bread, wine and questions about hunger

What do you hunger for?

This is one of the two questions we are attending to at Richmond Uniting during Lent.

The second question is: How might you respond with compassion to hunger in the world in a new way?

We are seeking to attend to both these questions during Lent and to take up practices that correspond to our answers, both in relation to our own hungers and to hunger within the world.

These questions emerge from the theological ground that in the God we encounter in Jesus, we are nourished by God and called to work with God for the nourishing of our world.

Where does this understanding of God as nourisher emerge from in Christian tradition? This is drawn from ancient Jewish understandings of God nourishing the people, for example in the wilderness, and is expanded in startling ways in Jesus.

To explore this just a little, we need to turn to Christian sacred texts. Across the 4 Gospel accounts there are multiple stories of Jesus blessing and breaking bread and sharing it with others in ways that astound. Out of mere scraps, again and again Jesus feeds thousands of people: men, women and children, Jewish people and Gentile people, followers and the curious, the wealthy and the poor. In each of these accounts all are fed and all are filled by Jesus.

Accounts of these miraculous feedings are told 6 times in the 4 gospels – and what this tell us is that this story – of Jesus breaking bread and feeding the multitudes – was loved and cherished and was being told and re-told and re-told across different earliest Jesus communities.

In John’s Gospel this focus on bread – and on Jesus who feeds – is expanded in ways that offend and scandalize. Jesus not only feeds and fills the multitudes, but goes on to say ‘I am the bread of life – whoever comes to me will never be hungry’ (John 6.35). The author of John is honest that these words are offensive to many even at the time (6.60-66). And yet this strange claim is integral to Christian understanding.

We gain further understanding about the place of nourishment, and of Jesus as the bread that fills, in accounts of Jesus’ last night before being killed. Across Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels, and also in St Paul’s writing (1 Cor 11) it is recorded that on the night before Jesus’ state sanctioned execution, Jesus shares a Passover meal with friends, and the place of bread is pivotal. Here as Jesus again blesses and breaks bread, Jesus is recorded as saying something entirely provocative:

‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor 11.24).

This is not expected.

This is something new.

From the earliest strands of the Jesus movement, participating in this meal, gathering together in Jesus’ name and remembering these words of Jesus, praying, singing and sharing in blessed and broken bread and wine have been central to worship. And, entirely provocatively in the ancient world, from the outset this meal has included women and men, Jewish people and Gentile people, young and old, slave and free, rich and poor, just as Jesus is recorded as sharing open hospitality.

For Christians in this sharing in bread and wine in Jesus’ name we are confronted with the understanding of the Holy One who feeds and nourishes with open hospitality, not because of our own effort or merit, but as we simply hold out our empty hands.

This understanding was entirely disruptive to the mainstream view of reality in the Greco-Roman world in which this tradition emerged 2000 years ago. Within the dominant culture there were many, many temples built and dedicated to all kinds of different Greek and Roman gods. People were expected to make food offerings to these (often unpredictable) individual deities throughout the year at these temples, in order to garner good crops, or fertility, victory in battle or some personal wish fulfilment. In this context, the fledgling Jesus movement embodied the startling proclamation that actually the Divine, the Holy One, does not need our food offerings, but instead longs to feed us through the extraordinarly ordinary staples of bread and wine.

Over the centuries the central and profound place of sharing in bread and wine in Jesus’ name in the context of worship has continued across Christian traditions. During this season of Lent at Richmond Uniting as we attend to these questions of hunger both within us and within our world we are sharing in Holy Communion each week.

In my own life the integral place of Holy Communion is etched into my marrow. As well as being a minister and scholar I am a mum and our babies were very, very premature. In those first days in hospital, when my babies and I were all patients and we did not know if they would live or die I found myself yearning for, starving for, Holy Communion. I hadn’t expected this, that this hunger for Jesus’ bread and wine would be my hunger. But when a minister friend asked if he could do anything I asked him to bring Holy Communion and we shared the bread and wine with my husband in my hospital room.

Over the months that our babies were in hospital, this longing for God’s spiritual nourishing, that is held mysteriously and graciously in this meal, continued. At this time I had few words to spare and little strength, except for being at my babies’ side. Reassurances from others that it would all be ‘ok’ were meaningless, because no one knew if this would be the case. But I could put out my empty hands and be fed. In this long dark valley I came to value sharing in Jesus’ bread and wine in ways that cannot be expressed.

I have never forgotten that longing to be fed and so in my practice of Christian ministry I regularly offer to bring people Holy Communion: to share in Jesus’ bread and wine with them amidst their experiences of dark valleys, whether it be when they are housebound, or in hospital, or in the Psychiatric ward, or as they journey towards death. And at Richmond I relish the ongoing opportunity to share in Jesus’ bread and wine with people in worship as we gather again and again to this great mystery of the Divine who nourishes.

Sally

Rev Dr Sally Douglas