I became an Anglican for a number of reasons, but chief among those reasons is this: Anglicanism allows me to be truly catholic. You probably know that the word catholic just means universal. So, for instance, when we confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, saying that we believe in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” we are affirming our belief that there is only one true church – it’s scope is universal or “catholic.” Consider the fact that the one true church was:
- Born at pentecost
- It was planted far and wide by the apostles
- It grew and became stronger through the blood of the martyrs
- It became extremely thoughtful as it met in council and developed creeds.
- It took shape in the middle ages,
- it reformed itself in the 16th century…..
- And spread all over the world from the 16th until now, and it continues to grow and develop.
Through all of this, the church has always been one, even when we can’t see the unity well at all. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:5, “there is just one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.” And in the words of Jude 1:3, the church must contend for the one faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
When I became an Anglican, I understood very well that I was claiming a heritage that includes everything true professed by christians in every time and place. As the Anglican Church in North American (ACNA) affirms
“As Anglicans We do not embrace a distinct version of Christianity, but a distinct way of being a “Mere Christian,” at the same time evangelical, apostolic, catholic, reformed, and Spirit-filled.”https://anglicanchurch.net/about/
Or as N.T. Wright once put it – “if its True, then Anglicans believe it.” You see, Anglicans are catholic (small c), and because we are, we know that this faith of ours is received. It wasn’t discovered just yesterday, and we can never make it up for ourselves. It’s like a great treasure (2 Tim. 1:14) passed down through the ages….. a treasure with the power to illumine every language and culture it passes through.
And because we are catholic, we know that we are surrounded by, what Hebrews 12:1 calls “a great cloud of witnesses.” In other words, we are part of a “communion of Saints” that transcends time and space. We TRULY receive the faith of Christ from them…. but we also work out our own understanding of the faith in conversation with them. We have to make their faith our own lest we slip into mere “traditionalism,” because, as Jaroslav Pelikan famously put it, “tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The faith is alive, and it will be alive in us only as we make it truly our own – contextualizing it to our own time and place.
The Saints are important for Anglicans, and if we want to understand them, the place to start is with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary – catholic christians have always claimed – is the great model of the saints in heaven- SHE IS a kind of SAINTLY PROTO-TYPE, as we shall see through a closer look at Luke chapter 1.
But before I get to Mary, I’d like to offer a few reasons why Christians like us should pay attention to Saints.
Reason #1 – There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. We are all individuals, and we will all one day face God in judgment. We will never lose our individuality. But when we are baptized, we become members of a body…. we are saved and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling as members of a body.
The apostle Paul explains it like this.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And 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. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.1 Corinthians 12: 12-20
What we see in 1 Corinthians, is that the Christian life is one of giving and receiving. To be a Christian is to give our gifts away and also to receive the gifts of others. But here is a point we too often forget. This body transcends time and space. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist and receive Christ’s body and blood, we are knitted together with all Christians – those who lived long ago, those who live today, and those who will live long after we are gone.
This is a profound and important mystery…. When we look to the Saints and especially to Mary, we are simply opening our eyes to a reality that we already affirm every week. Think for a minute about this worship service. We are reading from a bible whose individual books were written, copied, gathered, preserved, translated, and passed down to us for thousands of years – by saints who came before us. The bible is a gift to us from members of the living body of Christ.
We worship with an ancient liturgy passed down to us. And within this liturgy are prayers, creeds, and hymns written by Christians from many different generations. Hippolytus of Rome, Athanasius of Alexandria, Thomas Cranmer, Sometimes Fanny Crosby and Christina Rossetti and many, many more – some gone, some still with us. By God’s design, the the saints are with us right now – a great cloud of witnesses offering us the fruits of THEIR labors. Our part is to receive and not take for granted. Who are we to say, “I don’t need you” (1 Corinthians 12:21) to the Saints in heaven?
Here is another reason that we should remember and celebrate the lives of Saints – Mary above all others. Reason #2 – The church needs desperately to keep the examples of Godly people alive and well. We need role models. We need to be in the business of constantly forming a culture where the saints set the tone, serve as standards of faith and conduct. Our minds and imaginations are constantly pulled in the direction of very ungodly examples. I don’t need to go into great depth on this one.
Just think, for a minute about all the celebrities who are famous for no other reason than being famous. You can fill in the name of your least favorite politician or talk-show host. Or perhaps a recently disgraced media mogul. Church leaders – recently disgraced. All the perpetrators whose treatment of women and a few men led to the “me too” movement. 300 Roman Catholic Priests in Pennsylvania named in a scathing and scandalous report just a few years ago. Stories about predator pastors from Hillsong Church in the news right now.
We are surrounded by bad examples, and yet – we have a great cloud of Witnesses to show us a better way, to point us to Jesus Christ the source and summit of their lives. And this brings us to Mary and her witness to Jesus Christ… her savior and ours. You know the story. The Angel Gabriel comes and tells Mary that she will be with child, and she asks in vs. 34, “how will this be, since I am a virgin?
So in vs. 35, the Angel says “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.” Just as the Spirit of God dwelt in the Garden of Eden, in the Tabernacle as Israel crossed through the Desert, and ultimately in the Temple built by King David, Gabriel is telling Mary…. God will come and he will make his dwelling place in you.
In vs. 38, Mary responds to the Angel, saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” This is Mary’s great “fiat” “let it be to me” as You God, say it should be. And this statement, above all others, makes Mary the perfect model of a New Testament saint. “Let it be to me according to your word.” Through all the ages of church history, the life of Mary has been a model – a kind of analogy, that helps us understand the life of all Christians in the church.
From the beginning of creation, God’s plan was to come and dwell with his people. Mary was the first to say yes – let it be done to me.So God Himself entered in – taking on human flesh in Mary’s womb. This is the great miracle of Christmas. Mary is the model because she becomes a dwelling place for God. Like the Tabernacle and the Temple, when God enters into Mary its like he’s stormed the beaches of Normandy on the way to conquer all of Europe.
Mary is a beachhead – Jesus Christ enters through her as he prepared to conquer more and more ground. You and I are steps along the way, and as the book of Revelation tells us in chapter 21 vs 3, one day God’s work will be done, the whole world will be conquered, God himself will assume his throne and say, “Behold The Dwelling Place of God is with man!”
We remember Mary – ProtoType for all the saints in heaven – because God Himself made his home in her womb, just as he will make his home in us. So as we come closer to Christmas day, let’s prepare our hearts to make room for Him. Let it be done to us, according to God’s Word.