Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6)
A lot of people are giving thought these days to what they learned from the pandemic. Listening to what is said, I find that one of the most recurring themes is a determination to get back to the basics: back to what really matters in life, what truly gives joy, what makes for a meaningful life.
And so, into that mix comes Sam Sifton, the food editor of The New York Times, with a new cookbook called See You on Sunday (Random House, 2019). You know this is no ordinary cookbook from its first words: an epigraph taken from the biblical book of Acts that simply reads, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). He goes on to recount a series of Sunday suppers that he prepared over the years, where people came together not to be entertained, but just to share in the peculiarly satisfying act of sharing a meal around a common table.
The people who came to his Sunday suppers were an eclectic mix: friends, neighbors, colleagues, singles, families with children. But Sifton concluded over the years that by simply cooking and serving a meal, you can change lives, when you do it with intentionality and care. And it need not be fancy—as the rector of his local Episcopal Church in Brooklyn put it, “Just put some stuff in a pot. Cook it. Then serve that on rice.”
Well, as you can imagine, as a food editor Sifton suggests doing a bit more than that. But ultimately his point is, as he says, that “People are lonely. They want to be part of something, even when they can’t identity that longing as a need. [So] they show up. Feed them.”
Jesus seems to have hand the same instinct.
And when you think about it, it’s amazing how central the idea of food is to the whole of scripture. From the very beginning, when Adam and Eve consume of the wrong kind of food, eating is associated with the key moment in most biblical stories. Passover. Manna and quail given in the desert. The feeding of the five thousand. The last supper. Emmaus. Jesus’ breakfast with the disciples on the beach. And now today, as if to draw all of this to his own presence, we hear Jesus referring to himself as “the bread of life.”
So why is this? Why is food so central to our human experience of God’s presence, and to our sense of one another?
Maybe it has something to do with where we started: if you’re talking about basics, food is truly among the most elemental. In fact, there is nothing more basic to human life, or any form of life, than the food that sustains it. Like air, and water, nourishment is primal.
And perhaps that train of thought accounts for my own increasing sense that in this time when we are intent to return to basics, it would be good for us as a church to reclaim the eucharist as fundamentally a meal, a meal that points us back to the importance of feeding one another that is at the heart of the Christian way of life.
You know that at each celebration of the eucharist, we repeat the words Jesus himself spoke at the Last Supper: “Do this for the remembrance of me.” But from time to time, here at St. Michael’s we substitute for that phrase, “Whenever you break bread together in my name, I will be at table with you” as a better rendering of Jesus’ intention. I don’t know about you, but I wonder if Jesus had something like Sifton’s Sunday suppers in mind as the way he would feed us, rather than the highly ritualized, abstracted form it has come to take. At any rate, we would do well to remember that what we do here in church always points to the sharing of a meal. “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Maybe we too need to find a way to share “Sunday supper.”
And if the primal act of sharing a meal is at the heart of Christian life, then one has to ask the question of how the symbolic power of food can radiate out into other aspects of the life we share? Our parish food pantry, for instance, becomes in this way of thinking not just a good work that provides people with something to eat. More than that, it is an extension of the sharing of bread and wine that we do here at this table. Look for instance at the picture on the cover of today’s bulletin: there you see the food pantry of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, with food set up not in a side building, but in their sanctuary and around the altar. Not just bread and wine at that table, but tomatoes, and oranges, and eggs, and eggplants! “Gifts of God, for the people of God.”
So here we are today, at a milestone in our community’s life, when for the first time in many years (not just since the pandemic), we are all gathered at one time around the same table (whether online or in person), to experience together our life in common.
I know a lot is changing as we get used to being back in the church. The pandemic has turned a lot upside down, and the truth is, the way we used to do many things is simply no longer viable. Too much has changed. Our sense of what’s important, what’s most basic to us, has shifted too much for things to go back to the way they were.
So let me encourage you that now is not the time to try to hold on to what was. For all the trouble it caused, the pandemic has also given us a great gift: being able to reimagine our life together, and to let go of a lot of those externals that fall by the wayside when we focus on what is most important. So rather than asking, “How do I get what I most like or want out of church?”, the question has become, “How do we receive together what God has to give us?”
And what we need, and what God has to give, are often quite different, which I think is what Jesus was trying to teach the people in our gospel lesson. They were looking for bread; he was offering them life. And in that same vein we might ask, how can we too come to share in the fullest spirit of table fellowship with him and with one another that he offers?
For a meal, a shared meal, is where both the physical and spiritual dimensions of food meet. In her book, Take this Bread (Ballantine, 2007), Sara Miles (a parishioner at St. Gregory’s) captures this convergence when she writes, “There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food.” And I would push that idea even a step further, to say that it’s not just in the food, but in the sharing of it around a table where each person has a place, that we are brought closest to God.
After all, in the Christian vision of the end times, it is a heavenly banquet that God has prepared for us. As the prophet Isaiah put it, “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines … And it will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God” (Is. 25:6, 8). The consummation of all the meals of which we partake in this life, is a fiesta at which God is the host, and we are the guests—and Jesus teaches us that in him we are given a foretaste of that great banquet, even now. Amen.