As an orphan searching for his family, I was pointed to one old uncle who everyone seems to like. I thought that would be a safe way to begin.
Uncle Augustine (St. Augustine) is a very smart African Christian who lived from 354-430. Everyone seems to love him – Protestants, Catholics…even the Eastern church venerates him as a “saint”. He was a late-in-life convert at 32. He had a Christian mom (Monica, e.g. Santa Monica, the city in the Los Angeles area), but his dad was pagan. His was a well-to-do family, so a good education was made available to him. He loved literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. He also liked the ladies, a had a baby out of wedlock during his teen years.
He became a rhetoric teacher in Carthage, and eventually moved to the big city of Rome to teach there. In Rome, and then in Milan, he was encouraged by his mother and some friends to check out Christianity. He was inspired by some writings from Church history. He heard the preaching of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, which was very influential to him. But what put him over the edge was his reading of the book of Romans. Ambrose baptized Augustine, and the 44-year ministry career was on!
So much more to say – but for now, I want to share with you one of Augustine’s ideas that shines some much-needed light on our contemporary family – and on me.
In Augustine’s day, the church had a problem: It was splitting. The issues were intense. There was a group that had broken away from the one, unified church because they thought that some of church leaders had disqualified themselves by what they perceived as the sin of apostasy – of denying Christ when the heat was on. They said that, since these leaders were defiled, they could not lead communion services. So they ordained their own leaders, and started “doing church” on their own, apart from the one, internationally connected church.
Fast forward to 2013. Whatever, right? This happens all the time in the Christianity we know today – it couldn’t be more “normal.” Any idea of some sort of single, universal church is long gone. New churches start every day, with new leaders being “sent” by whichever local church organization with whom they happen to be connected. No one cries “foul”. How can we? Our politically-induced freedom of religious expression has translated to the total freedom of Christian expression. There seem to be no rules, and – by virtue of our contemporary world view – we are obliged to honor all such expressions.
Augustine takes issue, and turns the whole leadership/sacraments argument on its head. See if this makes sense to you:
“Although this sacrifice is made or offered by man [cf., communion], still the sacrifice is a divine act … The whole redeemed community, the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered as a universal sacrifice to God by the great priest who offered himself … that we might be the Body of so great a Head … so the Apostle exhorted us to ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice’ … we ourselves are the whole sacrifice … this is the sacrifice of Christians; the ‘many who are one body in Christ’.” (City of God 10:5-6)
I’ve always understood communion as God giving me the body of Jesus. Jesus is the sacrifice, and I’m the recipient of it. Nod with me if that’s what you’ve always thought…
But Augustine says we are the sacrifice at the table. Not that we are broken and bleed for the sins of the world – that would, of course, be heresy. But Jesus said “This is my body” about the Eucharist. He also says “This is my body” about us, His people.
“The reason why these are called sacraments is that one thing is seen in them, but something else is understood … listen to the repeated teaching of the Apostle; for he says, ‘We are many, but we are one loaf, one body’ … So the Lord has set his mark on us, wished us to belong to him, has consecrated on his table the mystery of our peace and unity.” (Sermon 272)
I’ve never thought this way before: That celebrating communion is a celebration of our unity as a people! He goes on to say,
“If a man receives the sacrament of unity, but does not ‘keep the bond of peace’, he does not receive a sacrament for his benefit, but evidence for his condemnation.” (Sermon 272)
In other words, if people celebrate a unity they aren’t actually doing, it does you more harm than good.
Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of tables are set with versions of the Lord’s Supper. People take for a variety of reasons. Some believe it is the transubstantiated host which fills them with grace. For others, a mystical encounter with Jesus. Others see it simply as a memory device to remind them of the crucifixion. For others, it is truly a mindless act of religious ritual. Christians have split numerous times over the interpretation of this sacrament…
Which makes Uncle Augustine’s insistence all the more ironic in our day. Communion is a “sacrament of unity.” When we hold that bread, it is a piece of the one loaf – the one “body of Christ” – of which we are a part. But the Protestant world, like the splitters in Augustine’s time, live in conscious, active division. Our many denominations are a testimony to the fact that we are not one body. And that our communion is not universal. And that there is not one loaf.
Now, I walk to the table, and see that bread there. The body of Christ. Am I a part of it? Or, as a spiritual orphan, am I and my church tradition so hopelessly severed from the unified body of Christ that the bread’s conveys to me a word of judgment, not of benefit?
I’ll be spending more time with Uncle Augustine. But one thing I’ve learned from him already is that there are those from our past who took the unity of the church way more seriously than we do today. I wonder what he would think if he could see our modern church. If his heart and convictions are right, what should we do?