Very beautiful is the statement of Augustine in which he says of his mother Monica that she bound her soul with the chain of faith to that sacrifice which is dispensed in the Lord’s Supper so that neither lion nor dragon could tear it away. – Martin Chemnitz, The Examination of the Council of Trent Volume 2, 321.
I loved this “very beautiful statement” the moment I first read it. The image of a vicious lion or a ferocious dragon trying to tear away a faithful saint from the body and blood of Christ as given in the Lord’s Supper is stunning. I loved it, but I don’t think I truly understood it when I first read it. That understanding would come from watching a dying man.
I can remember exactly where I was when I got the call. I had been mowing the lawn and pulled out my phone to check the time. The news still reverberates in my ears, “Steve has cancer.” At the time, none of us had any way of knowing how savage and brutal this particular cancer would be.
The cancer relentlessly attacked the fit, physical specimen who had run marathons and eventually made even walking short distances an exercise in pain and endurance. Even as the pain increased, on Sunday mornings you could still find Steve in church. The affliction forced him to desert his regular spot near the front and head to the back so that he could settle himself into my desk chair – a somewhat successful attempt to make sitting through church bearable.
When it came time for the Lord’s Supper, he refused to let me bring Christ’s gifts to him where he was seated. His reason: “I want to be at the rail with everyone else.” I am sure there was an element of pride in this, but I also know that he desired to be with his brothers and sisters and receive Christ’s gifts with them.
For weeks, Steve would drag himself up to the rail. You could see the agony etched across his face as he trudged his way to the front. Usually, he was too weak to make it back to his chair without assistance.
And yet it encouraged us all. Steve embodied Augustine’s quote about Monica. Neither lion nor dragon, neither cancer nor excruciating pain, could tear him away from Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. When I consider all the excuses (not legitimate reasons) I hear for people missing the Divine Service, it is an astonishing thing to watch a man racked with pain do all that is within his power to be present to receive Christ’s gifts.
It’s a beautiful example of what happens when God gives someone the faith to simply trust the Word: “This is my body. This is my blood…for the forgiveness of sins.” When someone believes that the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ truly preserves them in body and soul unto life everlasting, there is no telling what they will endure to get it. Steve knew his desperate need and he knew where to find the remedy.
Steve did get to the point where he was physically unable to attend the Divine Service. The last time I gave him the Holy Supper was at his home a few days before he went into a coma. He knew death was near and he was not afraid. As it has been said, “You go to the Lord’s Supper as if going to your death, so that you can go to your death as if you are going to the Lord’s Supper.” I have witnessed this; it is most certainly true.
On May 22nd, 2016, Trinity Sunday, Pastor Steve Sanderson’s battle with cancer ended as our gracious Lord ushered him into glory (see “The Death of a Pastor”) and although that was a year ago he still has much to teach us all. As our Confessions state: “Of the Worship of Saints they teach that the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling…” (AC XXI, 1) I pray that the example of Steve encourages us all to attend to the one thing that is needful, no matter the cost. This is what the Lord desires for you whether you are a pastor or a layman.