By Their Work You have Been Threshed
In this excerpt from a sermon on the Lord’s Supper delivered by Augustine of Hippo to a group of Catechumens, (a Christian believer preparing for Baptism) the great bishop compares the process in which a seed becomes wheat, which ultimately becomes bread, and then Communion, to the process of becoming a baptized Christian. Augustine, following in the footsteps of Jesus, likens the process of sanctification to the threshing of wheat, with the separation of the wheat from the chaff.
Call to mind what this created thing [bread] once was in the field. How the earth brought it forth, the rain nourished it, and ripened it into an ear of wheat and then human labor brought it together on the threshing floor, threshed it, winnowed it, stored it up again, took it out, ground it, added water to it, baked it, and only at that moment made it into the form of a loaf.
Call to mind also: you did not exist, you were created, you were brought together to the threshing floor of the Lord by the labor of the oxen, that is, by those who announced the gospel, by their work you have been threshed.
When as catechumens you had to wait [for your baptism], you were stored up in the granary. You had given your names [put them on a list for baptism], and you began to be ground by fasting and exorcisms. Later on you came to the water, and you were sprinkled, and you were made one. When the fervor of the Holy Spirit came upon you, you were baked and you were made into the loaf of the Lord.
See what you have received. Just as, therefore, you see that the loaf which has been made is one, so you also are to be one, by loving one another, by keeping one faith, one hope, and undivided love.
Taken from Augustine of Hippo, Third Sermon: Sermon Denis 6, 1–3.
Celebrating Communion in Today’s Culture
What, for example, does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as food (bread and wine) in a place where we are increasingly obsessed with and yet deeply afraid and ashamed of food, where we idolize and demonize food, where we are increasingly disconnected from the sensual pleasures of good food, and where we have gone a long way toward losing our sense of food as a blessing that ties us to life and others?
Or what does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as body of Christ when our diets seem to be waging a war against our bodies (particularly against the bodies of women), when the ways in which we eat do not honor our bodies, or when our eating patterns seem indifferent to the suffering bodies of all the Lazaruses gathered at the edges of our tables, as well as all the Marthas waiting on these tables?
Patrick T. McCormick, “How Could We Break the Lord’s Bread in a Foreign Land? The Eucharist in ‘Diet America,’” Horizons 25, no. 1 (1998): 47.
The First Word of Grace Spoken Over Us
Baptism is the first word of grace spoken over us by the church. In my tradition, Anglicanism, we baptize infants. Before they cognitively understand the story of Christ, before they can affirm a creed, before they can sit up, use the bathroom, or contribute significantly to the work of the church, grace is spoken over them and they are accepted as part of us. They are counted as God’s people before they have anything to show for themselves.
When my daughters were baptized, we had a big celebration with cupcakes and champagne. Together with our community we sang “Jesus Loves Me” over the newly baptized. It was a proclamation: before you know it, before you doubt it, before you confess it, before you can sing it yourself, you are beloved by God, not by your effort but because of what Christ has done on your behalf. We are weak, but he is strong.
In many liturgical churches baptismal fonts are situated at the back of the sanctuary. As people walk into church to worship, they pass by it. This symbolizes how baptism is the entrance into the people of God. It reminds us that before we begin to worship—before we even sit down in church—we are marked as people who belong to Jesus by grace alone, swept up into good news, which we received as a gift from God and from believers who went before us.
Taken Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, pp.17-18. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Gettysburg Address & Identity Formation
Why is it that countless American school-children memorize the Gettysburg Address each year? Is it a simple civics lesson? An opportunity to learn about the Civil War, a turning point in American history? Yes, it is each of those things, but also much more. The memorization of that short (just two-minute) speech is also an act of identity formation. It is a chance for students to connect to both the ideals and the aspirations of the people who founded this country. This is how Lincoln begins his speech:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Gettysburg Address provides an opportunity for every American child who remembers its words to internalize the values and aspirations of their country. As they recite the address, it becomes a part of them.
When the church goes through its liturgy each week, whether it be “high” or “low,” its people are engaging in similar identity formation, through a reenactment of the life of Christ and his call to the church. When we perform the sacraments, we also engage in identity formation, from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. We are reminded of our sin, God’s sending of His Son, and the sacrifice that leads to our reconciliation with the Father. All of this done through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Goodness Stamped Into Us
In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson provides a wonderful analogy of what happens when we cultivate the virtues in our lives. In a sense, the virtues get baked into us. The analogy also works well with respect to the sacraments, especially as we consider the sacraments as a “seal” of God’s grace to us. No matter what we do, the sign and seal of Christ’s grace have been stamped into us:
When goodness becomes who we are, not just what we occasionally do, we become virtuous. When I was a kid, I ate sticks of rock candy that had the word Brighton stamped on the end. No matter how much I licked, the word didn’t disappear. The letters seeped all the way through. Virtue is like that. No matter how far down you go, goodness still shows up.
Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Grace from the Beginning
It’s remarkable that when the Father declares at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus hasn’t yet done much of anything that many would find impressive. He hasn’t yet healed anyone or resisted Satan in the wilderness. He hasn’t yet been crucified or resurrected. It would make more sense if the Father’s proud announcement came after something grand and glorious—the triumphant moment after feeding a multitude or the big reveal after Lazarus is raised…
Baptism is the first word of grace spoken over us by the church. In my tradition, Anglicanism, we baptize infants. Before they cognitively understand the story of Christ, before they can affirm a creed, before they can sit up, use the bathroom, or contribute significantly to the work of the church, grace is spoken over them and they are accepted as part of us.
They are counted as God’s people before they have anything to show for themselves. When my daughters were baptized, we had a big celebration with cupcakes and champagne. Together with our community we sang “Jesus Loves Me” over the newly baptized. It was a proclamation: before you know it, before you doubt it, before you confess it, before you can sing it yourself, you are beloved by God, not by your effort but because of what Christ has done on your behalf. We are weak, but he is strong.
Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, p.16. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Greatest Knight
In a documentary film on the medieval statesmen William the Marshal, professor Thomas Asbridge shares his experience of the power behind Marshal’s knighting ceremony. It provides an interesting corollary to the Christian sacraments and the transformation that (potentially) takes place in them.:
For me one of the most evocative moments from William’s life is that instance when he is created as a knight. But the most important part of that occasion for him, as it is for all other knights, is the moment when the sword is girded to his side…It’s a moment of transformation when they go from being one type of human being to another.
Here is an act that has no intrinsic magic. It is, in one sense, merely a symbol. But symbolic acts can be hugely significant if and when they are performed in certain contexts. Indeed, they can be transforming.
William would have girded a sword to his side day after day. But on this occasion it was literally life-changing, because it was part of a symbolic ceremony in a particular social and cultural context. It took on a significance that went beyond the bare act itself. As Asbridge says, “It’s a moment of transformation when they go from being one type of human being to another.”
Taken from “The Greatest Knight: William the Marshal”, BBC Two, broadcast on November 1, 2014.
The Origin of the Word “Sacrament”
The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin word sacramentum. It was used in two ways at the time. First, it described the oath taken by soldiers in the Roman army. It was a sacred pledge of allegiance. Second, if you were suing someone in Roman civil law, then both parties deposited the contested amount into a common fund. At the end of the case, it was winner takes all. But until that moment, the deposited money was sacramentum or, as we might say today, “sacrosanct.” In this sense sacramentum implied that the water, bread, and wine were set apart from their ordinary use to represent God’s promise or pledge to us in the gospel, along with our corresponding response of commitment.
Matters were confused by the fact that sacramentum was also used to translate the Greek word for “mystery” (mystērion). This is used in the New Testament to refer to the revelation of Christ in the gospel (Col. 1:27; 2:2; 1 Tim. 3:16) and the relationship of Christ to the church. But mystērion is never used of the sacraments in the New Testament. The problem was that the association with the word “mystery” meant the sacraments were confused with the religious practices of Roman “mystery religions,” which were thought to convey magical powers on the worshipers. So in medieval theology the sacraments were commonly seen as objects with inherent spiritual power.
If we are honest with ourselves, for many of us who celebrate the sacraments on a regular basis, at times we take them for granted. We lose sight of their nature to inspire and remind us of our covenant relationship with the Triune God. Thankfully, there are examples, especially from Missionaries to remind us of just how significant they are to those who get to experience them for the first time. Take for instance, the example of John Paton, a missionary in the 19th century to a cannibalistic tribe in the New Hebrides archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean (modern day Vanuatu):
For years we had toiled and prayed and taught for this. At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism but now stretched out to receive and partake the emblems and seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well-nigh broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus himself.
James Paton, ed., John G. Paton—Missionary to the New Hebrides: An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891), 376, quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 915.
The Problem of Forgetfulness
One of humanity’s problems is forgetfulness. Forgetfulness can happen at multiple levels, from a simple problem of recall to a posture of hard-heartedness and disobedience toward the command-giver. When God deals with the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament, God does not merely say, “This is God.” Rather, we often read, “This is the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” It is a reminder, to a forgetful people (which we all are), what it is that God has done for us.
C.S. Lewis reiterates this problem in the Narnian book The Silver Chair, when Aslan teaches Jill to repeat His instructions in order that should would not forget them. “‘Child’ Aslan says… ‘perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember. Repeat to me, in order, the four signs.’” Like most of us, Jill soon forgets, and her and her companions’ journey is forever altered.
God gives us a variety of practices to remember. Sabbath, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each exists to remind us of some significant aspect of our faith and the God who created, redeemed, and sustains us each day. So the question for us to answer is, will we remember?
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair.
The Sacramental “Act”
“Act” is a good word. Baptism and Communion are like mini-dramas. And we are not just in the audience; we are part of the cast. We do not look on from afar, merely learning information. We participate in the drama. We live in character. And as we live in character, we become the characters we should be—the characters we already are by grace. We learn our lines and then we learn to improvise. So, as we go from the Supper into the world, we are more equipped to play our part as men and women in Christ.”
Signed & Sealed
Think of a contract. Think perhaps of an employment contract or a memorandum of sale or an IOU. What you hold in your hand is a sheet of paper with a series of commitments written on it. This is what the gospel is: a series of promises expressed in words. God promises forgiveness, acquittal, adoption, preservation, resurrection, and glory. The sacraments are like the signature at the bottom of the contract.
In the past, agreements weren’t signed; they were sealed with a wax impression. So the Reformers spoke of the sacraments as seals. But today a signature is our normal way of confirming commitments.
The covenant promises God makes to us in the gospel are signed and sealed with water, bread, and wine. The signature doesn’t add any new content to the promises; nor does it enact them. But it does seal and confirm those promises. Without a signed contract you might still have reason to be optimistic that someone would fulfill his or her promises, but a signature gives you much greater confidence. You have something you can point to, a commitment you can hold in your hand.
Signs and Symbols
Go online and find a picture of a cute-looking kitten. Apparently, half the Internet is made up of cat photos, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Print it out and then pin it on a dart board. You can probably see what’s coming. Now throw darts at it. Me-OW!
Those of you of a certain callous disposition might relish this idea. But what about the rest of us? Most of us instinctively hesitate to throw the dart. But why? It is, after all, just a piece of paper. No actual kittens were harmed in the making of this exercise. What’s going on?
“It’s clear why we would be reluctant to hurt an actual kitten, but why do we find it hard to harm a photo of a kitten?
It’s not just kitten photos that have this effect.
…In one sense symbols and signs have no intrinsic value: a photo is just a piece of paper; a flag is just a piece of cloth. But intuitively we know they are much more than the materials from which they’re made. We invest them with meaning, and that meaning is, well, meaningful—they are full of meaning. There can be a real and strong link between signs and the things they signify.
Baptism is “just” water. Communion is “just” bread and wine. But there is no “just” about it. The sacraments are full of meaning. They have power.
For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests – that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted. It is, perhaps, the most simple thing that we can say about Holy Communion, yet it is still supremely worth saying. In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.
What is Your Name?
In the introduction to Tim Chester’s Book Truth We Can Touch, Sinclair Ferguson shares a conversation he had with a doctoral student from the Far East:
I knew him as “Timothy.” But one day, when I felt I had come to know him well enough, I asked him, “Timothy, what’s your real name?” He smiled and said, “Timothy.” I smiled back, knowing he would see that I wasn’t convinced this was the whole truth! “Come on, tell me, what is your real name?” Again, he replied, “Timothy.” So, I tried a different maneuver. “What is the name your parents registered for you?” This time he responded with his native Asian name. Despite feeling we were in the endgame of a little chess match and that somehow, he had a secret move up his sleeve, I said, “So that’s your real name!” “No,” he said—and then theologically checkmated me! “Timothy is my real name. That’s the name I was given when I was baptized.”
Timothy taught me a great lesson that day. The name you were given at your baptism is even more important than the name by which your birth was registered…
The conversation left me wondering if Timothy was in the minority of Christians—someone who understood his baptism well enough for it to have an ongoing significance for him every day of his life.
What Does it Mean for Something to be “Sacramental”?
To speak of life as “sacramental” means that everything visible in some way points to the invisible—in Christian understanding, the constant, upholding reality of eternal grace. The sacramental life sees the relational dynamics of life with God invoked in every moment of life. If we are truly alive to the manifest presence of the living God, even the most ordinary of experiences can become an extraordinary experience of grace. A bird in flight can become a herald of the movement of the Spirit.
Looking steadily into the face of another person can become an experience of looking into the face of God. An empty bowl placed on a homemade altar can become an icon of spiritual poverty. A walk in the woods can lead us to see, smell, and feel the glory of God in the land of the living. Shopping in a lavishly stocked grocery store can become an epiphany of gratitude for abundance—or of godly sorrow for those without access to, or money for, fresh water and nourishing food.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on the Sacraments. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!