A Patristic Exhortation to the Evangelical Church

Me: Does it make me a bad theology student if I find reading Augustine really really really boring?
Prof: Nope. It just makes you a bad person.

I don`t like reading Augustine. There`s something about him where my eyes glaze over and I all see is “blah, blah, blah.” That being said, I have been reflecting for three days on a sermon he preached at Easter Vigil. Here, he calls the Church the threshing floor, and Christians grains of wheat. He says that on this threshing floor there is both wheat and chaff; good Christians and bad Christians. One day the grain on the threshing floor will be winnowed by Jesus (Luke 3:17), with the wheat separated from the chaff. Augustine goes on to offer this exhortation to the Church:

You older faithful, you listen too to what I’m saying. Any of you who are grain, rejoice with trembling, and stay where you are, and don’t leave the threshing-floor. Don’t attempt, on your own judgment, to shake yourselves free, as it were, from the chaff; because if you want to separate yourself now from the chaff, you won’t be able to stay on the threshing-floor. And when that one comes who distinguishes infallibly between grain and chaff, he won’t carry up to the granary anything he doesn’t find on the threshing-floor. So it will be no good at that time for grains to boast about the ears of wheat they come from, if they have left the threshing-floor. That granary will be filled and closed. Anything left outside will be gutted by fire.

So then, dearly beloved, if you are good must put up with the bad; if you are bad, you must imitate the good. The fact is, on this threshing-floor grains can degenerate into chaff, and again grains can be resurrected from chaff. This sort of thing happens every day, my dear brothers and sisters; this life is full of both painful and pleasant surprises.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a word in here for evangelicals. No, I’m not saying that we all have to cross the Tiber and join the RC Church. But, I wonder if there is a word here for disenfranchised evangelicals who have chosen to be Christian without being a part of a corporate worship structure.

Well, Amanda, I gather with a few friends at Starbucks and we talk about spiritual things, and Jesus said where two or three are gathered there I am, so church is organic and spontaneous and fluid. Someone might say in response. Or, the invisible church is so much bigger than four walls and a structured church life of programs and prayer meetings. I see church when I fellowship through the blogosphere.

I wonder if this denies the physicality and incarnational aspect of going to church, of intentionally and purposefully entering a specific worship space and joining not only with people we like and would meet at Starbucks, but also with people we don’t like, those who challenge us, those who disagree with us, and those who annoy us to no end.

It’s so easy for us today to say that we know better, that we’re smarted than the older Christians in our midst.
They are old-fashioned.
They’re from a different time.
Their issues aren’t our issues and they just don’t understand us.
And because our culture values and chases after youth and youthfulness, we think we have power, we think we have a special knowledge and gifting of the Spirit that makes us better.

But we don’t. And what we have to realize is that in twenty years, we will be the “old fashioned old fogies” and the next generation will think that they’re smarter, wiser and better Christians than we are.

At the same time, I see a call for those who feel like their churches are forsaking the gospel and walking away from doctrinal truth. Should the “grains” walk away and leave the chaff?

I read Augustine’s sermon as a call to not walk away, to not think that we can do it better on our own. It is a call to embrace the incarnation of church life with all its messiness, with all its mistakes, will all its missteps.
Augustine final advice to the faithful in the Church is this, the chaff needs the grain to be a good example for them:

Listen to me, grains; listen to me, those of you who are what I desire you to be. Don’t let the mixture of husks (chaff) depress you; they won’t be with you forever…So listen to me, you husks (chaff); thought if you do listen, you won’t be husks anymore. So listen. Let God’s patience stand you in good stead. Let your association with the grains, and their advice and admonitions, make you too into grains. You are not denied the showers of God’s word; don’t let God’s field in you be barren. So, grow green again, grow grain again, grow ripe again. The one who sowed you, after all, wishes to find full ears of corn, not empty husks.

(Augustine, Sermon 223 ‘At the Easter Vigil’ c. 412 in Essential Sermons, p. 277-279)

  • Dustin

    Wonderful and challenging words, Amanda. I think that they go to the heart of the implications of the Gospel!