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Surrounded And Supported
August 17, 1997

HEBREWS 11:36-12:2

We're not alone. You're not alone. Isn't it amazing how, with all the things we have these days, so many people are lonely. We are surrounded by TVs, radios, CD players, computers, gadgets, and noise, yet many people are lonely. Isn't it sad how lonely people sit in front of computer screens, searching for a friend on the Internet, or run ads in newspapers looking for companionship.

The summer sermon series on the Apostles' Creed continues this morning with the communion of saints. What this phrase means is that you are not alone. What lonely people are looking for, what we all are looking for, is summed up in the word "communion." Communion means fellowship, relationship. What we are looking for is relationship, and relationship on a deep level. What will satisfy the hunger and loneliness of our inner being are relationships that are deeper than "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine;"

deeper than, "I'll buy at your store if you'll shop at mine;"

deeper than manipulating people so as to get something from them;

deeper than "gimme;"

deeper than "I want;"

deeper even than "I need."

What we are looking for are relationships that are built on agape. Agape is a Greek word used in the New Testament to describe the kind of relationship where one gives without any thought of it being reciprocated, without any thought of receiving anything in return, where one is loved without reservation, without restrictions and conditions, the kind of relationship you find in a good marriage where each spouse puts the other first.

Yesterday, Ellie and I celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary. I can't believe how the time has flown. It was only yesterday we met in college. Where we first met has been the subject of debate over the years, whether it was in the student union or in the social science reading room. We've argued about it so many times, I can't remember now which side I'm on, but it doesn't matter.

What I do remember is how beautiful she was and is. She was her hometown's beauty Queen and represented her hometown in the St. Paul Winter Carnival, riding on a float in the parade.

She was and is also fun. She has a wonderful smile and laugh. We were reprimanded and almost kicked out of the college library for giggling.

She is a hard worker, including gardening and home maintenance. Someone called one day wanting to speak to me. He asked, "Is Doug handy?" Ellie answered, "Not very!"

She is a crusader. When she senses injustice, or sees a job that needs to be accomplished, watch out! Get out of the way!

She is completely unselfish. What I wanted to do with my life, and where I wanted to live was first priority for her. When I told her I had been asked to come to California, her immediate reply was, "When do we leave?"

She is truly a partner in ministry. We do it together.

For 39 years my love for her has deepened, and our relationship is still growing.

Everyone needs and looks for relationships so we won't feel alone, so we'll feel surrounded, embraced and supported. Such relationships begin with God. The essence of our Christian faith, the heart of Christianity, is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Believing in God is more than a head trip, more than an intellectual understanding of the Apostles' Creed, more than familiarity with the Bible. It's important to understand the Apostles' Creed. It is important to develop a theology that helps explain things for you. It is essential to study the Bible, and to let the Bible speak to you. But, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ-- communion with Christ, fellowship with Christ-- is what will satisfy loneliness. Even though Jesus is not with us in flesh, he is with us in spirit, which we call the Holy Spirit. Being a Christian is not what you know, but who you know, and who you know is Jesus. You are never alone with Jesus as your friend. He walks with you and talks with you. You can carry on conversations, and if you're quiet, you'll hear him answer. Jesus answers in a multitude of ways-- a gentle voice inside your head, a comment from a friend, a meteor shower, events which some people call coincidences.

What lonely people really need is a relationship with Jesus Christ and relationships with other people, relationships that are long lasting, that transcend distance, absence, and even death. Communion of saints means relationships with people here on earth, and with those who have died. Saints in the Bible mean Christians. The Roman Catholic Church has devised criteria by which they canonize people as saints with a capital S. But, saint in the Bible means believer, a follower of Christ, one who is in relationship with Jesus. Can you name some saints?

This morning, I challenge you to broaden your perspective, broaden your relationships, broaden your image of yourself to include the cloud of witnesses. You are not alone, you are surrounded and supported by a great cloud of witnesses who, with you, are focused on Jesus. "Looking to Jesus, the pioneer of our faith," says Hebrews 12:2. When we celebrate Holy Communion, the liturgy includes the sentence, "With your people on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name." With all the company of heaven, we praise God. How can anyone feel alone with all the company of heaven surrounding them? There are angels, archangels, saints, loved ones all around you, surrounding you, supporting you.

An old tradition claims that whenever you think of a loved one who has died, it is because he/she is praying for you. You can experience communion with saints through prayer. Early Christians prayed simple prayers for the dead. The practice has died out, primarily because of abuse and superstition. But, our Christian faith teaches that the Holy Spirit is not restricted by time, space, or death. We pray for one another when we are separated by distance. When they are on a trip, we pray for them and experience a bond, a relationship, communion with them. Is it any more impossible to experience a bond even though we are separated by death? You can pray for someone in Dallas, you can pray for someone in heaven. The Holy Spirit can go anywhere. Feel free to pray for loved ones, "Lord, let them know I love them. Give them peace." I believe they are praying for you. The book of Revelation pictures the saints, the departed, rejoicing around the throne of God, singing praises, glorying in God's presence, praying. I believe you and I are included in their prayers.

Note the word is communion with saints, not communication. I don't think it necessary or appropriate to seek communication with the dead, with tables moving, knocks on the wall, etc. We are talking about communion, not communication; communion through prayer, communion through a sense of their presence, the great cloud of witnesses. Sometimes, however, there are experiences where the saints initiate beautiful communication. Last week, Kelli Pruitt told me that when her mother died a few months ago, Kelli saw a vision of her mother standing at Kelli's bedside, telling her to read the Bible and to go to church.

When we lived in Manteca, a friend told us about her nephew. When he was four-years-old, his mother was injured in a car accident. The family rushed to the hospital. They took turns sitting with him in a small patio area while the others talked to doctors and stood by her bed in the Intensive Care Unit. When word came that she was dying, they all rushed inside, inadvertently leaving the four-year-old in the garden alone. After she died, they returned to the patio discussing how they were going to tell him his mother died. When he saw them, he ran to them with a big smile on his face, and said, "My mama was here. She told me she was going away for a long time, but that she would always love me."

A classic story in parapsychology literature is about a man who was killed suddenly in an accident. He left a wife and son who thought they were destitute. One day the widow and her young son were checking into a hotel when the clerk noticed the little boy doodling on a piece of paper. He looked closer and said, "Why the boy is writing shorthand." The clerk could not read it as it was in a shorthand no longer used, so they took the pad to one who could decipher it. What the boy had written was, "Go to such and such bank and find my safe deposit box." She did and discovered stocks and bonds.

Both of these stories suggest that children are more in tune with the spirit world. I believe children are more sensitive and intuitive than adults. As we grow older, we become rigid and closed. Open your mind, open your eyes, expand your prayers, and realize you are not alone. You are surrounded and supported by a great cloud of witnesses who are praying for you, encouraging you.

What I am trying to say has been said much better by Charles Wesley two hundred years ago. His poem has been set to music, and we sang it before the sermon. Listen to the first two stanzas.

Come, let us join our friends above who have obtained the prize,

and on the eagle wings of love to joys celestial rise.

Let saints on earth unite to sing with those to glory gone,

for all the servants of our King in earth and heaven are one.

One family we dwell in him, one church above, beneath,

though now divided by the stream, the narrow stream of death;

one army of the living God, to his command we bow;

part of his host have crossed the flood, and part are crossing now.

I believe in the communion of saints.

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris