Virtuous Eating, Part 3: Spiritual Food

(This is the last of a series of three post examining the Christian’s relationship with food. The first covers the reasons we should take food seriously, and the second takes a stab at identifying pitfalls in the way Americans think about food.)

I ended the previous posts with two uses of food which most nutritionists ignore: food as the means of thanksgiving and as the means of love. These two are, of course, very weird.

Modernly, food is about the body rather than the soul. Since we believe food is primarily fuel, things like thanksgiving and hospitality appear secondary to its “real” function. It seems only an accident that gratitude and love enter the picture.

However, this is backward. At the heart of it, heaven’s love for the earth is the reason behind the necessity of food. One theologian even wrote that food is God’s love made edible. Biblically, food provides a banquet in the Garden, a sacrifice in the temple, a feast in the Passover, a miracle in the wilderness, a lesson in the crowds around Christ. Miraculously, from the night He was betrayed, food – simple bread and wine – even offered humankind a means by which to bring God directly into ourselves, a feast which began with giving thanks and never ended.

I wrote before that the impulse to say grace before a meal holds the key to how the Christian ought to see food. Even Christ, incarnate God, chose to thank God for the food He ate. Just as He looks at you or me and sees our true potential as human beings, He understood how to perfectly realize the nature of food. And, at every turn, He acts as though the fulfillment of food is thanksgiving. Just as the purpose of humanity is to glorify God and to adore him forever, the purpose of food is to give us an opportunity to be grateful and gracious. It drives us to remember our limitations and needs and to help our neighbor. It constantly reminds us that we are not self-contained worlds, but interactive and needy.

We are dependent creatures, and this is not a fault. Nowhere is this as easily seen as the dinner table. It is the delight of the host to place glistening, savory food in front of her guest, and it is the delight of the guest to receive it, compliment it, and be fed. At the moment of the dinner party, fuel is secondary to love. The table of a dear friend’s house is a sketch of the dependence we have on God. It is a mutually delightful interchange.

For those of us with strong faith, this dependence is joy. The more we accept our state as dependent creature, the more we realize that food is God’s response to our dependence on Him. Every response from God is a species of love, and food is no exception. If our side of eating means giving thanks, His side of food means providing love. Beholding His creatures in need of His help, He graciously and gloriously sprouts wild mushrooms and rice patties and strawberries, almonds, carrots out of every nook of the earth and the trees. The whole world bursts with the answer to our dependence – God’s loving provision for our ever-needy bodies. More importantly, the church gushes with God’s provision for our ever-needy souls: the spiritual food, the Eucharist, which (we should not forget) means “thanksgiving.” Christ crystalizes this providential love in our communion with Him.

The fact that we can take God into our bodies by receiving communion must shape the way we see the very act of eating. It seems impossible that communion could be just one thing among many instead of the model for all other eating, just as it is impossible for Christ to be a part of our lives instead of our whole reason for existence.

All twelve apostles attended that first communion. They heard Christ give thanks, but one of them refused to do the same. Judas left the feast filled with the good things Christ had given him, but without gratitude. He ended up with his intestines bursting open in his death. The stomach which couldn’t respond with thanksgiving couldn’t remain intact.

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 2)

Part one of this series can be found here.

I was baptized twice. I cringe when I think about it. In brief, I was baptized when I was 8, because it was a public declaration of my decision to follow Jesus 3-4 years before. I was re-baptized at 18 because I had “made my faith my own” and I thought it necessary, since the point of baptism was to publicly declare faith.

I have found that this is a fairly common narrative for Protestants, though the majority decide against a second baptism. The problem is that we don’t understand what the sacraments do for us. Here are a few points we often assume:

1. Baptism is merely a declaration of my decision to follow Christ to the world.

Accompanying this line of thought are a couple of embedded thoughts that enable Christians to think in this direction. First, we believe that baptism is a declaration of a fact, our salvation. Thus it made sense to be re-baptized after one has been “actually” been saved. If baptism is merely a statement of fact with little import in the world, then one can be re-baptized without it having any real effect.

The inherent danger behind this line of thought is the loss of the spiritual aspect of baptism. By not acknowledging the full, rich symbolism of baptism we reduce it to a mere formal external action. While there is great theological richness to be mined from baptism, I will focus on only one aspect for the sake of space. We celebrate baptism largely because Christ was baptized, so this is a fitting place to discover its significance.

Jesus’ baptism is significant for two primary reasons: the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of Jesus’ sonship. Jesus’ baptism marks two physical actions that Christians participate in when we are baptized. Since Jesus has already died on the cross, our baptism with the Holy Spirit comes when we accept the Lordship of Christ over our lives. Thus when we are physically baptized we point to spiritual reality—the work of Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, and the subsequent anointing of believers with the Holy Spirit. The aspect of a declaration of sonship carries with it the language of adoption into the family of God, of being heirs of the kingdom of God, of a change of identity and a number of other resonant theological truths which are harkened back to with submission to baptism.

Reducing the baptismal ceremony to a statement of fact removes the conferral of grace from it entirely. While you are affirming your covenant with God publicly and in community (both important aspects of the sacraments) there is an aspect of intentional remembering that is lost in a mere declaration. Intentional remembering is part of conferral of grace because it presents Christ to our minds, and assists the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (see discussion in first post). Baptism reminds us that behind the external actions there lies a true baptism, the shed blood of Christ for the remission of sins. Further, we must remember that behind the external action there is an inward operation of the Holy Spirit that moves the recipient to faith in Christ’s work and accomplishing regeneration in the life of Faith.1 Without these, baptism–and any sacrament–tends towards meaningless ceremony.

2. Communion is merely a point of remembrance.

Underlying this is the assumption that the sacraments are merely mental exercises, not spiritual conditioning. If this were the case, then re-reading the story of crucifixion or watching the Passion of the Christ might be a better way to remember Christ than eating bread and drinking wine. As we saw yesterday, mere remembrance is not the whole of the Lord’s Supper—conferral of grace is also integral to the process. The point of communion is that it is an external signifier of an internal reality, a sign of what has transpired in a person’s heart. So while its purpose is to remind us of Christ’s work on the cross, it also reminds us that something transpired in our hearts when we committed to Jesus. We accepted the work of the Cross as the covering and forgiveness for our own sins, and we were transferred into sonship with Christ. It is an external reminder that God is keeping his end of the bargain and we are freely accepting the grace that is given at the cross by participating in communion.

In conclusion, the sacraments bring together two spheres of participation, mental and physical and the two united together gives a deeper understanding of the grace that God has bestowed on us. Our tendency is to emphasize one sphere to the exclusion of the other, but both are necessary for full participation in the sacraments. While the sacraments are a mental exercise and a statement of fact, the presentation of them as physical signs and our participation in them as physical elements is also a necessary component. Physical actions reinforce ideas and present ideas to our minds in different ways than words, and thus, we are spiritually conditioned in different ways. Our participation in the sacraments confers grace because it affirms both our spiritual and physical decision to follow Christ, and opens us up to receive mercy for our souls.

In my next post, I want to consider in what sense the church is sacramental, to think through the work of some more recent theologians on the topic, and to reflect on how it is useful in the life of believers.

1The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology has a lot of thoughtful discussion of this and is well worth reading.

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 1)

A Note from the Editor: This is the first in a three-part series on the Sacraments from a distinctly Protestant perspective. Today we’ll cover communion, tomorrow we’ll cover baptism, and Friday we’ll cover the possibility of the Church itself functioning as a Sacrament.

Recently I’ve had a few conversations about the Protestant sacraments, particularly why it’s important to celebrate them. On the one hand, we acknowledge that we partake in the sacraments because Jesus told us to. However, it is also commonly acknowledged that in many people’s understanding, the sacraments seem to do little for the Christian. Catholics and Lutherans seem to offer a more robust approach to the sacraments, but we disagree on transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Protestants are left with the definition that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are merely symbolic and we are supposed to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice when we partake in them. I did some research and realized that there is a lot of thought behind the sacraments that Protestant Christianity doesn’t necessarily focus on. In a three part series, I want to offer some posts working through my own thoughts on the issue. My aim in this and two subsequent posts is to think through a definition of the sacraments, then Baptism and Communion as sacraments, and finally, how participation in the Church body is sacramental, if it is not properly a sacrament itself.

As a place to begin, some definitions are necessary. The sacraments are a visible sign of an inward grace, instituted by Jesus Christ to symbolize or confer grace, and sacraments are participated in communally by Christians as a confirmation of their covenant relationship with the Godhead.

Crucial to a robust understanding of the sacraments is an examination of the words “sign” and “symbol.” A sign is “a superficial or natural reality but with a deeper and supernatural significance, accessible only by faith.”1 In the course of the service of communion, we receive a representation of the sacrificed body of Christ (given by God) to ourselves, and we (in faith) internalize and receive it by eating. Thus, the sacraments are a sign insofar as they are a thing we do outwardly to signify an inward spiritual reality, i.e., a grace that is given by God and received by us.

The term symbol has been somewhat more controversial, because it seems to imply that something is less than real. While there is a fair amount of overlap between signs and symbols, the distinction for symbol is primarily a result of the incarnation. When Christ entered into the world, he united the human and the divine, and this is an important element that the word symbol captures. Thus, baptism is not just a cleansing of the body (as it essentially was in Judaism), but in a real sense it represents the cleansing of the soul from sin through “death, burial and resurrection to new life.” Jesus’ incarnation and participation in baptism intermingles the elements of baptism with the grace imparted by God to believers. To conclude, the initial definition’s use of both sign and symbol is appropriate, because both aspects are very present in the definition. While not all signs may be a symbol, all symbols are signs, and this seems to fit both definitions squarely.

Understanding the phrase “confer grace” is another important component of properly grasping the sacraments. It’s my understanding that “conferral of grace” is the presentation of Christ which fulfills the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. This affirms the faith of believers and gives strength and mercy to their souls. While the sacraments do not give salvation, there is an understanding in the church that grace is somehow imparted through participation in the sacraments. John Calvin had this to say on the subject: “When we see the visible sign, we must rise aloft, and understand, that God accomplishes the thing in truth, which is signified unto us by the visible sacrament.”2 Thus, the action of the sacrament points us to the work done by God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and to recognize the grace that is imparted. I think it is fair to say that the sacraments, as a vehicle of recognition, impart grace, because the recognition and acceptance of grace is the manner by which the sacraments deeply affect the life of the believer.

There have been periods of time in the church when the sacraments were thought to confer grace regardless of the reception by the human participants. However, theological thought has since revised itself in most branches of the church, and now most churches believe that they confer grace only when the participant receives them in faith. Now, does the eating of bread and wine or the dunking of a person in water itself confer grace? No. But we believe that God is actually using the sacrament as a means of grace to the believer.

The manner of God’s use of sacrament in this manner is debated, but some scholars helpfully argue that when Christ became human, he redeemed everything associated with humanity: souls, bodies, and actions. The idea of the first two entities receiving redemption is one that most are comfortable with, so I will not address them. The main thrust of these scholars’ thought concerning actions is that because Christ did things while on the earth, when He died on the Cross, the specific actions that He participated in had the ability to confer grace. This brings up the potential for objection that all of daily life therefore has the ability to confer grace, as they are actions that Christ did. Perhaps, and I will address this later. The immediate answer, though, seems to be that Christ instituted the sacraments as specific actions that He participated in and then instituted for the Church to follow. However, explicitly stated in the definition is the phrase “instituted by Jesus Christ” and thus, most of daily life is eliminated.

One of the last elements of the definition also adeptly addresses the concern over the inclusion of the majority of Christian life: the participation in the sacraments as confirmation of their covenant with God through Christ. Regular affirmation of our covenant with God is necessary, because if there is anything that humanity is famous for, it is its corporate ability to forget. Israel’s inconsistent history with God is the most obvious example of this, and I think we can all probably add commentary from our own lives. Since we are a forgetful people, we need to be reminded of and reaffirm our covenant with God. By participating in a ceremony that regularly helps us recognize the grace given to us, we reaffirm the covenant that we participate in. While we may live our lives in such a way that reflects our covenant relationship with God, daily life is hardly a reaffirmation of our covenant relationship with him.

The final element of the definition that has not been addressed is the communal practice of the sacraments. It is important to note how believers participate in the sacraments. It is the person receiving the sign who is considered a participant in a sacrament, not the one administering the sacrament. I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that you can only receive communion or baptism from someone else, you cannot administer it to yourself. The aspect of reception is critical to understanding the sacraments: it suggests that we can do nothing to earn our salvation, it’s all grace, all received, all finished. Even in their administration, they remind us of and reinforce the conferral of grace.

In sum, the sacraments are both sign and symbol, received from a fellow believer, that confer grace in the life of the believer, confirming their covenant relationship with God and participating in the actions of Christ that bring about his redeeming grace. In my next post I consider this definition in relation to the Protestant sacraments of baptism and communion, how it helps correct my own misconceptions, and how this fuller definition of the sacraments really impacts one’s understanding of these two practices.

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1Fahey, Michael A. Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: Sacraments. (Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2007),  271.

2Calvin, John. Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth. 1987), 1081.