email that annoys us and send it on to our best friend with a message full of complaints – only to find out that we accidentally hit reply instead of forward. We are great at harboring resentments, even against ourselves. We put on headphones during a flight so we don’t have to talk to the person seated next to us, we treat the last twenty feet to the checkout counter like a 100-meter dash, and we sometimes forget to blot our lipstick or get rid of our gum before coming to the altar rail. We all also have deeper, more shameful skeletons in our closets – things we have done in the past that make us shudder when, without warning, memories of them rise into consciousness. And yet, we are the living saints on earth. It seems God that might do better than us, that God deserves a professional franchise instead of a cobbled-together team of ragtag players like us. And yet, here we are – living saints, called to be holy.

God’s desire to have a holy people on earth is not something new that came into being with the birth of the Church. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel, God says to Israel: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). What does it look like to be a holy nation or a holy people? Over and over in scripture God says: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Our holiness is based in God’s holiness.

What does God’s holiness look like? Well, as catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, in theory God’s holiness is God’s otherness, God’s majesty. But, in reality,the only way Israel knew God’s holiness was through her encounters with God’s nearness, through God’s saving, healing, and redeeming actions in the world[2] –  the gifting of a child to Sarah and Abraham, the liberation of a slave nation in Egypt, the provision of manna and quail in the wilderness, and God’s faithfulness to a people who repeatedly turned away.

In Jesus, God’s holiness was on display more overtly than ever before. In Jesus, we see that holiness is healing the leper, hosting a feast with five loaves of bread and two fish, inviting sinners and tax collectors and even the one who would betray him to come sit at the table and eat. It looks like a conversation at a well with a stranger whom everyone else regards as too heretical (and perhaps too immoral) to deserve even a quick hello. It looks like the lame walking, the blind seeing, and an impulsive, hot-headed fisherman becoming the rock on which future followers would build the Church.

This is the experience of God’s holiness that draws us to this place. We know that we are not perfect people. And we trust that this God who is holy, this God who invites all who are broken and hurting and lost and alone to the table, this is the same God who can heal, redeem, and transform even us. If that isn’t good news, then I have no idea what is!

For us to be holy as God is holy, then, is to be overflowing with the redeeming love of God in our own lives and in this place. For us to be holy does not mean that we must live a harsh life without any amenities, or that we must prove our devotion by uncomfortable prayer positions or by wearing a hair shirt or by saying a thousand Hail Marys. Instead, to be holy is to be so caught up in God’s love that we can’t help but share it. To be holy is to tell all those who are broken and hurting that there is a place at the table here for them as well, if only they will come and see. It is to work for healing in our own communities, to take what God has given us – whatever that is – and to prepare a feast from it, to seek out those who seemingly don’t belong and call them brothers and sisters in Christ, to proclaim the blessing of God with our own hands, feet, mouth, minds, and hearts. That’s what it is to be living saints – to live in such a way that the world can see something of the shape of Christ’s own life in our lives, even though we will inevitably embody it imperfectly.

In this work, we are not left alone. We are part of the great communion of saints – those who have died and yet remain near and dear to us. The “communion of saints” is not a term we find in scripture, but its development in the life of the Church came about quite naturally. The early Church’s experience of the resurrected Christ at work in their community was so profound that they came to believe that nothing, not even death, could separate them from the love of Christ. The resurrection of Christ shows us that the dead are not lost; they remain in the hands of the living God. And if the living and the dead are both embraced by God, that means that we remain in fellowship with those who have gone before us. In other words, the Church extends not just spatially but across time as well.

What a source of encouragement the communion of saints has been for so many living saints throughout the ages! In the book of Hebrews we are told: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Or as Joe Kay puts it:

[Knowing that we travel with those who have gone before gives us] reassurance in our daily struggle to bring love and justice more deeply into our world. Our spiritual ancestors who struggled before us … are still part of the struggle with us. Death doesn’t end our involvement in the kingdom of God movement; it merely transforms it. We can take reassurance and courage from knowing that those loving and prophetic people still march with us and work with us.[3] 

We saints who are flesh and blood are the ones who are physically in the game. But the team is much larger than it appears.

As we struggle to be holy as God is holy, to share the liberating love of God with those around us, we are supported by a great cloud of witnesses, both the living and the dead. And while death does not end a saint’s involvement in the kingdom of God movement here on earth, one of the ways we are supported by those who came before us is by what they have left behind, by the foundations we have been given and upon which we can continue to build the kingdom of God in our time and place. Will we be faithful to the spiritual inheritance that we have received in this place? Will we be faithful in the spiritual inheritance that we leave behind?


[1] Hunter Felt, “Sister Jean: How a 98-year-old Nun Became the Hottest Property in Basketball,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/mar/20/sister-jean-loyola-chicago-ncaa-tournament-nun.

[2] I owe the ideas in this paragraph and some in the one to follow to Elizabeth Johnson.

Elizabeth Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints, New York: Continuum, 1998.

[3] Joe Kay, “Death Cannot Separate Us from Love,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/death-cannot-separate-us-love?fbclid=IwAR0vcGWB2PzWM6uIq2GMbjwWmwkF65GC_dYgFOOfqj2Lyb6VxCLHu3FRyEk.

Invisible Teammates: Finding Encouragement in the Communion of Saints
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