A Communion of Saints for the Forgiveness of Sins
We read throughout Scripture about how at various times and in multiple ways, God scatters and then gathers His people. After the scattering from the Garden of Eden, time after time, God gathered His people around Him and His promises.
The generations following the flood came together in one place, but not around God and His gracious promises which He spoke to Noah. They gathered to make a name for themselves. They tried to build their own righteousness and justify themselves by constructing a great city with a tower that reached the heavens. “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built… [and] the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel” (Gen. 11:5, 8–9).
This self-righteous motive for gathering persists in the church today, but God still determines to gather His people around Him and His promises. He reversed the scattering at the city of Babel in the gathering at Pentecost. And, He still carries out this reversal, week after week, in the church.
After His ascension, Jesus’ followers (about 120) “were all together in one place” in Jerusalem for the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). Suddenly, God tangibly came into their midst. He came with the sound of rushing wind and with visible tongues of fire, which divided and rested on the disciples. The Holy Spirit filled them, and they proclaimed the Gospel in languages they didn’t speak.
“At this sound, the multitude came together;” devout Jews from every nation under heaven who also came to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost (Acts 2:5–6). Each one heard Jesus’ followers proclaiming in their own language the mighty works of God, which He accomplished in Christ. “And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
Peter laid it out for them. First, he leveled any of their self-justifying notions with the Law. “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed,” God raised from the dead (Acts 2:22–24). “Know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
Crushed by the Law, they cried out to Peter and the apostles, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). What hope is there that we may be righteous and justified before God? How can we hope to come to Him and be in His presence if we have crucified His Son, our Lord, the promised descendant of David and the Christ?
Peter didn’t speak to them the hopeless words the chief priests and the elders spoke to Judas, “What is that to us? See to it yourself” (Matt. 27:4). Instead, he poured out words overflowing with the Gospel. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). This promised forgiveness of sins and gift of the Holy Spirit, “is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” In his explanation of this section of the creed in the Small Catechism, Luther explains that when we confess belief in the Holy Spirit we confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
Luther then explains what it means when we confess that we believe in the holy Christian Church and the communion of saints, “In the same way, [the Holy Spirit] calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
While Peter preaches the Gospel to those at Pentecost, he points out that God “poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33). God gathered them together at that moment by sending His Holy Spirit in wind and fire and supernatural gifts.
The Holy Spirit not only calls but also enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps individuals in faith. The Holy Spirit gathers us together and keeps the church in the true faith, and He does it all by way of the Gospel.
But what is the content of this good news? That which we confess in the creed: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, all on account of Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried and on the third day rose from the dead. Where can we get this forgiveness, resurrection, and eternal life? Luther explains. “In this Christian Church, He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” And as Luther rightly teaches later in his Small Catechism, “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
It is in the church where this forgiveness is most assuredly handed over in Word and Sacrament. Delivering it is the principle calling of the church. We see it in the events of Pentecost. Peter delivers God’s word of Law and Gospel audibly. Then he delivers it to them again in Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, God Himself, who unites us to the person and work Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
God gathers us to forgive us. Through the forgiveness of sins most assuredly delivered by the church, week after week, month after month, year after year, God is continually reversing the fallout of the first scattering from the Garden of Eden and every subsequent scattering. And in that reversal, He gathers to Himself a communion of saints gathered for the forgiveness of sins.